I have been curious about how Chinese projects in Namibia build and manage cross-cultural teams. Chinese and Namibians’ organisational values differ significantly.
One place you can unearth the differences and sometimes the similarities is the identity of an individual Namibian and an individual Chinese within a group.
In a Chinese group, there is no I and as a result personhood exists within a group only. This group’s main pre-occupation is harmony and harmony is achieved by daily saving and giving face to each other and creating inter-dependence.
Saving face and giving face which is linked to hierarchy, power and morality is salient to the Chinese. Losing face and/or not giving face, which is the basis for respect and morality, is a big sin among the Chinese. Many local staff have lost their jobs and lost their Chinese supervisor’s good will because of lack of face.
Those who are not competent with face-based interaction are immoral and a threat to Chinese group harmony. As a face management strategy to this face threatening dynamics, in-groups are formed. Chinese react and treat those that are regarded as in-group differently from those that are out-group. The perception of racism, interactional injustice and unfairness grow wings here.
Namibian staff are disadvantaged by this team formation because Chinese peers and supervisors are unable to functionally interact with them or let alone pass skills and desirable work ethics to them. Another value that supports Chinese harmony is inter-dependence.
Inter-dependence between the Chinese supervisor and Chinese subordinate is created by discreetly exchanging favours both at work and outside of work and securing long term reciprocal obligations. Favours can be working extra hours, getting feedback on your work, getting a favourable work assignment, promotion and solving personal problems.
Favours and obligations between a supervisor and a subordinate create an interdependent personal relationship called Guanxi. In allocation of resources to employees, both affective and instrumental, Chinese supervisors consider the quality of Guanxi between them first.
This relationship creates a psychological contract that is more important in the eyes of a Chinese supervisor than the formal contract given to employees. This relationship, however, cannot be formed if you do not have the face interaction and the Guanxi building skills. Good news is these are trainable competencies. However, from the two harmony management strategies, you may appreciate why local staff perceive Chinese interaction and relationship [management] as racist and unfair and how it could compromise their productivity, perception of procedural justice and essentially organisational effectiveness.
In Namibia, personhood exists outside of a group. While we respect legitimate power and hierarchy, what really holds us together is a common goal that is executed institutionally, hence the communal interaction. While Chinese emphasises personal trust, local staff emphasise institutional trust.
This explains the different attitude towards supervisors by the Namibian and Chinese staff. Chinese projects have to be aware of these differences and streamline attitude and values in a cross-cultural fashion.
• Raymond Thikukutu is the founder, Director: Interaction, Relationship and Management (IRM) a training organisation that looks at how we interact, form relationships and looks at how those dynamics inform human resources management strategy in a multi-cultural environment.