Life doesn’t always go as expected. In China, very few things do. The most useful skill in China — and life — is creativity. I don’t mean the artist-taking-drugs type of creativity. Though that certainly has its own merits (see later chapter). When things aren’t going your way, you have to figure out how to change direction. In China, that means bribery — um…with cake!
Speaking of creativity, I used that skill to get myself promoted in less than a year. After all, China is the new land of opportunity (again, more on that later).Thus, I now manage sixty people and have my own secretary. And now sixty people are scared of me. Some Chinese people may not like their superiors. Others may think they report to complete idiots. But all Chinese people are scared of their bosses.
In China, respect for elders is expected. Also in China, respect is obedience. The Chinese grow up learning their parents are always right, their teachers are always right, and that their boss is always right. And nobody wants to get yelled at by the person who is always right. There is even a popular saying about the perils of the workplace, “More say, more wrong, more do.” The Chinese don’t like being wrong or having to do. So, they resort to being scared and staying silent.
Incidentally, when asking locals about career aspirations, 100% respond with, “Big boss.” They may not know in what department, function, or even industry; but they most definitely know they want to be The Big Boss. After all, big bosses make more money, are listened to, and have fancy business cards to show off with.
Was it easier as an American-born Chinese (ABC) boss to un-scare my new team? After all, you might think an ABC should hypothetically connect better with the Chinese staff. Yes and no. In certain ways, ABCs have it harder in China than white foreigners. As one fellow ABC veteran put it, “A white guy could be 90% clueless but the Chinese expect 100% cluelessness, making him a rock star. An ABC could understand 90% but a local would look at his Chinese face and wonder how he didn’t understand 100%, and think he was a complete idiot.” Consequently, I walked into my new department knowing my team thought I was both scary, and dumb.
It’s not like I didn’t try to reverse their fear of me. I did a two-hour introduction presentation before I joined this department. I even gave out candy. I told jokes. I went as far as projecting a picture of myself as a five-year-old petting a donkey — I figured it made me seem more human. My team just looked at each other, and then at me, in awkward silence.
On my first official day as the head of the department, nobody came by to greet me or introduce themselves. I walked around the entire department and not a single person looked up. I’d just done a two-hour presentation for my team a week before. I’d spent all morning with moving people getting my stuff into my new office right next to theirs. I knew they didn’t have amnesia.
So I had an idea. I took a few chocolate bars from the emergency stash in my desk. I broke them up into pieces, and went to every single desk. And I offered every single person some chocolate. That is how I got my team to greet me on my first day. Bribery.
It wasn’t fun walking onto a silent floor at work every morning. Nobody aspires to be the scary, idiot boss who nobody wants to hang out with. What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I get my team to talk to me without having to shower them with food? And then one day, my boss told me this happens to him all the time. People are definitely scared of him. He would throw a Christmas party for the entire company, sit at one table, and nobody else would sit there. With that context, it didn’t seem so bad that every single person in my sixty-person department avoided me.
This happens even at the most senior levels in China. When the company’s board member comes from headquarters, we have a big management dinner. My boss’s role as the China CEO is to explain to his whole Chinese management team that someone has to sit next to the board member. Then, when dinner time comes, everyone tries to inconspicuously shuffle around until they know where the board member is sitting. Then, they sit on the other side of the table.
Of course, I always sit next to the board member. I practically leap to the seat. I also crack the most jokes at the table. That’s not to say I try all that hard. Nobody else talks at the table. No wonder Chinese and European colleagues like to say that Americans are famous for three traits: overzealous friendliness, obsession with political correctness, and butt kissing.
Not that the Chinese don’t kiss butts in their own way. My team is also super nice to me, and will tell me an idea is great even if they think it’s not. I have to purposely ask people what they really think, because otherwise they will just nod and smile. They insist on calling me “Boss,” even when I tell them not to. Though Chinese butt kissing only got weird when someone started carrying my computer bag and someone else offered to clean my office.
I didn’t know it if was worse that everyone avoided me or that they felt compelled to kiss up to me. Either way, it was awkward. So, I asked a senior Chinese executive what my biggest barrier was for un-scaring my team. She said simply, “Locals are afraid they have nothing in common with you foreigners. Our lives here are different from your life growing up in America. What would we talk to you about?”
She had a point. In communist China, locals younger than me grew up with rationed food stamps. They remembered squeezing into communal government-owned housing with many other families. Neighbors shared–and often fought over — kitchens, central electricity, and toilets. Even 10 years ago, a “good girl” was expected to marry her first boyfriend. Meanwhile, I grew up in sunny California copying Madonna’s hip thrusts as a six-year-old, even before I knew what a “material girl” was or a “virgin” meant.
I had no choice but to find common ground with my Chinese team. In my first week, I told my secretary that I wanted to put together a team building event. She nodded, of course. I asked another Chinese team member to suggest an idea. He recommended a card game. A sixty-person card game sounded dorky. But who was I to judge? After all, he was Chinese so he would know what the locals wanted. We prepared the card game. Then I asked my secretary, “So, what do you really think of this team-building card game?”
“It is okay,” she said.
I pestered her. “My expectation of you is that you’ll be honest with me.”
“It’s kinda stupid,” she confessed.
I asked her, “What would people rather do instead to get to know each other?”
“Eat a free lunch,” she responded.
So I gave them a free lunch. The lunch was spread out across multiple ten-seat Chinese-banquet-style round tables, so it was not really a team-building event at all. I randomly sat at one table. The two girls next to me promptly got up and sat at another table. The only person who sat next to me was my secretary. I’m pretty sure that hanging out with me at company events was a clause highlighted in her job description.
We finished eating. Everyone seemed satisfied in not having to pay for their lunch. I asked for suggestions for the next team-building exercise. The most popular suggestion — next to ping pong — was to watch a movie. I noted that required as little interaction with the boss as possible.
I tried to break the ice the American way. I took them wine tasting during work hours (you can get away with that kind of stuff in China). But after the wine introduction was over, everyone promptly left. So I reverted back to bribery. For the first months I presented each of them, desk by desk, with cookies, chocolates, candies, dried fruit, real fruit, and even a chopped-up sloppy cake. Once, I even brought in 7 Up. That’s how I finally broke the ice.
The Chicken Take-Away: Sometimes life doesn’t go as expected, so you have to be creative to get what you want. This is how I learned one cultural truth about bribery: the Chinese love to eat.