Global Leadership Blog

International Management: Trip to China

This blog post is written by Annika Hoeltje, senior consultant at Lamson Consulting:

I’m supposed to give a training at the Shanghai office at 9:30 in the morning. Even though my kind host did everything in her power to market and organize the course, she warns me, that many people might not show up for the morning class.

“It’s a little early,” she tells me, “Because the city is so big it takes most people about two hours to come to work. Therefore they come in around 10am.”

The cubicles we are passing on the way to the training room are indeed still pretty empty. With few people to obstruct my view, I notice something: The desks and walls are richly decorated with pictures of friends and family and colorful stuffed animals as well as little figurines. This reminds me a little bit of my locker at an American high school, where I spent a year as an exchange student. Some people might say all this decoration is less professional, but I like the friendly and casual atmosphere it creates in the office.

“Hello teacher” one of the attendees greets me, when I step into the training room.

I smile at him and notice that the dress code and average age of the attendees in the room supports my earlier high school or college impression. Risking being one of these Europeans who can’t tell a 24 from a 44 year old, I share my observation later at lunch and ask my host about the average age in the Shanghai office. The stuffed animals and sweatshirts could have been misleading, but my impression turned out to be right.

“Most of the people in the office are in their twenties or early thirties,” my host says, “the Chinese employees of international IT companies which learned to speak English are almost all from Generation Y.”

This stands in sharp contrast to the general population in Shanghai. Due to the combination of high life expectancy (82.13 years!) and low fertility rates, there is a serious aging problem among Shanghai’s registered residents.

While I’m fiddling with the cables for the projector a few more people trickle in and take their seats. I can tell right away who the mangers are, because they sit right in the front and are the only ones who ask and answer questions. Further, they are also the only ones who have been working in other countries and thus experienced North American and European-style seminars, meetings, and ways of communicating. They are a lot more talkative than the others.

Most of the other Chinese attendees seem reluctant to make a direct contribution to the training. They present themselves as an attentive, respectful, but rather passive audience. General questions towards the audience remain unanswered, even when I direct them towards a specific person. After presenting some theory and giving them a real life example I hope they’ll be able to make the connection.

I ask: “So, how can we explain what has happened with what we just learned before?“

Silence – Everyone looks at me.

I try again, rephrase my question, and make the link between theory and the business case more obvious. Nothing… Well it was worth a try. I give up and answer the question myself. In the US or in Europe everyone would have wanted to speak up regardless if they had the answer or not. If not, they might have talked about something else or asked another question. For them, that would be better than nothing; better than silence.

Uh oh, I think to myself. What about the group exercise I have planned for the end? After I’m done with the presentation I have them analyze a film in small groups and then present the results to the whole group. To my surprise this goes really well and the small groups come up with well thought through and creative explanations. Everyone seems to have understood what I was talking about before and is very engaged.

I experienced first-hand why in China you have to create situations where the participants feel comfortable enough to speak up. Group exercises are good opportunities, because the participants feel more comfortable presenting a group result then their own opinion. Another reason is, that they can choose the person who is most comfortable with their English, or has a particular status, to present what the group came up with.

Next time I will have more small group exercises instead of trying to force a discussion with the whole training group.

I will also plan ahead and allow more time for conversations during the breaks and after the class. I noticed that many attendees were willing and eager to present their thoughts to me in an one on one situation. And their opinion was very valuable!

When I ask my host for feedback how to further improve the presentation she thinks for a moment and then says:

“Pictures!” “Maybe next time you could have some more colorful pictures in your presentation.”

Of course, after I saw how well decorated the office is, my presentation seems a little bland to me now, too.

I thank her for the feedback and promise to bring lots of pictures, next time I come to do workshops. I think to myself, I don’t know who learned more today: The participants or me.

Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication. More About Melissa Lamson