In my workshops, I find that Chinese executives are receptive to positive interventions but something about Chinese culture gets in the way of their pursuit of happiness, and until these concerns are addressed, their pursuit of happiness will be a futile endeavor. Two weeks ago, I facilitated a resilience workshop for a group of middle managers from the logistics industry in Beijing, and last week, a stress management workshop for executives in Shanghai. I thought I’d share some insights from these two workshops, and in general about the psychological well-being of Chinese professionals.
Geert Hofstede in his work “Culture’s Consequences,” probed deeply into the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures. An individualist culture encourages individual preferences and dynamics in a society, setting the individual ego up against others, while a collectivist culture, of which Chinese culture is one, stresses the collective interest and downplays personal preferences and interests. According to Chinese culture, the relationship between the individual and the collective is intimately linked with social norms, which are tied to value systems shared by the majority. The following concepts may help you understand the causes of stress and adversity from the perspective of Chinese people.
Guanxi literally means “relationships.” It is the network of relationships among various parties that cooperate together and support one another. It can be seen as who you know and what they perceive to be their obligation to you.
This concept can be defined as individuals and groups exchanging favors. People will ask for favors from those with whom they have guanxi. The recipient of a favor or gift will feel obliged to return the favor. It sometimes causes unnecessary stress and strain on a relationship because we do things out of “have to” rather than “choose to” or “love to” motivation. Every time I share something with my neighbor, some fruit or homemade cakes, my neighbor will reciprocate the next day with something of equivalent perceived value. My generosity actually put them on the spot, scrambling to find something to reciprocate!
Sense of social image in front of another person is perceived as critical for many in China. Losing face, saving face and giving face is very important. A person can lose face as a result of failure or not achieving goals, losing his or her temper, confronting an individual or putting people on the spot or acting in an arrogant manner or failing to show appropriate respect.Hexie 和谐
People will go to great length to remain polite and courteous in order to maintain surface harmony, even when it is false harmony. Disagreement is not expressed in fear of disrupting surface harmony so intermediaries are often used to deliver bad or unpleasant news. Confrontations are to be avoided. Disagreeing or asserting oneself, especially in front of someone perceived to be higher in the hierarchy of relationship, is seen as being rude and disrespectful.
Status consciousness 等级观念
Chinese people are very status conscious. Hierarchical structures of the society and business organizations are based on a strict observation of rank where the individual is subordinate to the organization, to the elders, to the majority, and so on.
Culture in Action
Here are a few typical stressful events that emerge from these cultural qualities:
- You are going to Paris on a business trip, and a business associate wants you to help her buy three Hermes handbags. You have a tight schedule and don’t want to spend your spare moments running around Paris looking for these bags. You feel you can’t say no because it would upset your business associate and this might affect the working relationship in the future. However, you feel bad because you really don’t want to do it, and you resent the fact that the business associate put you in this situation.
- Your peer in the U.S. headquarters asks you for some product information that is not a priority of the operation in China. You are already overloaded with your work and do not have any spare resources to meet this request. You tell your counterpart, “I will try,” when you know there is not a chance you can deliver because you don’t like to turn down a request. You are also stressed out because you are put in the position of having to say no, repeatedly. You wonder why your counterpart makes things difficult for you. He should be more considerate.
Given this cultural context, it is no wonder that there isn’t a word for assertiveness in the Chinese language. It is often translated as decisive, over-confident, aggressive, and it is viewed as a socially undesirable trait. In the Chinese mindset, it never occurs to people that they are equal partners in such interaction, that one can make a request and the other can turn it down politely or at least express his difficulties so both parties can jointly figure out a solution. Expressing oneself authentically is especially hard for fear of upsetting the surface harmony and damaging the relationship.
Breaking Through Cultural Mindset Barriers
I discovered an effective approach to break through these cultural mindset barriers. While it is important to understand the cultural context, it is not so useful to focus on challenging these ingrained beliefs. Instead, I introduce concepts from psychology like locus of control, self-efficacy, and assertiveness as a starting point to explore mindset barriers and then introduce the ABCDE resilience building technique as described in The Resilience Factor
Individuals with an internal locus of control attribute the cause or control of events to something inside of themselves (they are the captains of their ships) while individuals with an external locus of control believe that they are not in control of their environment and the outcomes are instead controlled by luck, destiny, or the power of others. Just knowing this concept alone helps the executives to feel more empowered. They also begin to realize that they tend to operate from an external locus of control in events they found stressful, and if they shift the control inward to take charge, they start to see options and solutions to their difficult situations.
This approach seems to work well. It does not directly challenge the deeply ingrained beliefs about the uniqueness of Chinese culture. Instead it helps them integrate the tools from modern psychology. These executives welcome the opportunity to empower (another concept difficult to translate into Chinese) themselves and be better equipped psychologically to deal with the stresses in their lives.
Culture may be a collective programming of the mind, but I hold the view that human nature is infinitely malleable and that human beings can choose the ways of life they prefer. Here in China, many people do operate according to their cultural conditioning, but the majority of people I encounter in China do want to be happier. They welcome the know-how from positive psychology to help them become more resilient.
Davis, J. S. (2009). Frames of Meaning for Life. A summary of the presentation by Professor Yong-Lin Moon at the IPPA World Congress about cultural differences in perspective.
Hofstede, G. (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations.Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.
Hofstede, G. (2004). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill.
Hofstede, G. & Pedersen, P. (2002). Exploring Culture: Exercises, Stories, and Synthetic Cultures. Intercultural Press.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Trompenaars, F. (1996). Resolving international conflict: Culture and business strategy. Business Strategy Review, 7, 51-68.
Whetten, D. & Cameron, K. (2007). Developing Management Skills (7th ed, pp. 54-55, 82-84, 105). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson / Prentice-Hall.
This book contains a locus of control instrument. It also discusses cultural differences in locus of control, as well as the pros and cons of both internal and external loci of control in business settings.
The image of the Third Thinking Workshop in China is used with permission from Yee-Ming Tan, who took it during one of her workshops.
The Hexie or Harmony calligraphy was done by Mr. Wang Man Li.