When people endeavor to do business in a foreign country, cultural biases are inevitable. These innate biases don’t always lead to negative consequence, at least not ones that most can perceive, but more often than not, they do affect long-term outcomes.
The first thing I advise American leaders as they prepare for business meetings or negotiations in China is never to be judgmental. This attitude may seem easy enough to adjust, but for most, there is a lack the awareness how to eliminate the influence of adverse judgments in practice, especially when something is perceived to be at odds with our system of values.
In the end, it is all about understanding how we are perceived by others in the context of our natural biases.
So how do I help my clients overcome their lack of cultural awareness?
ANSWER: I begin by helping them with their imagination
Triggering greater imagination is accomplished by calling out subconscious biases and connecting them with the possibility of repercussions in a cross-cultural context.
For my fellow Americans, I might ask them to try to imagine their opinion regarding “fake news” and then try to reconcile that with their opinion of “state-controlled media.”
Have you ever been critical of state-controlled media as repressive and undemocratic?
Most Americans, whether a Trump supporter or anti-Trump, probably believe “fake news” should be more controlled and regulated, especially when it comes from a foreign adversary trying to influence the outcome of an election. Regulation implies that the majority of Americans do not want absolute freedom of the press because ironically it can influence democratic outcomes.
If the majority of Americans believe some regulation of media is necessary and prudent, then they essentially agree with having a state-controlled media, just to a lesser extent that better suits their political emotions.
Anti-Trump people want to block “fake ads” on social media from foreign adversaries, mainly the Russians.
Pro-Trump people want to restrict “fake news” coming from CNN and MSNBC because they believe, rightly or wrongly, in Trump’s rhetoric that the news coming from those organizations is fake.
As both sides of American’s political spectrum seek more regulation, which is another name for control, I question how they reconcile any ongoing criticism of state-controlled media in other countries.
If you no longer believe in absolute freedom of the press, and you think that some regulation is necessary for the greater good of society at large, then you believe there should be a healthy balance of government regulation.
If you then criticize state-controlled media as oppressive, perhaps unintentionally to comfort your political emotions against your democratic values, you believe you are in a position to judge the degree of regulation. Since you don’t care about the political situation in other counties with the same passion as your own, it is all too easy to judge the appropriate level of control based only on your democratic values.
This is hypocrisy. This is being judgmental. This is a cultural bias.
Being judgmental, whether conscious or subconscious, is a common mistake many foreigners make when traveling to China for business, and it usually leads to what I call a China Leadership Dilemma or CLD.
CLDs will result in an unexpected disappointment where prior ways of thinking, working, and behaving do not lead to the intended positive reactions nor expected outcomes in any cross-cultural engagement, and they are symptoms of myopia, unknown unknowns, and a lack of awareness.
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