The 12 most common mistakes made while negotiating in China.

The 12 most common mistakes made while negotiating in China.

The Chinese business culture.

During all these years living and working in Asia, my work team and I have discovered some mistakes people repeatedly make when negotiating in China.

On the one hand, the success of business deals in “The Asian Giant” must be based on relationships. Creating a network of solid, timeless relationships with employees, collaborators, partners, providers, clients, the government, public administration, controllers and even with your own competition is a building block of those formidable bases.

On the other hand, it is necessary to maintain control over one’s goals and operation management.

Clearly, these two goals are in conflict. According to this situation, we should listen to everyone and conciliate with the parties that will be pushing for their own interests. If we don’t, the competitive Chinese environment will take us out of the game. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of our own objectives, and we must develop our own, effective strategy in order to achieve them.

If we establish an adequate, healthy balance between these two situations, the success of our business in China is guaranteed!

What prompted me to write this article is the experience of our professional team, that of many other companies and my own. Throughout the years, we have seen Western managers make a series of repetitive mistakes that we have classified and grouped into twelve categories.

I hope this list will help those professionals who start their “Chinese adventure” to adjust their negotiation strategies and to avoid making these mistakes once again.

The 12 negotiation mistakes most often repeated in China + a Chinese proverb connected with each one.

Smiling multi-ethnic business people in a meeting

1. Walking around without a plan.

It is difficult to have a detailed guide with every terrain feature and an accurate route, but we must always have a GPS at hand for our day-to-day activities. In China, more than anywhere else, we need a plan and a strategy to guide our work toward the goals we have established.

“Shoot the arrow with a target in mind”.

2. Lack of solid basis and help.

Our task, the goals of our company and future achievements are determined and influenced by the support and structure of our central hub in origin. It is essential to be able to rely on them and their support.

“People who cross the river on the same boat help each other”.

3. Selling the bear’s skin before hunting it.

We must not consider a negotiation closed or a result achieved before it really is done. In China, the only constant factor is change, and they happen overnight.

“What is lost when the sun rises is restored when it sets”.

4. Losing control of our strategy.

We must generate and build relationships without losing sight of our own objectives.

“Negotiating with a tiger asking for its skin”.

5. Failure to find a travel companion. Once found, lack of supervision of the relationship.

This applies to employees, collaborators, partners, suppliers, etc.

It’s important to find them quickly, but more so to monitor their behavior and nourish the relationship.  

“A close neighbor is better than a distant relative”.

6. Letting go and making decisions based on past experiences.

As the saying goes in the Stock Market, “past successes don’t guarantee future profits”.

Let’s remember something very important, “the only constant aspect in China is change”, and besides, the Chinese always report the bad news at the end.

 “Clear skies can suddenly unleash a storm”.

China Letter Flag

7. Failure to seek and create commonalities.

Let’s build bridges and create common interests to overcome deeper cultural differences instead of relying on superficial commonalities.

“What starts as a small difference ends up as a colossal inequality”.

8. Applying Western HR standards and concepts in China.

We must have sufficient personality and attitude to positively implement what we know and bring in from our background, as well as significant adaptive capacity to learn from China and its HR culture.

“Just as you follow its turns when you get into an estuary, you follow their customs when you enter a country”.

9. Letting them decide for you.

First, you listen to everyone, then “you” decide.

It’s essential to manage this aspect and achieve optimum balance.

“If you don’t go into the tiger’s den, how can you seize its cubs?”

10. Failure to create relationships, guanxi, in good times, and doing it out of necessity.

There is no use in trying to create relationships in the very moment we are in trouble.

We must nurture and water plants in the fall so we get shade in the summer.

“Don’t go without a reason to the Temple of the Three Treasures”.

11. Mixing up business and personal environments.

Regardless of how good relationships are, we must not forget these are business relationship.

“Of a tiger you can only draw its skin, not its bones; of a person, you can only know their face, not their heart”.

12. Failure to understand that in China, many things are not what they seem.

I repeat! Let’s not forget that in China, the only constant thing is change, and maybe many things are not what they seem.

“Hanging a sheep’s head and selling dog’s meat”.

Bottom line.

Asian Business Handshake

Good planning, focusing on our goals and fluid communication with the central office will help minimize these errors.

Although these mistakes are just that, “mistakes”, and all of them can be rectified, it is best to pay attention and avoid them so that they won’t impact our successful management in China.

Finally, here are some Chinese proverbs that, in addition to being interesting, allow us to know a little bit more their popular and business culture.

A journey of a thousand li (two li equal a kilometer) starts with the first step.

The previous generation plants trees and the next one finds cover under their shade.

Gold and jade in the outside and rotten cotton in the inside.

Although they sleep in the same bed, they caress different dreams.

He who tied the bell around the tiger’s neck must take it out by himself.

There is no feast without end in the world.

It is easy to change the course of rivers and mountains, but it is difficult to change a man’s nature.

See you in China!

  Article published in Directors & Managers  



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