Bad News and Cultural DNA

Best intentions notwithstanding, hard work does not always guarantee good results. Far more important, though, is how you handle bad news and improve things moving forward. Not surprisingly, with vast differences in cultural DNA, coping processes around the world are anything but uniform.

Discussing what went wrong: In terms of disseminating what happened and commiserating together, the Japanese probably get the highest marks for their willingness to openly communicate. Ironically, no matter how abhorrent a project’s results might have been, the Japanese will rarely discuss it in the office, even in an informal group setting. Folks in the Land of the Rising Sun do come clean when things go awry, but do so through something called “Nomunication” (飲みニケーション) after hours —a play on two words combining the Japanese word for drinking and communication. The real litmus test isn’t your boss’ in-office body language, but rather how well things go for you in the restaurant, or bar, under the collective eyes of your subordinates, peers and bosses. Rest assured that success in Nominication isn’t necessarily correlated to the amount of alcohol served or consumed. Usually only after 20 minutes of being together, people will begin slowly and openly confronting the relevant topics. During the three years I lived in Japan, it still makes me smile how we would go through the motions smiling and being jovial during the workday, despite everyone being fully aware the 800-pound “project disaster” gorilla wouldn’t be discussed until well after the sun had gone down and we were no longer at our desks. Even in the age of “e” everything in Japan, this cultural communication aspect has yet to change.

Analyzing the results: I am fortunate to have more than a decade of experience teaching in France. During my annual preparation, much of which involves cultural and language study, I’ve learned even in 2018 it’s still very rare for the French to use the words “I’m sorry” unless they’ve committed a significant transgression. Contrition is more subtle, and far more than in the US, the French are renowned for extended workday lunches and Sunday dinners. This is where the wheat gets separated from the proverbial chaff in terms of truly dissecting what went well and what could have been improved. But before anything is begun, it’s essential that everyone around the table has engaged in tutoyer, bypassing the more formal language of vous, and moving to tu. Even when speaking with non-French executives, once a degree of comfort has been established with the group, critiques are blunt and detailed.

Maintaining privacy: The Chinese go to great lengths to keep things close to the vest until well after a relationship (关系- guanxi) has been established, and carefully vetted. Reflecting on my nearly 25 years of doing business with executives in the People’s Republic, it’s amazing to think how differently we treated one another during the first few years. Everyone said and did the right things, but it was often superficial, at best. In the US, of course, one establishes a “relationship” after a firm handshake, business card swap, vigorous email exchange or maybe a quick beer after work. The Chinese put great deal of emotional investment into their relationships and bad news will only be shared in unique circumstances when the other party might be able to help with its mitigation or could introduce someone else of use. In some cases even if everyone around a lively banquet table knows about the poor results, it’s taboo to publicly acknowledge it, or discuss it one-on-one.

If at first you don’t succeed: Most Americans like a good comeback story and are more lenient giving someone a second chance. This is in stark contrast with other cultures, like the Europeans. Many Germans view filing bankruptcy as a “stigma,” while others in the EU believe UK start-ups are “missing their risk factors” compared with their US brethren, and therefore can never succeed. In Asia, some Koreans go to great lengths to hide significant problems when dealing with foreigners, fearing irreparable reputation damage. Americans rather place much more stock on sincerity and hard work during the 2nd time around, even if first-time results were abysmal.

None of us is infallible. Beyond striving for perfection, your objective should be on improving the mistakes which occurred, avoid letting the embarrassment get inside your head, and following cultural norms to ensure future results will dramatically exceed expectations. In business, remember it doesn’t matter where you begin the race, but instead where you end up finishing.

Greg Stoller is an entrepreneur and a senior lecturer on entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


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