How To Train Your Muscle Of Understanding By Taking Culture Out Of The Inequation

A senior executive from a global medical device company asked me recently what was the real reason that his organization had no clue what's going on in their China organization. "Is it trust," he asked, "or is it culture?"

'Miscommunication' or 'lack of communication,' between the headquarters of multinational companies and their subsidiaries, is common, even for the most successful organizations. It is especially the case in the Chinese context.

Still, it goes to the extreme, in my view, that a global company has no clue of what's happening on the ground in China. 

Often times, we blame 'culture' for things that are not working, especially in an environment different from our own. It is just an easy (if not lame) excuse. 

Therefore, let's just take 'culture' out of the inequation of understanding for a moment. Take the headquarters vs. Chinese subsidiary as an example. 

There are essentially seven key components to consider, from the organizational design and team development perspective, for a clearer understanding. That is:

  1. Custom. Let's start by examining where you are. What's the current situation? How have you arrived where you are? Why it's not working? How long has it been like this? There are perhaps many reasons or causes of the problem. But the first thing to start with is to find the pattern and identify where the problem lies. Ask yourself questions. 
  2. Control. What's the control mechanism you have in place? Or to what extent you want to control? Does you China organization have total (or too much) autonomy? Are you (presumably you are sitting at the headquarters), willingly or unwillingly, let go of the control? Or, in other words, choose to be more 'hands-off'? Or, it just simply because you have too strong of a local leader?
  3. Commitment. Are you committed to understand what's happening in your China organization? Are you committed to help the people in your China organization succeed? Are you committed to make the equation work?
  4. Confidence. Have you placed total confidence in your China organization? Have you made them aware of that? Have you gained their trust in the first place?
  5. Contact. What is your organizational structure look like? Are there clear contact points between the headquarters and your China organization? How regular or frequent do you contact them? It is entirely your own responsibility to initiate and maintain regular and frequent contact with your China organization. Who else to blame when things are not working?
  6. Channel. Make sure there are clear communication channels between the headquarters and your China organization. Better yet, make sure that you maintain multiple communication channels instead of relying purely on a single one. Over the years we have seen companies, disregard the organizational structure, making huge mistakes because they rely solely on one single communication channel, one contact point, or even one person. Information is thus filtered and ill-judged decisions are made. 
  7. Communication. Communication, communication, communication. We can't stress enough the importance of communication. It's easier said than done though. The real question is how to communicate proactively and effectively. 

All you need to do is change. If you are not happy with what's going on, you can always change it. It may take some courage to change the status quo, it may take time to become effective. But it's important that you start the changing process now. If you don't start now, nothing will ever change and you will never know what's going on. 

But before you take action, let's put culture back to the inequation of understanding. 

Yes, there are cultural differences. There are Chinese ways of doing things. We are all different. We all have preconceived notion of what the other culture would look like. 

What is essential is to keep an open mind, to pay your respect, to build trust, and to create and foster an open culture that encourages dialogues and communications in a transparent manner. 

Questions: What about your organization? Do you have similar problems? How do you deal with such situation? Feel free to share with us your thoughts by leaving a comment below.