dragon drawingFirst let me wish my Chinese friends, colleagues and associates, a Xin Nian Kuai Le (in Putonghua) – or Kung Hei Fatt Choy (in Cantonese) – to kick off the Year of the Snake.  May the New Year bring you joy, happiness and prosperity.

It is interesting to sit here in Hong Kong watching the Chinese community get ready for one of their most important cultural celebrations.   In this era of the much touted Chinese century, I’m sure media outlets across the globe have given their fair share of coverage of this event:  the greatest human migration on the planet; billions of trips made; hundreds of millions passengers on all modes of transportation; millions of tons of food consumed; thousands of pounds of fireworks ignited.

graphic, snake forming 2013These days, your supply chain – whether as a consumer, employee, or employer – touches or will touch some parts of the Chinese masses around the world.  We often hear about how critically important China and the Chinese are in economics, politics and almost every aspect of global development.  However, I’m not sure this logical realization during the past decade has translated into effective working interactions with the Chinese.

A case in point:  a year ago, I received a call from a client – a well-established global company – to run a series of workshops during one of their global meetings.  This was a company who has China right at the bulls-eye of their growth strategy.  The company has been communicating their immense short and long term investments in the Chinese market.  The meeting was scheduled on January 24, 2012.  It turned out to be the second day of the Chinese New Year.  After a little probing with the meeting sponsor, I was told they had received the blessing of their Chinese colleagues to go ahead – no need to change dates on their account.  Apparently it was ‘unreasonable’ to have the majority (70+ non-Chinese) cater for the needs of the minority (10+ Chinese).  However, when I met their Chinese colleagues, there was a unanimous – albeit not publicly shared – agreement that it was “so funny” that the Chinese participants had to travel on their New Year day and spend the first week of their most important holiday away from their families.

This is just one of the most egregious examples of a disconnect between an organization’s intention and individual’s attention.  I have heard of numerous incidents where team members located in Asian countries routinely attend phone conferences late into their evenings.  Why?  Because their colleagues in headquarters are located 13 or 16 time zones behind.  Chinese will almost always intellectually accept the ‘do-the-least-harm-to-the group’ type of concession.  At the same time, they almost always accompany that willingness with a ‘but-I-can’t-really-believe-they’re-actually-asking-me-to-do-this’ type of disbelief; usually expressed with an upturn of the corner of their mouth and a slight tilt of their head.

More than a few senior Chinese executives have said to me: “My CEO tells me we are number one but why do we still always feel like they are not treating us like we’re number one?”

Of course, each unfortunate incident like these can be explained away by exigent circumstances.  Nonetheless, the frequency of these types of occurrences point to a worrisome issue.  If the success of our global businesses relies on the integration of players from China, the perception of neglect and marginalization of these key stakeholders must be a significant barrier to the productivity in global collaboration.  Organizational intention and individual attention have to be aligned.  The talk has to be seen in behavior.  To put it simply, in China, no amount of facility square footage expansion or number of headcount increase can illustrate the degree of importance to your organization better than meaningful demonstration of respect and consideration.

This brings me full-circle back to Chinese New Year.

Sure, you might not be able to pull together the traditional first meal of the year for all your employees in China.  You might not even be able to shut down your manufacturing lines for a week in Taiwan.  And, it might be against company policy to give away Lai See (traditional red envelopes with money) to your employees in Hong Kong.  But here are a few things you can do to score some points for respect and consideration:

  • Cancel your meetings or phone conferences on Feb 10 to 13.  Leave them alone.  They are busy enough trying to find a way back to their hometowns.  If they are lucky enough to make it there, and still retain their sanity, they’ll need all their energy to sort out the universal multi-generational family holiday dramas.
  • Send them virtual New Year gifts.  Suggestions:  mandarin oranges, red packets, flowers (no white flowers please) and calligraphy couplets.  Speedy, cost-effective and most of all, no breaking of any corporate law of ethics.  Here’s one you can cut and paste:

illustrating symbols for chines new year

  • Say “Sin-Nian-Kwai-Le” (Happy New Year) to your work partners in China or Taiwan, and “Kung-Hei-Fat-Choy” (Congratulations and be Prosperous) to those in Hong Kong.  Avoid saying “Happy New Year” in Cantonese.  The last of the four characters making up the Cantonese phrase is pronounced “Lok”; which incidentally sounds the same as the character meaning “decrease” or “drop”.  A Hong Kong Chinese will not be happy when you wish him/her a quick descend in the coming year.   For Chinese anywhere else, either greeting will work.
  • As Feb 24 draws closer, ask your Chinese work partners what plans they have for the day.  The traditional New Year celebration lasts for 15 days.  The last day is known as “Yuan Shiao”.  Tradition calls for lantern viewing and lots of sweet desserts!
  • Call one of your Chinese work partners – not before Feb 13 though – and ask about their family traditions during Chinese New Year.  There are different practices across vast geographical locations and communities.   News flash:  There is no one standard across more than a billion of us.

Have a wonderful time participating in the celebration of the Chinese New Year!

If China is indeed one of the critical parts of your organization, isn’t it about time you do something about Chinese New Year as the Chinese have done for you on Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc.?  Extrapolate the same spirit to your day-to-day interaction with your Chinese counterparts.

Like it or not, sensibility is a precursor of sense in successful Chinese partnerships.


About the author:

THOng An expert practitioner in organizational effectiveness, change management, performance management, leadership development and employee training, TH Ong is Global Integration's Vice President for the Americas and is spearheading the company's Asian expansion. Company profile: TH Ong.

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