Call for Back Up

0515_culture tellerIn 1998, I got my first big cross-cultural consulting job in China. I was hired by a 5-star Chinese-owned hotel in Qingdao to help them understand how to upgrade their hotel to a more international standard of quality and service. They were facing fierce competition from international hotels such as the Shangri-La and Equatorial, and recognized that they needed to adapt to a more international style of management and service to attract foreign guests.

I had very little hotel experience at that time, so my first step was three months of extensive research. I interviewed guests from our hotel, and some from other hotels, to gain perspective and learn what would need to change to get them back. I interviewed staff who’d previously worked in our hotel, and now worked in other hotels, to find out what differences there were in training, management, service expectations, etc.

After all this research, I prepared a wonderful, professional six-hour presentation for the board of directors, in which I explained the problems I’d discovered, the changes needed, and the strategies for accomplishing those changes. It was a brilliant presentation, both thorough and practical, a true roadmap to success. The board congratulated me on my hard work, assured me of their whole-hearted support, and told me to begin implementing those changes.

The very people who’d said I’d done a great job, and assured me of their support, took every possible opportunity to undermine me.

And that’s where the whole thing fell to pieces. Because when I started trying to implement, absolutely nothing happened. The very people who’d said I’d done a great job, and assured me of their support, took every possible opportunity to undermine me. After almost a year, I’d accomplished almost nothing. Well, not quite nothing. I had failed to bring effective cross-cultural change within their hotel, but I’d learned one of the most valuable cross-cultural lessons for myself.

What I realized too late, was that the fundamental problem lay in the presentation. The board of directors were all men over 50-years-old who’d been working in hotels most of their lives; and I was a 30-something who’d never worked in hotels. I was standing there not only telling them what to do, but also telling them that the decisions they had made before were wrong. Essentially, that they didn’t know how to run the hotel, and I did.

The result, from their perspective, was that if my efforts were successful, and we turned the hotel around, they would still lose face, because everyone would know it wasn’t their ideas that worked. But if nothing changed and the hotel lost money, they would save face. They could point and say, “See, John’s ideas don’t work!”

I learned from this, and fortunately was able to get a position doing almost exactly the same thing in a Chinese-owned 4-star hotel in Shanghai. This time, I didn’t need so much time to do research. But I changed how I presented that information. I first had a meeting with the president of the hotel, in private. I told him the problems I’d identified, and got his feedback; the ones he disagreed with, I took off the list. For each of the remaining problems, I presented my strategies for changing them; the ones he disagreed with, I took off the list. In the end, we only had about 60 percent of my original plan, but it was 60 percent that the president endorsed.

Then, when we had the meeting, the President started by saying, “John and I had a meeting, and I have decided that we are going to do this, this, and this.” Then he had me do the rest of the presentation.

The information and strategies were almost identical. Yet while the first time was a miserable failure, the second we accomplished significant change in less than a year, boosting the hotel’s reputation and sales by a significant margin. The only difference was in how the information was presented—in a way that gave credit (and face) to the leaders of the hotel.

When talking about ‘face,’ it’s common to observe that every culture has a concept of losing face. The important difference is understanding how one loses face (or gains face) can be entirely different. For most Westerners, it is determined simply by success—and if they need to admit a mistake, and use advice to accomplish that goal, they would only gain more face for recognizing it. But for many Chinese leaders, success may not be the main determinant. It is paradoxically possible to have a situation where making the business more successful could mean losing face personally.

Once understood, both sides can learn from this. Most Chinese I’ve talked with are quite direct in stating that this is one aspect of Chinese culture that they think needs to change (and many are already changing), that such a perspective can have a very obvious bad impact on China’s development and progress. And for expats in China, understanding this can help craft proposals and ideas in a way that will be less likely to generate resistance.

0415_culture teller2John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15 years, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.

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