Relationship building and conflict in China

An excerpt from the new ebook The Fragile Bridge — Managing Business Conflict in China

Conflict avoidance is the other side of the relationship-building coin. Westerners who take the time to build substantial and mutually beneficial networks around healthy business relationships find that they face serious conflict in China less often. Those who cut corners when building relationships—working with paid consultants to make introductions or jumping into exclusive partnerships too fast – are the ones that never seem to get clear of damaging, expensive business disputes.

Westerners and Chinese see business relationships in fundamentally different ways. Americans and Europeans hear the word “relationship” and think of romantic love or family ties. To them, the word is loaded with emotional and sentimental connotations. Chinese negotiators understand business relationships in terms of trust and understanding. They don’t have to love you, but they have to know who you really are and have confidence that you won’t betray them.

Westerners are always surprised to learn that the Chinese view of history and society is full of examples of treachery, brutality, and dishonesty perpetrated by foreigners. To Chinese businessmen, Westerners tend to be pushy in their interpersonal dealings, aggressive in their pursuit of profit, and most significantly, quick to give up at the first sign of trouble. Chinese believe that Westerners leave: leave the country, leave the business, and leave their partners. The Chinese see their ability to persevere and endure hardship not only as a virtue, but also as an important competitive advantage that their Western counterparties lack.

Chinese judge partners by utility value first, but maturity and commitment come in a close second and third. As long as you supply important assets like technology or cash, you conduct yourself in a manner that the Chinese consider civilized and you are able to convince them that it will be hard to get rid of you, then you’ll find that disagreements and conflicts will be few and far between.

And what about your side of the equation? What are you looking for in a Chinese partner? There is no single correct answer – but there is an incorrect one, and that is, “I don’t know.” It is vital that you know what you want your Chinese partner to provide, and how much you plan to pay for it (in one form or another).

A big source of destructive conflict in Western-Chinese partnerships is “fuzzy expectation syndrome”, or the lack of concrete, measurable goals. China is a strange environment for Westerners and it is difficult for newcomers to formulate comprehensive goals, but that just makes it more important to have specific targets and clear-cut objectives. If you rely on your Chinese partner to take the lead and determine goals for you, then you shouldn’t be surprised to find that they take advantage of you.

Many Westerners are misled by all the relationship talk and behave in far too conciliatory and passive a manner. It tends to have the opposite affect from what they intend. Instead of endearing themselves to the Chinese side, Westerners who come across as too weak or pliable disqualify themselves as suitable partners and encourage predatory, value-grabbing conduct, such as IP theft and pilfering assets.

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