It’s common for Westerners new in China to earnestly declare their intent to do business in the win-win spirit of honesty and engagement. By being open about their goals and establishing a sincere dialogue from the outset they will cross all cultural barriers and gain both profit and long-term relationships based on mutual trust and respect. They are generally unsuccessful.
Win-win means even less in China than it does in the US – and that isn’t much. Traditional Chinese deal makers see business as a struggle to match their skills against yours and find ways to outwit or outmaneuver you. Chinese history and philosophy are full of tales of great odds being evened through wit and cunning. From the ancient stratagems of war through Maoist military doctrine to today’s profiles of entrepreneurial brilliance, Chinese heroics have usually been about guile and misdirection. American ethics value honesty, fidelity and partnership. Chinese virtues are intelligence and perseverance in the face of great odds.
Put simply, many traditional Chinese negotiators don’t see the deal arena as two equally matched gladiators slashing and parrying in the dust. It’s more Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. You’re Elmer. Sorry.
The moment Elmer walked into the forest with his big gun and funny outfit he was an enemy stalking the hero. Occasionally he would talk win-win, but the very fact that he was there at all made him a potentially dangerous enemy. Elmer was the interloper with suspicious intent, and Bugs the plucky innocent who merely wanted to be left in peace.
When Elmer was direct and just blasted away, Bugs ran and hid out of sight. If Elmer tried to be clever and use strategy, Bugs was in his own element. The game was the goal, and Bugs won every time.
There were only two sets of scenarios where Elmer ever had any success at all. One was when Daffy was on the scene. The other was when Elmer was not yet 100% committed to the partnership (What’s Up, Doc – 1949 ) or threatened to pull out (The Big Snooze – 1946).
This has implications for the American negotiator in China.
1. When Daffy was on the scene
• Even if Elmer couldn’t bag a rabbit, he could use the rabbit to bag a duck. True, Elmer was simply out-matched by either opponent. But he did much better when he played one off the other.
• In the seminal work The Big Snooze, a frustrated and exhausted Elmer Fudd decides to quit the game. Bugs, realizing that without a counter-party he was out of business, went to great pains to get his adversary to stay engaged. (True, it was Fudd’s pain, but still – business is business.)