The Emperor’s New Clothes

Gaining an Advantage by Acknowledging the Naked Truth About Cultural Differences

Many people may have heard about The Ugly American, the late 1950s novel and mov­ie. These fictional works depicted a real problem: the failure of the US diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia, who were insensitive to local languages, cultures and customs. Their indiffer­ence led to disaster. Cultural insensitivity is not unique to one country, nor is it yet a thing of the past, and it can be extremely detrimental to companies with overseas operations. Laura Mitchelson of ICUnet Intercultural Consulting (Shanghai) Co Ltd examines some of the ways to detect and bridge cultural differences that, if left unchecked, can cause businesses to fail.

The story of The Emperors New Clothes, for the uninitiated, is a short tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It’s about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are stupid or in­competent. In reality, the weavers produce no clothes at all, making everyone believe the clothes are invisible to them. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new ‘clothes’, no one dares to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as stupid. In the end, a little girl shouts, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

As the employees, managers and leaders of China-based multinationals, regardless of our title and job responsibilities, do we sometimes feel that we need to cover up and go along with everyone else on the subject of culture for fear of looking stupid? We perceive an increasing pressure to play down differences. Few people talk directly about cultural differences these days. It’s seen as more politically correct to talk about similarities.

The word ‘similarities’ admittedly does have a nice ring to it. But this is a flawed approach for a couple of reasons:

  1. Without diversity and difference, we wouldn’t have strong, creative busi­nesses, so long may those diverse behaviours and preferences continue.
  2. The reality is that there are cavernous cultural differences in behavioural pref­erences across cultures as diverse as European and Chinese.

The right approach is to be honest from the beginning and talk about those differences so we can learn from them. That way, we build a culture together in our organisations that is sustainable and authentic.

When we pretend cultural differences don’t exist, we allow ourselves to be lazy. We talk about operational, tactical subjects that are familiar to us and that reassuringly keep us off the topic of cultural differences. Hold on though, once we think there are no cultural differences, there is no need to actually ask any questions, right? Phew! That cuts down the workload.

Or does it?

The day you stop being curious in business is the day you lose your competitive edge, some say. Despite current perceived wis­dom that the world is getting flatter and that we live in a borderless world, the irritating fact remains that culture and cultural-based communication preferences can get in the way of all sorts of good business practices.

Previously uncharted territory: China leading Europe in many respects

Here’s the crux of the issue: we are in dan­ger of glossing over something that has a huge impact on our everyday working lives and on the long-term success of business­es in this competitive market. It’s here that we come to something much bigger than individual enterprises too – China’s person­ality, as we know, has changed a good bit over the last two decades. We are now in the previously uncharted territory of China leading Europe in many respects and it therefore becomes even more important to be actively in ‘learning mode’ about the way things are done here.

Let’s take some standard work-related questions that pop up on all our radar screens:

  • What makes an effective leader?
  • What is the right way to foster innova­tive thinking?
  • How do we improve cross-functional cooperation?
  • What is the true meaning of efficiency in my business?
  • What does a good feedback mecha­nism look like?

Any one of these broad topics, if taken to a granular level, will expose significant cul­tural differences and perhaps some gender and generational ones along the way too. However, companies that talk about it, that air stereotypes and negotiate their cultures, are the ones that will succeed the fastest. They simply seem to get there quicker.

So, what’s the best way to do it? Negotia­tion! Cool, measured, intelligent negotiation is really the only answer but the process of negotiating culture is a bit like a family negotiating a decision on redecorating. Mum wants stylish geometric curtains. Dad wants blinds because curtains take too long to deliver. The children? They think we should be living in a different city altogeth­er!

Successfully bridging the divide: learn together and communicate

  • One very successful company brings the top management team together in a different part of the world each quarter and shifts into study mode together for one day about that country’s culture. It sends a message to everyone that they should never stop learning.
  • A Beijing-based company uses con­troversial dinner speakers to prompt dialogue about challenging cultural is­sues within their diverse team. As soon as they start talking about the topic of the cultural impact on their communi­cations, the team is able to relax and align.
  • A European CEO improved relations with his team when he was bold enough to get feedback from them on his ap­proach, and in particular how this was perceived by the Chinese JV partner. He encouraged them to talk about the small details of how he is perceived. Overall morale and team spirit, as well as trust and loyalty, have been blos­soming ever since.

Engaging colleagues purposefully in dialogue about cultural differences will increase levels of engagement in your busi­ness and will lead to the actions that can quickly solve complex problems with mem­bers of the team better able to predict each other’s reactions. Another side effect of dialogue and a negotiation around culture is likely to be improvements in the whole team’s cultural capital – that hard-to-define, intangible ability to behave and communi­cate in an international style.

Start the conversation about culture early, volunteer to mentor your colleagues who have not yet arrived in China on the differ­ences that exist here and be bold in sharing your lack of understanding of Chinese culture with your colleagues. Europeans are not expected to be experts from day one in China – but we are expected to be humble enough to ask for help with understanding it all and not to pretend that we can see the Emperor’s ‘new clothes’ when we can’t. China is complex and there’s no shame in saying ‘I don’t get it’ now and again. Just having honest discussion builds trust.

Founded some 16 years ago in Passau, Germany, ICUnet Intercultural Consult­ing Co. Ltd has spread around the globe. The company helps businesses and their employees going abroad build on their tech­nical expertise by acquiring the necessary intercultural perspectives and skills necessary for success.