Expat Exec Case Study: Shanghai, “The Drinking Protocol” and Mr. Huang’s 3 Simple Steps to Gain Trust

Cranberry’s Expat Executive Network provides extensive real life experience to help guide through the journey to becoming a successful expat exec.  These stories are constant reminders that we should be diligent, proactive and self-aware in moving into a new country with new responsibilities, a new team and enormous expectations.  Following is a story from one of our members highlighting the importance of tone, tenor and grace when taking a new position.  

Casey’s Story

Casey is a VP level, highly experienced division head that was moved from his position in London to the Shanghai affiliate of his major healthcare company.  Casey was tremendously excited to get experience in Asia Pacific and did his homework.  He understood, academically, the differences in work style he would face.  He had read substantially about the cross-cultural relationship differences, the cognitive orientations and value differences between his home country, the USA, his host country, China and his organization HQ, the United Kingdom.  He felt prepared to bridge these divides.  

He knew that his US home culture would be highly different from China in “High Context—Low Context” ranges. Meaning that nuance, reading between the lines and implied messages would become more of a factor in his life. He knew that the comfortable leadership style would be more hierarchy driven. He knew that his own value of rapidly built, task-based trust would need to be tempered by a culture more comfortable with slowly building relationships through transparency, interactions outside work and sharing personal time.

He had done his homework.

Complexity on the Ground

What he found on the ground was a much more complex environment than he imagined.  Some of the difficulties he faced were hindered by inter-cultural issues, but founded in very human reactions to change.

Upon arriving he was taken through the business plan effectively and with enthusiasm. The team was worried about having a new boss from overseas but the motivation with which they presented was exceptional. Over the course of the first three days Casey continued to be impressed with his team’s capabilities but felt he was having a hard time making incremental gains in personal relationships. There was something missing.

Reflecting on his training beforehand he focused on the trust building dimension of inter-cultural relationships. Indeed, he had not taken the team to dinner so he planned an event. Leaving it to his team to decide venue and time, Casey went back to work learning the business.

When the night of the dinner arrived there was a fantastic feast of very unusual and delicious Chinese food that he enjoyed very much. The cuisine was spicier than he liked but he did his best and tried everything. He noticed that there was a significant amount of drinking going on. Not a few glasses of wine as he would have imagined, but rather huge volumes of alcohol. When offered he imbibed but he was careful to not drink too much.

The Bigger Picture Emerges

This is when the bigger picture became very clear to Casey.

After several hours and many courses of food and drink, Casey’s #1 team member, who went by his family name Liu, came to him. He had obviously had a lot to drink and was smiling broadly.  

“Casey,” Liu laughed heartily. “You took my job.”

Casey stared at his subordinate, not quite sure how to take the timing and directness of the comment.

“Pardon?” Casey asked.

“You took my job,” Liu said with a big smile. “I have been waiting for that position for several years. And you took it. My wife is not happy.” Liu’s smile was completely in contrast to the very direct, very painful thing Casey was hearing.

“Uh…” was all Casey could get out. He was stunned by the tone and nature of the comment.  Was he joking? Was he just too drunk?

“No worries Casey…we will perform and you will be proud,” and off Liu went to talk to someone else.

Casey felt the evening’s energy, while high and happy to his local colleagues, slip into darkness for him. Of course it happens that sometimes jobs are given amongst challengers and there are hard feelings. But Liu was someone Casey barely knew, and worse, needed on his side to be successful. He was not at all prepared for this one tiny moment.

Casey waited a few days trying to decide how to handle the situation. He was more perplexed that all discussion of the night of the party had ended..as if it didn’t happen. Nobody on the team was talking about it in any way. But Liu’s comments had made Casey aware of an issue in a very specific way. Casey decided to reach out to a peer-level Chinese HR person, the Head of HR for the entire company, Huang. Casey explained the situation.

“Ahhhh yes,” Huang started. “You’ve been hit by the ‘drinking protocol.”

“Sorry,” Casey replied. “The drinking protocol?”

“Yes,” Huang started. “What is said while drinking, stays there. Many of our colleagues see drinking as a safe place to air their ‘real’ thoughts and since there is drinking involved, it is safe.”

Casey stared at Huang. While he understood the situation, he had no idea how to address it…much less how to talk to a person who feels his job had been stolen.

Huang continued, “Don’t worry too much. Just talk to Liu. Be honest and authentic and ask him what he meant. But over tea or a beer. Not in the office. I believe you will probably get your answer and it will be ok.”

Casey had done all the homework necessary to understand the new environment.  But he was surprised and perplexed in how it played out. After Casey and Liu went out to lunch to discuss things, it became clear that Liu was uncomfortable talking about the comment…he was as uncomfortable talking about it today as he had been comfortable talking about it before. Liu reiterated his desire to work hard and make the team the best it could be. Casey was happy to hear that but still a bit worried.

Mr. Huang’s Advice

The next day Huang and Casey reconvened in the HR Directors office. Huang was kind and gave him three pieces of advice:

  1. Pause and reflect on your situation: Putting yourself in your colleagues shoes is critical. The colleagues you will lead are obviously professionals, with human dreams and aspirations. They may be asking “why did the company bring in a foreigner to do this job when I have all the knowledge of this country?” or “I now have to train my boss. How is this the most efficient way to go?” Pausing and reflecting gives you the chance for forge deeper relationships with your colleagues…thus driving better, quicker, positive results
  2. Study the cultural implications…then act.  When I asked Casey what he would have done differently he was clear.  He would have begun the relationship building on day one with a lunch or perhaps an after work cocktail. When I pressed him a little he said that Huang had actually laughed a bit and said “Casey, you obviously took your move here seriously and studied hard. Sometimes we think the examination of something is the result. But the result is the result.”
  3. Circling back to check in and build trust.  Through his study he knew that his American and British roots would allow him to build trust on the basis of the task at hand. However, trust in many Asian countries is built on experiences together, personal interactions and transparency. While Casey trusted Liu from the beginning, Liu needed time (and perhaps a bit of liquid courage) to drive the relationship forward. Casey found out quickly that it takes a touch and time to get there.

Casey is now 2+ years into his assignment and enjoying the time with his colleagues. He is convinced that Liu will be his successor and Liu’s wife is happy.

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