Teamwork in China
An airliner was undergoing pre-flight checks somewhere in China. It was before sunrise on a cold and rainy morning and a walk around has to be conducted, along with checks on key systems like the brakes, pitot tubes, airframe, etc. On this morning, the chief had dropped his flashlight somewhere, he was already running late, and didn’t want to impact the excellent on-time numbers that they had been racking up for the month.
The captain was impatient to get the checks completed and even though he was not supposed to, he was calling the chief to push him along. The chief was really reluctant to stop everything and start a search for his flashlight which would shut down the entire ramp due to the risk of foreign object damage (FOD) and he didn’t want to let the captain down or look foolish. He thought he could still perform the checks with the faint amount of light as the sun started to rise although he couldn’t quite see all around the landing gear and brakes. The brakes were checked on the last flight and no problems were reported, but what the chief didn’t know was that the pilot had stuck the landing a little bit on the last flight.
The chief totally missed the damage to the landing gear and brakes… How did this professional chief with a long career and good intentions get himself into this situation?
Team dynamics and cultural issues played a major role, far greater than the most of us would assume. This case involved highly trained professionals and a clear risk to life and safety.
I was recently peripherally involved in a situation in the transportation industry where literally lives were at stake and millions of dollars at risk. I saw that teams are critically important and a badly functioning team can be extremely costly, whether it is in a life and death situation like the pre-flight checks or in your supply chain.
Here are some of the key pitfalls that teams, especially teams in China, can run into.
Protect the Leader
Leaders are human, and like the rest of us make bad or wrong decisions from time to time. In China, face or status is extremely important to many people and a large part of an individual’s status is derived from the status of the groups they are a part of.
Groups have status because of their accomplishments, their difficulty to enter, and because of their leadership. Teams in China will cover for their leaders as long as they are their leaders, meaning team members will rarely report a problem outside their team. If the yields on your production line take a nosedive because someone bought materials at a discount from an unauthorized source that the team leader pushed for as a cost saving opportunity, do you think you’ll hear about that root cause in your next quality report? Once a leader makes a statement in China, it is extremely difficult to radically change direction or get anyone in the group to declare publicly that they disagree.
To overcome this communication barrier around your team, try to build relationships with everyone on the team. Simple things like saying “hello,” and smiling, remembering a few names is rare and goes a long way to forming bonds. These simple gestures tap into another Asian dynamic, a strong sense of hospitality. If you build a relationship with the people on your team, they will come to regard you as a guest, and then a different set of social obligations come into play that can often help an outsider get information.
In China it is extremely rare that anyone would lie to a guest, you may need to go back and carefully parse sentences to check the record, but despite the impressions of many Westerners, lying to guests is extremely rare.
Also, keep the back channels open with people on your team. It is often the case that they try to let you know what you need to know, but indirectly and often not publicly.
Fear of Retaliation
Generally speaking, the group and being part of a group are very important in China, and relationships within the group are critical to maintain membership and status. It is extremely rare for an employee to raise a flag on something that they see is wrong that a colleague is doing for fear that they will be found out. It is also often far more acceptable, socially speaking, for someone to retaliate. On the other side of this issue, it is not at all uncommon to have an employee falsely report someone in retaliation for something.
Keep your eyes open, watch details carefully, and consider possible ulterior motives. Also watch the non-verbal communication in the group. To Westerners, it may seem that Chinese people do not say a lot in meetings, but they are often very prolific non-verbal communicators, and often unintentionally!
Fear of Embarrassment
No one likes to be embarrassed in front of other people, but in China, there is a much higher sensitivity to being embarrassed. I have been in group meetings in China where everyone in the room knows how to solve the problem under discussion, but no one dare speak out. One of the reasons that no one dares to volunteer a solution or a suggestion is for fear that they might be wrong, or that it would lead to some other problem later on, and then everyone in the group would trace all the new problems back to the individual.
The fear of embarrassment can be so strong sometimes that people will refuse to take action that might cause a colleague to be embarrassed (see above “Protect the Leader” also). The relationship is more important than the result in many cases.
To avoid this try to work with your teams in a collaborative manner. Make sure you admit your mistakes or your company’s mistakes openly. When you admit a mistake or fall on your sword it does a couple of things. Firstly, it gives you credibility and helps your team feel more comfortable about admitting their mistakes allowing you to get onto discussing solutions. Secondly, it also puts a team off balance a bit, and in Asia it will inspire people to help dilute your responsibility by taking some on themselves.
Culture is made up of behavioral norms, language, customs, history, geography, and it has a significant impact on the work we do. Teams are strongly influenced by the culture that they operate in. Understanding how to help your teams work better and understanding what is going on inside the team is very important to success or failure in working in China.