My boss and I learned an important lesson in Chinese business culture a few days ago. It was one of those things that looking back on we both said, "D'oh, should've seen that one coming!" For all of the books about business in China that we have each read, it was really a stupid mistake, although it was also exasperated by the actions of someone else.
Two of our staff flew to Europe for the purpose of learning about trailer design and manufacturing. On their second day in France, an inventory count was being conducted. Now, I won't go into all of the details, but the inventory was done very poorly, at no fault of the Chinese staff. The problem with them came when at the end of the inventory count, they were asked to sign a document that they did not understand.
The reason I am writing about this (and why it is interesting) is WHY they were upset. Yes, it bothered them a little that they were signing something they didn't understand, but the main reason they got angry about it was because it was not their place to sign. They had been sent to Europe for product design, not to conduct business. As soon as they touched pen to paper, even for something as small an insignificant as an inventory count, they were conducting business on behalf of the company and that is not their place to do that. That is the place of the manager for the company.
Until we had a full understanding of the situation, and realized how symbolic this was to them, everyone was quite miserable. The mood in the car was somber and some heavy arguments broke out. Despite our best efforts to explain that an inventory count is a very very minor thing and that their signature is not important, we couldn't understand the extreme level of dissatisfaction. Finally, one of the staff translated a Chinese saying, "There are no big problems, there are no small problems, there are only problems." This told us that, even though in our eyes this was a very minor issue, the Chinese perceived it as a major one.
The situation was finally solved when my boss made a very big, theatrical show in the middle of dinner of tearing up the document that they had signed. It was amazing. The Chinese staff all applauded and instantly everyone was happy. It was as if someone had pushed a "smile" switch.