Leadership in China – Be Effective Wherever You Are

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April 1, 2014

Shanghai Tower

i just got back from a week Shanghai with a group of manufacturing leaders. Most were based in the Shanghai office, but all worked with teams in Vietnam, India, Europe, South America and the US. One topic that we delved into deeply was the role of feedback in helping change workplace behaviors.

On the subject of giving feedback to your boss, a Chinese leader told the class that this was not possible in China. It is culturally inappropriate to give your boss guidance or to suggest changes to his/her behavior. In short, you cannot give your boss feedback. This sentiment was echoed by many in the class with head nods and in some cases, with startled expressions (such as, let’s see how Chris handles this one).

I asked them what it’s like to work in an environment without feedback. I heard some murmurings until finally someone said “It’s frustrating.” After a little probing (scratching the sore) a landslide of negative emotions came out about how ineffective this was considering the demands of the business, the behavior of their global counterparts – who had no trouble in giving feedback left and right – and their questioning how their organization could recruit top talent in such a suppressed environment.

All of us work in feedback-rich environments. The question is, do we notice the feedback we’re receiving? It doesn’t always show up in direct comments.

Among the many faces of feedback are:

  • Direct comments
  • Body language, facial expressions and nuances, nervous tics or habits
  • Vocal characteristics of volume, tone and tempo
  • Silence, especially in response to a question
  • Suggestions or alternative ideas
  • Resistance to ideas
  • Nay-saying

Who among us have not participated in discussions with our superiors where we honestly sought out understanding on a position or initiative, who’ve never suggested an alternative, and who’ve not shown less than complete enthusiasm for our manager’s idea?

We give and receive feedback all the time. If we’re skilled communicators we can bridge the powerful elements of custom and culture and focus our honest inquiry around the topic. It takes practice to be a good questioner. It takes courage to seek to understand (and be understood) in many settings. It takes sensitivity to the cues from your conversation partners to know how to build relationships that are fruitful. That’s because knowledge of what we should do (what we know) and familiarity and comfort in being able to do so live in different parts of the brain. If we cannot execute what we believe we know well, we simply don’t know it. There is no knowing without doing. And that doesn’t mean we don’t have to bring our best self to being the most effective leader we can be.

After some group discussion on our manager feedback question, the senior VP for their Asia-Pacific region and head of the Shanghai office stood up. He said the following: “Our company is a global company. Every one of you works with teams here in Shanghai in the morning, with teams from Europe in the afternoon, and with our Latin America plants in the evening. We ARE going to be a company that helps people be more effective at all levels. It will take time here in China, but we will be giving each other feedback up and down the chain. If you’re not comfortable doing that, I can tell you there are hundred companies here in Shanghai that would love to employ you. Ours will not be one.

Such strong support from senior leadership, along with careful alignment of incentives and performance evaluation are part of what will be necessary to make that dream a reality.

Culture-shifting is hard work. It must be discovered, explored, designed, orchestrated, and supported to make it work. Their dream of living a feedback-rich environment will mean each leader being their most effective wherever they are.

Peace to you, too.

Shanghai Young Leader


BE BETTER NOW – A Leadership Call to Action – Take a moment right now to put your thoughts into action

  1. What is ONE ASPECT of your professional life that might benefit from more or different attention in this subject area (enhancing the impact you make on others)?
  1. What is ONE THING you could do TODAY that would move you more deliberately in this direction? The Behavior or action I could take (verb); I will…
  1. HOW will you ensure you are developing – WITH WHOM can you share this goal or add to your brain trust to hold yourself accountable?
  1. MAKE a 10 minute calendar appointment right now to check in with yourself on this topic next week (better yet – for each following week). Keep it practical – write brief notes on two questions only:
  • What clear steps did I take last week for my own development?
  • What will I focus on executing next week?

Need some thought partner time? – Call/email at 336.918.8415 chris.evans@nullchristopherevans.org

Practical – Relevant – Immediately Useful