In China The Disagreement Is In The Details

I am currently on my way back home from my third visit to China in just 6 weeks. I love working there, as it epitomizes my reason for making Asia my home: opportunities and growth. I have been working with the leadership team of a USD 1.3 billion company on their transformation and business agenda. Despite the fact that I lived and worked in China for two years, its size and scale continues to surprise me.

Being in Beijing brought back all kind of memories of working in Shanghai. At that time, I was the HR counterpart of a number of local HR directors of different Unilever joint ventures in China. My mandate was to implement the Unilever global HR policies and systems and to accelerate the development of Chinese managers.

I still remember that one of my biggest challenges was to introduce a performance based bonus system for one of the Chinese joint ventures. Most Chinese managers were positive towards the idea, but my biggest hurdle was to convince the local Chinese HR Director, who was also the Chairman of the companies Trade Union and the General Secretary of the Communist Party for that working unit. In other words – this man had by far the most power in the whole company. Can you imagine convincing a communist leader in the mid nineties on the benefits of performance-based pay!

I had mentally prepared myself that this would take quite some effort, and had set up a two day meeting to discuss the pros and cons with the Chinese HR Director. At that time, discussions had to be simultaneously translated, and after exchanging all the pleasantries I was starting to explain the purpose of the meeting. I had to slowly build up to my argument on the benefits of the new pay system.  After about an hour of my trumpeting the benefits of performance based merit system, along with a few questions and answers, I was completely taken aback when my translator told me that the HR Director had agreed with my proposal.

There I was, prepared for the argument of my life, and I was done in under 2 hours. I was over the moon and couldn’t wait to let my boss know the scoop that I scored. But, little did I know…

Over the next few weeks we started talking about how we would implement the new system, asking key questions like who was eligible, how it would work, who would get what and who was in control. It was only then that I realized that the agreement on implementing the new system meant nothing to my Chinese HR partner. It was all about the details. What mattered was the who, what, when, where and how. At the end (after about a year) we were able to agree and administer a significantly watered down version of the Unilever performance based policy.

So, what is the moral of the story? With my western education and ancient Greek inspired rational thought, I had assumed that if you agree on the concept the details would fall into place automatically. How naïve. In the Chinese way of thinking, you can get an agreement on the concept within minutes but it are the details that count and where the ‘rubber hits the road’.

Don’t spend too much time on the conceptual framework of your change proposal. Focus on how it will work, what the consequences are, what are implementation challenges, how do we get people on board and of course for the big ‘What Is In It For Me’ question for the people participating in the change.

-Paul Keijzer


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