Saturday, August 18, 2012

The fragile bridge, on conflict management - Review

When you are about to order, or even read, Andrew Hupert's latest book "The Fragile Bridge: Conflict Management in Chinese Business", there is a fair chance you are too late. Hupert skilfully explains the differences in dealing with conflicts between US and European managers on one side, and their Chinese partners on the other side.
Emotions are running high, accusations fly during heated debates. MBA-educated managers might see that as a tool to resolve conflicts, in China it means you have already entered the end game. 
At the start of his book, Hupert sets the stage:
Conflict serves a different purpose in the West than it does in China. Americans in particular believe in the idea of “creative destruction.” They think that controlled conflict can be an important communication tool. It is a great way to surface new ideas, argue for your point of view, and resolve lingering disagreements. Chinese will tell you that harmony is the way to go and that disputes are unnecessary – and they may well believe it. Conflict, however, actually serves an important role in relationship-oriented Chinese business. It is often the fastest and most efficient way of terminating a partnership that is not paying off or has already served its purpose.
Traditional Western models of conflict management usually focus on improving communications between participants and finding ways to allocate value fairly. Using the language of “win-win negotiation”, Westerners focus on how to best divide the pie of potential gains and remove roadblocks.
These tactics are designed to improve interaction, spark ideas for joint problem solving, find compromise, and maximize mutual benefit. While there is nothing wrong with any of this, international managers should understand that several obstacles make these “common ground” techniques less effective – or even counter-productive – in China. First, these are tactical responses designed to keep existing negotiations on track, whereas many Western-Chinese business conflicts are structural in nature and require a more strategic response. In other words, you don’t need to tweak the engine or adjust the speed – you need a new locomotive on a different track. Furthermore, a last minute burst of communication and friendliness can strike the Chinese side as confusing or crass, since they may very well feel that the Westerner side has been refusing their earnest attempts to build a relationship since the very first meeting. The most significant shortcoming of traditional international conflict management, however, is that it takes as its starting position the assumption that both sides are committed to preserving the deal or partnership. All too often by the time the Western side becomes aware of a conflict, the Chinese party has already begun extricating himself from an arrangement that he feels has already either failed or outlived its usefulness.
From there, a wealth of experience and anecdotes follows, to support this key concept, but the story remains the same. While many might perceive Hupert's arguments as convincing perusing through the book, when a conflict is taking over emotions, rational arguments might not work anymore.
Hupert's analysis focuses on business cases, but observers might see a pattern that is also valid outside business. International politics, cross-cultural marriages and even often cool-headed academic disputes all show the features Hupert describes. 
I'm afraid it does not help when you are in a heated debate with your Chinese partners already; it might help to avoid all-too-common pitfalls in cross-cultural relations, when you read it before you get yourself into trouble.

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