Your finance skills will only take you so far in Greater China. Your career success will also hinge on your ability to give and receive ‘face’ in front of colleagues, managers and clients.
Face – or mianzi, loosely translated as dignity, respect, prestige or reputation – is an ancient sociological concept in China that governs the way people relate to each other in and away from the office.
“Face has been a core Chinese value for thousands of years,” says investment analyst Vivian Lin Thurston, president of the Chinese Finance Association of America. “It results in a form-is-bigger-than-content style in Chinese banking – how you communicate an idea could be much more important than what the idea is.”
Face can be lost, maintained and enhanced, but must be constantly attended to. Here are some top expert tips for keeping yours in good shape.
“I see no point in arguing with colleagues or clients, even if you have a high chance of winning the argument,” says Eric Sim, a former UBS managing director who’s currently a guest lecturer at Renmin University. “By making the other parties lose face, you not only don’t have their buy-in, you also cause resentment against you in the long run. I believe in giving people stairs (táijiē), to allow them to step down gracefully and preserve their face.”
In a dynamic sector like banking, the concept of face can change with each deal. “I once observed an American co-investor in a financial joint-venture with a Chinese SOE who talked up how heroic the Chinese managers would appear by doing the deal,” says Rob Koepp, author of Betting on China: Chinese Stocks, American Stock Markets, and the Wagers on a New Dynamic in Global Capitalism. “But the Chinese didn’t want the kind of face he was offering. The deal used Chinese secured debt to support foreign enterprises, but Chinese officials generally view the intentions of foreign businesses with suspicion.”
“Chinese tend to be authority-worshiping, so face becomes even more important when communicating with managers,” says Lin Thurston. “Always avoid disagreeing with your managers in front of others, no matter how accurate you may be. Your boss will lose face in public, which will bring bad consequence for you.”
If you’re in a team meeting and the boss asks for ideas, it’s sometimes better to keep quiet. “Never give suggestions which may top your manager’s ideas,” says Lin Thurston. “It’s possible they only asked for the sake of formality, when really they had already made up their mind. If you have a good idea, you should communicate with them privately in a very polite, humble way.”
Focus instead on supporting your manager and protecting their face – for example, finding more effective ways to implement their instructions and praising them in front of colleagues and clients, says Sean Upton-McLaughlin, founder of website chinaculturecorner.com. “This helps you in the long run by making them your ally.”
If you’re a manager yourself, you need to be equally aware of your subordinates’ faces, especially in a talent-short job market like China where they might quit if they feel. While criticism is often unavoidable, kicking off the conversation with it risks lose of face. “By taking time to get to the criticism and by emphasising positive contributions, you can blunt the impact and increase the chances you will be listened to,” says Upton-McLaughlin.
You also need to tread carefully when dealing with colleagues of a similar rank – don’t oppose them publicly in meetings. “Getting a consensus before meetings by working with them privately is a good approach if you want to gain support from a face-conscious peer,” says Lin Thurston.
In China, being a ‘strong team player’ isn’t a meaningless resume phrase. “While many Chinese bankers share the get-ahead-quick attitude of their Western counterparts, it’s often still impolite to show it,” says Upton-McLaughlin. “So praise the contributions of team members – it’s important to not alienate yourself or cause others to lose face just for a little extra credit. Even if your manager knows you did most of the work, they may still think you a bad team player for your directness.”
You need to both “have face” yourself and “give” it to others, says Zhao Mo, founder of Shanghai consultancy China Cultural Insight. As a banker, you must keep an eye on what your colleagues and clients are buying and wearing. “In highly materialistic contemporary Chinese society, having face extends to what you buy. For example, if people in your bank dress in luxury brands, you should too, or risk losing face.”
Don’t come to work on Monday and start chatting about the new Rolex you bought at the weekend. “Be careful not to show off ostentatiously to colleagues as this can be seen as poor taste,” says Mo. “You should let others discover what you have.”
“Picking up the tab and offering a toast and a compliment are simple things you can do to give face to colleagues while dining,” says Upton-McLaughlin.
You can rarely be too polite in a Chinese workplace, says Mo. “You should also be more tolerant to ambiguities. When people have something to hide – like being vague about where they went on holiday – don’t be too inquisitive. Being vague lets the other person keep their face in unfavourable circumstances.”
If your family is thriving, your colleagues will respect you for it. “Your face extends to your immediate family – what your spouse is doing, what school your child goes to, their extracurricular classes,” says Mo. “The need to keep up one’s face is driving professionals in China to work hard and is putting lots of pressure on them.”
Image credit: DragonImages, Getty