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Culture Edition, Life 7 Tips For Coaching Chinese Clients, Players & Employees


By: CT Johnson •  4 years ago •  

One million. That’s how many of the people living in Australia right now were either born in China, or are the children of parents born in China. Quite suddenly, Chinese clients, players and employees have become a significant part of the business and athletic worlds in Australia.

The Chinese are culturally VERY different from most Westerners, and typically present a significant challenge to Australian coaches wanting to engage with them. These differences are numerous and varied – Aussies communicate in a direct way whereas the Chinese tend to be very indirect; Aussies want to cut down the tall poppy whereas the Chinese are worried about face; Australians want everyone to pay attention to the rules, whereas the Chinese think that relationships are far more important; the list goes on. In the face of these differences, coaches may wonder if they should adjust their traditional coaching methods to meet the needs of this increasingly important group.

The Big Three

For Australians, successfully coaching Chinese clients, players and employees is a matter of getting three things right – positioning, goals, and communications. You can think of it a bit like ingredients in a recipe. Getting one wrong probably isn’t fatal, but it can make the experience unpleasant for everyone involved.

Positioning refers to the degree of authority you hold in the eyes of your Chinese client or player. It’s easy to get positioning wrong because the fundamental assumptions of Australian and Chinese are opposed – Aussies believe everyone is basically equal, whereas the Chinese believe everyone is basically UNEQUAL. They are deeply hierarchical and everything about your interaction with them will be determined by your position in their eyes. If you’re coaching a 12-year old netball player, you can be pretty sure you’re in the position of authority and that what you say goes; if you’re coaching a 45-year old Chinese multimillionaire executive, your positioning is likely to be significantly more complicated.

Goals are the targets you’ve set as a coach, and they produce the subtlest problems. The Chinese tend to value processes with a face-increasing purpose (e.g. practicing the violin in order to become a virtuoso), whereas Australians are often focused on end goals and lifestyle benefits (e.g. winning the championship and developing lifelong friends). This can sometimes lead to goal misalignments that cause problems for coaches.

Communications encompasses both what you say and what they hear. It produces the most obvious and most prolific problems. From language to style to content to context, there are literally dozens of opportunities in any given coaching session for Australians to miscommunicate with their Chinese clients, players and employees. Your instructions may have been clearly given, but were they clearly understood? That’s a whole separate issue.

Seven tips

Given the yawning differences between the two sides, what can Australians do to more effectively coach their Chinese charges? Based on wide research and personal observation, I’d offer the following seven tips.

Tip # 1: Understand Your Role

Hands down the biggest coaching mistake I ever made with a Chinese person was the result of me misunderstanding my role. I was hired by a Chinese company to coach an executive who was taking a more global role. Because I was far more experienced than my client, I thought my role was to instruct and teach her. That was a role that would have put me in a dominant position, acting as the teacher. In fact, she wanted something entirely different – she wanted a cheerleader, someone who deferred to her and made helpful suggestions for enacting the decisions she’d already made. It turned out badly for everyone. She didn’t get what she wanted and I was frustrated that she routinely ignored my advice. So get clear on your role up front.

Tip # 2: Focus On The Process

Chinese people tend to be more interested in the process than Westerners are. Because of the comparatively greater value placed on effort in Chinese culture, they are far more likely to be motivated about following a process than about going after a goal they’re unsure of attaining. I once had a Chinese friend tell me that “work smarter, not harder” was just an excuse for being lazy.

In fact, Chinese people can sometimes be demotivated by big, far-away goals (e.g. setting a new record) if they think they might fail in the attempt and thereby lose face. Emphasise the process – for instance, writing a blog post every day – rather than the end point – e.g. becoming an established authority on a subject by publishing a book.

Tip # 3: Go Step By Step

One of the first phrases I learned working with Chinese clients is “yi bu yi bu,” which means “step-by- step.” This came up virtually every time I spoke to my team of employees in China, and was re-emphasised every time I presented an idea up the line. The Chinese like to see things broken down into smaller steps, preferably each with its own milestone. So create a set of steps that lets your client or player know where you’re taking them in the coaching journey.

Tip # 4: Remember The Hierarchy

As discussed, the Chinese are very hierarchical, and where you fit into that hierarchy makes a big difference on how you should interact with them. To the extent that if you’re in a higher, more authoritative position, you should be directive – tell your client, player or employee what to do rather than asking them or suggesting things to them. If you are in a lower, less authoritative position, remember to be deferential and present your ideas as suggestions.

Tip # 5: Stop Barking

While it’s questionable whether it’s a good idea to be aggressive and overbearing with anyone you’re coaching, it’s definitely not a good idea with Chinese clients. If you’re in a more authoritative position, you’ll simply get an endless string of meaningless “yesses” to everything you say. If you’re supposed to be in a supportive role, you’ll offend your client and take a long step towards getting fired. For me, one of the hardest things about coaching a Chinese team was getting them to give me honest feedback about how THEY felt and what THEY wanted. Chinese people are unaccustomed to giving direct feedback to authority figures and their default is simply NOT to do so. Barking will only make that worse.

Tip # 6: Make Them Repeat It Back

When trying to communicate clearly with Chinese people, there are three factors working against you. First, the issue of face – Chinese people are sensitive about looking foolish. Nodding and saying “yes” is a good way of covering up the fact that they don’t understand.

Second, their English fluency may not be what you think it is. If someone uses the word “business” correctly in a sentence, it may trick you into thinking they also know the meaning and usage of the words “firm”, “corporation” an “multinational” equally well. But maybe they don’t, and you can cause a lot of confusion by assuming they do.

Third, cultural references are often confusing. “He knocked it for six” and “she’s killing it” literally have no meaning in Mandarin, and can be interpreted in a way that’s the opposite of what they mean. To avoid misunderstanding, make your Chinese clients and players repeat things back to you, to ensure that what you said is what they heard.

Tip # 7: Be Aware Of Context

Chinese culture is enormously contextual. Virtually nothing means what you think it does just on the face of it. Instead, the broader picture – what friends and family think, how this will make them look, how others are positioned relative to them – has a huge bearing on the interpretation Chinese people put on words and deeds. This is very important when dealing with someone who’s in a junior position, like a middle manager or a young athlete. In both cases, what the person being coached wants will be significantly impacted by what the relevant authority figure wants. If you believe a Chinese player is better suited to a different position than the one they’re playing, you need to involve their parents in that discussion. If you think a corporate client needs to push back more on their boss, that’s probably going to be very hard advice for them to follow. So try to be aware of context.

Essentially, the Chinese are no different than Australians in terms of what they want – better performance, more security, to be recognised, to be successful. But they operate from a different cultural palette and often our approaches need to be adjusted to make ourselves more relevant and useful as coaches. Following these seven tips won’t fix every problem you’ll run into with your Chinese clients, players and employees, but they’re a good start.

CT Johnson is a business coach who specialises in helping Australians engage with Chinese clients and Chinese markets. He is the author of “Riding The Dragon: Managing Your Chinese Investors, Partners and Employees”.

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