Understanding Trust, In China and the West

This is a post from Harvard Business Review in 2015. It tackles into the extremely relevant side of Chinese society and ecosystem. This discussion based on trust is the fundamental difference between western societies and the Chinese one.

The depth it dug into is beyond the scope of normal Chinese interpersonal networks. Chinese themselves don’t understand these things and they do it unconsciously. And it is how they are raised mostly in this country.

Does politics have anything to do with such a landscape? I believe so. Since there are, some sort of relevance, between China and other communistic countries.

Again, as society develops, China is forced to become more open and active in dealing with things westerners are usually comfortable dealing with. I am not sure how the course of history is going to be steered, but could this sort of ecosystem be kept as Chinese advance their society? Or eventually broken into the individualistic pieces?

As a Chinese, I am raised much different than my fellows. I was taught to work on my own, solve problems on my own, and rely on myself as much as possible if the problem is not significant enough to rely on others.

The family teaching roots well inside me. I was asked for my independence at very young age–asked to get up myself when I tripped, asked to get the higher up object when I could not reach, asked to make up my own mistakes when I wanted to escape. These precious teachings made me into who I am today, but not who everybody else is today in China.

And I know it well, how relationships work in this country. There were countless examples before demonstrating the power of Guanxi.

Either way, trust is forever an issue in modern China. If you want to talk to people on the streets, ask for little favors… without trust, none of these things can exist. And they do not exist now in China.

Sometimes, I wonder, why my family teaching has always been like this. Even my grandparents ask me to work on my own and be diligent enough to change situations. Could it be that the family has always been the weak one? Always the bullied one? When you are weak and you can not rely on anybody, the only people you can rely on is yourself.

There are two valuable traits in a human, one is diligence, and the other is perseverance. Diligence can change a person himself, and perseverance can change a person’s fate.

This is a very Chinese idea, from the TVB drama series, 大帅哥.

Anyway, below is the actual article. And comments have good insights as well.

By David De Cremer

FEBRUARY 11, 2015

Original Post

China is the second-largest economy in the world and expected to surpass the US in the next decade. This shift in economic power makes it even more important for Western executives to build successful, high-quality relationships with their Chinese counterparts. But such relationships don’t always come easily. Consider the following examples:

  • Western representatives of a multinational thought their negotiations with an important Chinese supplier were almost finalized when the Chinese negotiators started asking questions the Western side believed had already been agreed on. It made the Western negotiators feel as if the Chinese side had made no attempt to understand their concerns.
  • An international company created a platform its R&D centers could use to share their latest developments and discuss any challenges. The idea was to encourage each R&D center to be more pro-active in responding to changing market conditions. However, it became apparent that the Chinese R&D center was hardly participating.
  • An international head of department based in Wenzhou faced difficulties on a regular basis for his Chinese managers to accept overseas assignments. This international manager was unclear about why some of his Chinese managers were so hesitant to develop strategic relationships with non-Chinese staff elsewhere in the world.

What is the common problem underlying all of these three examples? It all has to do with trust, and how it’s built.

Depending on one’s cultural background, trust may be developed and defined in different ways. I have spent years studying the function trust in business, and have taught business leaders in both the West and in China. It is important to stress that no difference exists between both parties regarding the importance of trust to the development of the business process. All human beings, regardless of their cultural background, have a strong desire to develop relationships, and trust is crucial in this process.

The main differences lie in how people from the West and China work towards building a trusting relationship, which is reflected in what their (dis)trust default is, and how this influences the function of trust is in the relationship being developed. (Of course, people in both cultures are individuals – the patterns I’ve observed in each culture are sweeping, and won’t apply to everyone.)

What is your trust default?

Trust is usually defined as a positive expectation that the other party will act in honest and benevolent ways, reducing fear that one may be exploited. Considering both parts of this can help us distinguish the trust defaults in the West versus China.

Generally speaking, in the West the default is “trust.” I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, and consider you basically trustworthy until you do something that breaks our trust. In China, the default tilts more toward “distrust” – I only award you my trust after you’ve proven yourself worthy of it. This attitude is illustrated in an eloquent way by the popular Chinese saying that “early birds get shot” (qiang da chu tou niao) – which reflects the strong desire to avoid any social risks. Clearly such an attitude does not invite people easily to engage in a more Western-like trust giving process.

As one Chinese business executive told me: In China you build trust first, once that is achieved, only then you do business. In the West, on the other hand, people are used to doing business almost immediately when they work in the same industry. Westerners feel more comfortable conducting business and building trust at the same time, if the opportunity arises.

As the research of Roy Chua, an associate professor at Singapore Management University, has found, American executives make a strong distinction between trust from the head (i.e. trusting someone because of his or her professional competence) and trust from the heart (i.e. trusting someone because of your relationship with him or her); whereas for Chinese executives both types of trust are needed. These findings emphasize again the need for interpersonal trust to be established and exist before conducting business in China.

What is the initial function of trust?

Where do these defaults come from? To answer this question, we have to examine how people in each culture define the initial function of trust. Put simply, in China the primary function of trust is to protect and establish feelings of safety initially. In the West, it’s more to explore and establish where possible fertile ground for future opportunities.

The West is considered an individualistic culture, in which people need to acquire the skill to build alliances and networks to survive. As a result, within individualistic cultures people have learned to take a more active approach to building relationships, and defaulting to trust becomes the norm. China is not an individualistic culture, but neither is it – as claimed incorrectly by many people – a collectivistic culture. It is a relational culture. Guanxi is a Chinese concept referring to the tight social networks that shape Chinese society. Almost automatic trust exists between people in the same guanxi, but trust is never assumed outside of it. So distrust becomes a default — only if one is certain that a new relationship will not threaten, but rather preserve, the interest of one’s closest relationships, will trust then be given.

In light of building international business, it is clear that from a Chinese perspective you will need to earn trust first before things get moving.

How can Western businesspeople establish trust with their Chinese counterparts?

So, from a Western point of view, how should one approach business situations in China when they involve building interpersonal trust?

Taking time to develop the relationship is a must. Chinese businesspeople will invest considerable time in getting to know you. While you, from a Western point of view, may think you are already discussing business deals, your Chinese counterpart may not even be thinking about the deals that could be made – he or she may still be evaluating you. Although this may be frustrating at times because it seems like business is going nowhere, keep in mind that once you are perceived as trustworthy things will move very quickly.

Because in the initial stages, no personal relationship exists yet, be aware that trying to build trust through mainly social means might backfire. Organizing parties or giving gifts can work against you. Early on, it is more important that you show what your value will be to their business. At this stage it is also necessary to remember that it is most important to demonstrate your competence and expertise rather than just simply talk about it.

Once a business relationship takes off and you are working with Chinese managers and employees, keep building on this foundation. It is important that the Chinese counterpart feels that throughout the business process a sense of benevolence exists, which will make for good business on the long term. Keep in mind that although building trust in China is a highly participative and time consuming activity, the level of trust that can be achieved can be forever. As a popular Chinese saying mentions: Once a promise is made, it cannot be withdrawn, not even with the forces of four horse powers (yi yan ji chu, si ma nan zhui).



  • Gerard Gross 2 years ago

    《A Critique of “Understanding Trust, In China and the West”》

    East and West doesn’t exist.

    The orthodox terms, “East and West”, are outdated expressions and represent a mode of thinking not reflective of our current interconnected and spherical reality. These orthodox words are used by innocently ignorant academics and people who lack experience, don’t fully understand spherical geography, and more importantly, don’t have an intuition for the ramifications of having ~3.3 billion minds already connected to the internet, an amount set to double by ~2020.

    Please note, the “West” is not a civilization-state, so it’s best to avoid comparing it with one such as China. You’re being misleading, inaccurate, and unfair to students by imparting this faulty perspective.

    My advice when writing about a civilization-state such as the PRC (China is not a nation-state), is to be more language conscious and specific in your writings. It’s best to avoid using the words East and West or Eastern and Western. If you mean Americans, say it. If you mean the British, say it. If you mean the Germans, say it. If you mean the Aussies, say it. If you mean white people, say it. If you mean advanced democratic societies, say it, even though you’ll be wrong if you do (China ≈ Democratic Centralism).

    An additional piece of advice is when mixing in pīnyīn with your professional writings, please include the tone marks. The pīnyīn is incomplete and can be unintelligible when tones are ignored.

    In summary and with best intentions in mind, I urge China authors to heed my advice!

  • Harald Buchmann 4 years ago

    It seems to me, China is just more used to a much larger society. Europeans have grown up in a society, which until 100 years ago basically had a village-structure. In business, everyone in the city knew each other, while the heads of states were almost all related to each other by kin. In addition, Europe was culturally unified by a enforced school of thought of the Christian church – both Catholic and Protestant, though disagreeing in details, agreed on the monotheistic credo, that all people should believe the same. The US as an offspring of European culture has preserved a lot of this “insider culture”. China on the other hand has never had theocratic unification of thought. Attempts were made to unify thinking, some 2500 years ago, and again in the Cultural Revolution, but the base of Chinese culture has always been pluralism: as long as subjects accept the rule of the emperor, they were always free to believe what they wanted. Unified goals in life, morals, ethical convictions etc. were never requested in Chinese culture. Therefore Chinese always had the need in history, to first discover if a counterpart shares the basic ethical beliefs needed to do business. This greater openness to the culturally other leads to larger efforts in trust-building before business starts. On the other hand, once trust is established, at least for a period of time, cooperation can be extremely swift and without much hedging for risks. Often it can be too swift for Western companies’ compliance systems, causing hazards when Chinese employees trust cooperation partners so much, they send out data which the company had rather retained, or transmitted in safer ways than e-mail. This has been my experience in the two years living and working in China now.

  • MMZHLA LARSEN 4 years ago

    Great article!
    Reading the part about ‘the Chinese negotiators started asking questions the Western side believed had already been agreed on’, reminded me of the difference in logic, where Westerners use their linear version of logic and Chinese their holistic version of logic, making westerners feel the same topics are reopened again and again.

  • jimnelson2025 Nelson 4 years ago

    China is a more complicated country in that children are trained from childhood to say what they should and not what they are thinking. Thus, words do not have the same usage and people cannot trust each other in China. So they naturally learned that they could not trust their parents or anyone else and so do not trust you. http://www.chinabusinessleadership.com/2013/05/27/chinese-people-trained-politicians/ This article could help unfold that aspect.

  • Y LOO 4 years ago

    Interesting article to my, a Malaysian Chinese who came to UK in 1969. Personally, I think that Chinese, as a race, is intelligent but also generally suspicious of strangers and the unknown. Trust is the ultimate risk that one is expected to take. However, on a personal level, one can seek out naturally compatible people (or Chinese) to befriend for business or personal reasons. From my 35 years research, I have published recently a UNIQUE book: “Zodiac Guide to Successful Relationships & Careers”, where I have detailed personality traits and compatibilities between the 12 Chinese and 12 Western horoscope signs.

  • lei.yan Yan 4 years ago

    “In light of building international business, it is clear that from a Chinese perspective you will need to earn trust first before things get moving.”

    Why this difference exists? it can be a long story about how China society was formed and how evolution of the society gradually shape the culture, trust till now. There are 2 books which I read and believe can give you more background and history view which might help if you want some further reading, they have both English and Chinese version(I list English version here for your convenience), both authors have long experience of both Western and Chinese culture.
    • China: A Macro History, Ray Huang http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/China.html?id=c7PbzIoSc-0C
    • A Short History of Chinese Philosophy http://www.amazon.com/A-Short-History-Chinese-Philosophy/dp/0684836343

    From my MBA learning, I see this is an important part of people and team management related to culture. While globalization continue with more advanced technology bring many different countries’ people together in MNCs, manager need understand the culture difference between different countries. My opinion is that the trust is not only between business partners across Western and China, but also within a team inside the organization. Understanding the culture will be essential especially if a team located across the world or have member who has very different background.

    As a Chinese profession living in UK, I spent 8 months to read European History, it is really eye opening and have lots of thinking about 2 different culture, especially when read and compare to above 2 books related to China.

    • JACQUES ARNOL-STEPHAN 4 years ago

      I happen to be just coming back from Shenzhen, where I taught “win-win negotiation” to the Chinese management staff of a french company. I totally agree with both of you. Trust is pivotal when doing business (or training) in China. And the way people build trust is culture-dependent, that is history-dependent. At J2-Reliance, the ”leadership coaching” company I have founded with my partner, which is an historian, we are convinced that taking into account the cultural background isn’t only important for what is usually called inter-cultural management. It’s also of the utmost importance when dealing with different groups (companies, ethnical groups, regional groups,…) supposed to share the same background. We usually sum-up our belief through this sentence : multi-cultural starts with your neighbour. Such a belief has greatly helped me to deal with the specificities of Chinese culture and history during my training sessions. Don’t you think that listening carefully to the other one’s criteria and beliefs, taking time to that listening, is quite a transcultural need if you intend to build sustainable business relation, and not only “make a coup” ? And don’t you think that such a posture could have very beneficial effects, even “inside” western culture(s) or “inside” Chinese culture(s) ? By the way, trying to learn a bit of the other’s history could be a very relevant piece of advice in many, many cases !

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