I would like to warmly welcome Nick Jaworski, the Digital Community Manager for Circle Social Inc., as a guest poster today. Nick worked as a leader in China for three years. His last six months were spent in Guangzhou, consulting on the development of a brand new bilingual immersion kindergarten.
I love China. It’s a great country with amazing history, culture, and language. Now back in the US, my wife and I both often think back wistfully of our time there. However, the things we liked most were found in our personal lives. My life in Chinese business was often a struggle and a challenge, as so many American leaders coming to China have found out.
Lying is the Norm
One thing you notice pretty quickly when starting to work in China is that lying is very common. And not in the American spin, lack of transparency sort of way, just outright lying.
Why is lying so common? Because appearance is everything. The reality of the situation doesn’t really matter. It’s what people believe to be true that does.
Appearance is Reality
This concept is hard for many Westerners to grasp, but let’s look at an example to help clarify. Try to think about a time, maybe in high school, where you or someone you know was affected by a malicious rumor. The rumor was absolutely untrue, yet it completely changed the way people reacted to you and what they thought about you. It also had a huge effect on your life.
This way that other people’s beliefs affect reality, regardless of validity, is a core tenant in understanding how many Chinese think. If reality is affected by appearances more than the truth, what’s the point in focusing on the truth? Much better to focus on what has real word effects.
Great Teachers Aren’t Always Pretty
One of my first tasks as a consultant at the school was to create the recruitment, hiring, and training process for foreign teachers from the ground up. Having been doing business in China for a few years already, I knew how difficult it was to find great teachers that could endure the culture shock of moving abroad and working in a foreign system. I knew what it took to find people that would both be an asset to the school and would also adapt well so as to stick around long-term.
With my criteria in mind, I set about recruiting teachers and was amazingly successful. Only given a $100 budget to advertise and less than 2 months to find the teachers (the average length of time to find a teacher and bring them over is 6 months in China), I found 4 fantastic teachers to launch our school with.
I had truly pulled off the impossible. The only problem? The board was extremely upset about the teachers. Why? Because none of them were blonde and blue-eyed, pretty, 20-something women. When the teachers arrived on the ground, I was immediately pulled into an emergency meeting and grilled about what teachers had been hired and where were some of the pretty candidates they had seen pictures of in the hiring folder.
In their mindset, the quality of the teacher doesn’t really matter, only the image they project. To my credit, every teacher I hired completed their contract. I found out after leaving that every teacher the board hired had failed to complete their contracts, sometimes leaving as quickly as within 3 months.
Paperwork is the Real Work
In another indicative example, the Board was extremely mad one day that the foreign teachers did not have 5-page lesson plans for every day of lessons like their Chinese counterparts. The Board then mandated 5-page plans from each teacher to be reviewed directly by the Board each week.
The fascinating thing was that the Chinese teachers never even used their lesson plans. When we actually started teaching classes, I observed a few and the Chinese teachers more or less babysat the children, not even using anything close to a lesson plan. I asked about the difference between their activities and the plans. They stated that they had been taught to write plans in university, but had never actually set foot in a classroom before. They didn’t know what to do.
Yet, nobody cared since their lesson plans were 5 pages long and properly filed. When I brought up the idea of training and quality control to the Board, they weren’t interested. They had their documents, which is all they needed. I never even had a board member enter a classroom!
If appearances are upheld, everybody is happy. This was a hard lesson for me to learn in China and one I was never comfortable with. I had to know that the lessons that were being delivered were quality. I had to know that I was hiring great teachers. None of this really mattered to the Board, who was happy as long as they had something good to show prospective parents that encouraged them to enroll.
Have you had similar learning experiences while doing business in China? What solutions did you find to perhaps reach a middle ground? I’d love to hear about it.