Negotiating in China effectively means learning about negotiating from weakness — and about knowing how the balance of power shifts.
March 5 is “Learn From Lei Feng Day” in China — a chance to celebrate the nobility of humility and come closer to the Master of Modesty himself, Comrade Lei Feng. A posthumous cultural revolution hero, Chinese kids have been learning obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice from the PLA icon since 1963.
The more things change the more they stay the same, and the Lei Feng icon is being recycled by a Party apparatus that understands the value of humility and sacrifice — as long as it is someone else’s. The Legend of Lei is alive and well, and being recycled to exhort underpaid sweatshop workers and expense accounted bankers alike to strive for the good of the State.
Doesn’t seem like it would work — but it does.
Americans are great at negotiating from strength — or at least we think we are. The problem with negotiating from a position of strength is that unless you are actually strong, your counterparty can call your bluff. The myths we raise our future leaders on are about supermen with super powers — strength, skills, and special abilities. We grow up with Superman and Spiderman. They always did great until some villain or unforeseen calamity robbed them of their powers. Then they were in trouble. But by the end of the show the natural order was restored, and the hero regained his super-strength just in time to win the day against unbelievable odds.
Chinese are brought up on different stories, and Comrade Lei’s is one of the biggies. Praised for his humility, selflessness, and dedication to helping others, he’s like a superhero’s secret identity without the extraordinary abilities. Clark Kent or Peter Parker, toiling away (though probably not in the media industry). They didn’t transform — they persevered. They might never share in the spoils of victory — only the toils of struggle. But it was OK, because society would benefit and harmony would ultimately be attained for all.
Chinese learn three important negotiating lessons early
- 1. A weak position doesn’t mean your side will lose.
- 2. Cooperating with the group is the only path to victory.
- 3. The weak can become strong when the balance of power shifts.
Chinese negotiators often put themselves in a position of apparent weakness. This tactic has two ramifications for Westerners who think that they are negotiating from strength.
First, they make their problem your problem.
- “Our technology lags, our systems are inefficient, our factories are antiquated, our brands are weak, our innovation is feeble — how are we going to fix it?” Chinese negotiators are great at being humble and even subservient when it suits them. “You want to be the boss — Huanying Guanglin Laoban! Welcome Boss!” “You want to own 65% of the JV. Sounds good to us!” “You want to teach, train, instruct, and call the shots? You’re the boss.”
This leads to the second outcome of skillful negotiation from weakness. Once you have fixed their problem — you become the new problem. Now they are strong, thanks to your help. You have suddenly become weak, thanks to the power of their various groups – regulators, courts, bureaucrats, workers, suppliers, distributors, and anyone else who would rather make use of your superpowers (technology, IP, capital, systems) without having you around.
You can pick your own example. Apple vs. Proview, Google vs. Baidu. GM vs. the domestic auto industry. In each case, the Western side entered into the market with a position of power. They came, the built, they taught…and in one way or another ran into roadblocks or administrative obstacles that are undermining their position of strength. No more superpowers.
March 5 is Learn from Lei Feng Day in China. Study hard, comrades, and learn your lessons.
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