The Meeting Dynamic.

There is an interesting phenomenon in Chinese business meetings that always ruffles the feathers of my background in operations management, specifically as it relates to efficiency.

China has more of one thing than anywhere else in the world: People. It has always been a large country.

China likes to show off its people. Over the years I’ve been party to many meetings in China.

In the West, a high-level business meeting between two parties will include, generally, people who need to be there. Maybe there will be one person who is there to learn, but everyone else has some sort of role.

Chinese meetings are different. There will often be five, six or more people representing each company at a meeting where really, only three or at most four people will do any talking. Some of the others at the meeting may be there to advise the leaders afterwards. Generally though, there are a lot of people there who are really just ‘filler’. Sometimes I’ve gotten to be there as an adviser. Occasionally I’ve been one of the guys doing the talking. Most of the time, I take notes nobody will ever ask me about and discreetly look up the occasional Chinese word or phrase I didn’t understand. It’s a good opportunity to write down tasks I might need to take care of by the end of the day.

It’s important to show a lot of people at these meetings to either display that you are powerful, or to show respect to a government organization that might be unhappy to be greeted with only two or three people representing the business.

It’s just another example of how many cultural differences there are between doing business here and conducting the same transaction in the west.

In North America specifically, we strive to eliminate cultural aspects of doing business and make everything about the agreement on the table. People can say any crazy thing they want in a meeting, as long as it ends with a clearly-stated contract that delineates every last item of business loophole free.

In China, I get many compliments on how much I’ve learned about Chinese culture and how well I handle situations. Still, I make about two cultural mistakes during a good week. I’m usually given a bit of leeway because I’m a foreigner, which I appreciate greatly. This culture is very complex. I’ve seen locals that make more mistakes than I do. Sea Turtles returning from ten or more years abroad bring a refreshing sense of openness to a lot of meetings, but many also find themselves stumbling to re-balance after being gone for so long. There are simply a lot of rules to remember.

Awhile back, at a previous company, I had the privilege of attending a meeting between a Chinese company and an American company. They had formed a joint venture. The Americans were visiting Chongqing. One of them noted to me that when the Chinese had come to the US, they brought six people over. The Americans on this trip consisted of the Managing Director and the project manager.

The Chinese side had 10 people.

But the real difference was the power dynamic. On the Chinese side, the guy that did 99% of the talking was the leader. Everyone else sat quietly for the most part. The organization on a whole was obviously very top-down. On the US side, there were lots of side-bar discussions going on between the two lonely guys sitting there and they would interrupt each other as they tried to clarify points to the Chinese counterparts.

This reflects a difference not just in presentation but in cultural approach, collective vs. individual decision-making processes, and separation of authority. I’m an American. Personally, I prefer the collective approach to doing business. I like to be able to make my input in meetings. I like to speak up without being asked to. It takes a great deal of restraint for me to remain silent as complicated discussions take place. In fact, I’ve made it a habit since arriving in China to make sure I’ve saved up enough free cash from any new job so that I can afford six months of unemployment before I start saying much in meetings. This usually also forces me to get established somewhere so that my comments don’t come off as abrasive. It also takes a lot of effort to not be overbearing. As Americans, one of our favorite pastimes in a business environment is to tell people what we think. Especially if we completely disagree with an approach being taken by leadership. In China, it’s not possible to raise your voice and express opinions without being first asked to do so. It’s even more inappropriate to say something contradictory to the leadership.

The irony, of course, is that western businessmen coming to China to conduct business may think everything is going just fine at first. This is because it’s also generally not considered appropriate to tell anyone that they’re stepping on cultural toes.

A few years ago when I was living in the States, I regularly heard businessmen coming back from some of their first trips to China say “I don’t know why everyone talks about the culture being so different over there. I went over and had no problems. Business is business. Just get the deal done and you’ll be fine.”

When I would bump into them again a year later, the story would be different. It would be a lot of “My Chinese counterpart is destroying our business because he’s not listening to me, he’s not doing what I told him to do, blah blah…” If I’m feeling like having an argument, I tell the person that maybe, just maybe, they should learn to communicate a little better from a culturally-competent perspective so that they can actually move forward instead of simply barking orders and complaining that everything is being done improperly. Most of the time, though, I wait for the other shoe to drop. I ask them how their last trip to China was aside from the meeting. Their responses are usually negative. They complain about a lot of things being different. Basically, they’re starting to notice that the culture is totally different from their own, and they’re trying to change things.

That’s absolutely impossible.

The only thing that can be changed is you. Changing the way you deliver the message can make the message itself more digestible to the guy sitting across form you with nine silent subordinates. When I’m in China, I have the benefit of seeing the differences between the culture I’m in and the culture I came from. I’ve lived here long enough to have my eyes opened a bit. It’s my responsibility to see those differences and adapt my approach to everything so that it fits into my counterpart’s cultural comfort zone.

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