During the Shanghai course, we had many speakers mention “Guanxi.” This is basically the relationship you have with someone, whether that be friend or business relationship. This guanxi is crucial to building a personal brand in China and it goes even further to address the reputation you achieve through these relationships. At it’s basest level, it’s networking but unlike the networking we do in America in 3 key ways.
The Bragging Trend
This is not a society of “I”s but “We”s. When our highly accomplished speakers came to talk to us about their companies, even if they were President of the entire organization, it was always about what “we’ve” accomplished. Rarely, if ever, did I hear them mention what awesome thing they’ve been able to achieve or how they’ve come so far in their career. That being said, they were very, very proud of their accomplishments, going so far as to show long slideshows detailing what their company has achieved and all the milestones they’ve reached. There is a definite bragging trend in the way they present themselves, however, it’s a communal accomplishment and that seems to be a key difference from Americans. I know that I have personally waxed on about all the achievements I’ve made and how far I’ve come. In fact, it is not an uncommon interview question in the US and one that I think most people answer with some huge personal achievement. So how can you build a personal reputation in China if you don’t talk about yourself?
A “Doing” Reputation
When we network in America, we are always looking at what someone can ultimately do for us. And when we figure out how we can connect and potentially build, it is rarely about getting to know each other and the excitement of working together, as people. However, part of networking in the US is that, because of this lack of personal stake, some things never get done. It’s all talk. In China, you have no relationship, no reputation until you do something about it. This goes beyond just the relationship but to the way deals are negotiated. We were told that “Yes” means “Maybe” or sometimes, “No,” and “No” means “Maybe.” The reason for this ambiguity is largely due to the fact that no deal is really done until the work has been commenced, and even then, sometimes deals are negotiated further if someone has not been forthright with the amount of effort or resources needed. In the US, once the contract is signed, we assume someone will follow through, and if they don’t, they broke the law so we’ll just sue them. This is not how things are done in China, the relationship comes first, and therefore, mediation and respecting the actual work is what achieves things and builds someone’s “doing” reputation.
So, you know what you’ve achieved and can talk about it in a humble, communal way. You follow through and understand how that factors in to creating relationships. The third component to building guanxi is managing “face.” In China, everyone is highly sensitive to the impact a certain action can have on their “face” or reputation. This could be as simple as accepting a meal or drinking with a potential business colleague, where they are trying to demonstrate respect and trust toward you, and if you decline, you have embarrassed them or made them regret that decision of trust. Or, it could impact whether or not you get a job. In a country of over a billion people, resumes are not enough to differentiate you. You must be keenly aware of the relationships you are building and if you are respected, trusted, and have a solid reputation. This is why someone’s “face” is so important. Almost everyone in China is hired because they are referred to the position. Family and village relationships play a key role, like what region your family is from, as well as who you have helped in the past or who you have shown respect toward. If you can be trusted AND if you can demonstrate that you know how to respect others, then you are more likely to be hired or selected for a project or acknowledged as a business colleague. Managing both your “face” and giving weight to other’s “face” is a key component to building guanxi in China.