Main Cultural Elements
Aspects of Chinese culture mentioned in this article (click on each for more information)
As an American who highly values efficiency, I’ve always been annoyed by the huge number of suggestion boxes at businesses in China. They seem to be: 1) everywhere, 2) always empty. (Also, there are usually no pencils or paper provided.)
Because these seem so useless to me, when I took over as general manager of my current company 4 years ago, one of the first things I did was decide not to have a suggestion box. It had been sitting there empty for ages, the HR manager couldn’t remember it being used, the decision seemed obvious to me.
A few months ago, I reinstated it. We now have a digital employee suggestion box (it’s a QR code you scan with your phone). How much I’ve learned!
The main purpose of the suggestion box is, surprisingly, not to get suggestions. Its existence is symbolic and sends an indirect message from the leader to the rest of the people, whether they be customers or, in my case, employees. The important thing is that there is a box and it’s visible to everyone.
By NOT having a suggestion box, I was sending the indirect message to my staff: “I don’t care about your needs” or maybe, “I’m too high above you to listen to your opinions.” In the high power-distance of Chinese culture, the normal people can easily forgive the leader for not wanting to listen to everyone. But it would be better if he would.
When I realized this (which is a different story), I asked our Chinese HR manager, “Do you think by NOT having the box, the staff feels like I don’t want to hear from them.”
She smiled slightly and said, “Maybe.” I took that to mean “yes,” but wanted to confirm so I changed tactics.
“I’m thinking of having a digital suggestion box that goes straight to me. Do you think the staff would be happy about that or would it make them uncomfortable?” She immediately replied that they would be happy and the fact that I, the general manager, would be the only one checking it is a big plus.
I discussed with her the culture of open communication we’ve worked so hard to cultivate here.
“Isn’t it kind of a failure to need something like this?” I asked her. “Shouldn’t people who have suggestions feel free to talk directly to their teammates or supervisors? Why would they need a special box to make suggestions to me, when the best person to hear the suggestions is almost certainly NOT me?”
She then confirmed my belief that it promotes goodwill to have the opportunity to submit things this way, even if no one ever does.
“Do you think anyone would use it?” I asked as a final confirmation question.
“Let’s put it up and see!” she replied enthusiastically. So we did.
The Chinese word for “suggestion box” is yì jiàn xiāng 意见箱 which also means “complaint” box. My experience has been mostly complaints or negative suggestions go in these boxes (if any). Constructive or positive complaints don’t need to be put in a box. Chinese are happy to give those directly and be associated with giving them.
For ours, I actually used the slightly more positive word jiàn yì 建议 for “suggestion” which helps convey to my staff what I hope they’ll use it for.
The 3rd Culture
When working across cultures, sometimes the result is that a new culture is created. That is known as the “3rd Culture” since it isn’t either of the original two.
Actually, our digital suggestion box for employees violates one of the primary principles of the Chinese view of the whole point: it should be anonymous. But ours is automatically linked with your name and work ID.
This is a compromise because of the unique corporate culture we are trying to cultivate here. In my company we have explicitly said we prize honesty and communication very highly. We are willing to accept criticism and complaints if they include action steps or suggestions for how to improve.
But we have also explained that we do not value anonymous complaints because they are difficult to follow up on, and maybe inaccurately skewed because of the protection provided by criticizing safely.
In a low trust culture like China’s, any criticism carries with it a fear or retaliation. “If I say something bad about my boss, then my boss will find out it was me and I will ultimately suffer for it.”
That is true everywhere. But in China, the default is not to trust anyone until he/she has slowly and consistently proven to be trustworthy. The high power-distance of the leader, makes building that trust even slower. Also, in complaining to the leader gets progressively scarier the more “levels” are skipped in the process: that many more people to retaliate.
However, I have hopefully built enough of a strong track record with my staff for them to know that they will receive as much protection as possible when lodging a formal complaint. Of course, some may feel it’s too risky even so and may decline to use the current system I’ve setup. I’m willing to miss a valid, anonymous complaint for the sake of this culture building. (Besides, if someone’s really desperate, he can just slip a note under my office door late at night.)
During the first 6 months of having our digital suggestion box, 3 people wrote notes to me. One was an actionable piece of advice (and complaint), the other two seemed to be just venting frustration. One even admitted at the end, “I don’t have any suggestion, but I feel better not that I’ve expressed this.”
My reply was the same to all 3: “Thank you for your message. I received it!”
I did follow up with the actionable point, and the staffs’ anonymity was protected. I went to the department head involved and said, “I got a note in the suggestion box that said…” I tried to make it clear that I expected the manager to investigate and make his own decision, rather than just doing whatever the suggestion box said. In the end, I think a small adjustment was made to the procedure in question.
So with so few suggestions submitted, do I feel it is a failure? On the contrary. I’m very happy we have it. I even want to put one up for the customers now!
My Chinese Wife’s Perspective
“We won’t usually be thinking about whether we have a suggestion box or not. But there are 3 times when we will realize we want it, and if we don’t have it, that will be perceived as the leader not caring:
1) If we want to complain about something, and don’t have a way to do it.
2) If we hear someone else complain, and we want to refer them to use the suggestion box.
3) If it gets pointed out that everyone else’s companies all have a suggestion boxes, and we’re the only ones who don’t.”
Analogy and Summary
In my home culture, it feels similar to a wedding invitation from a family member. Do I really need to receive a wedding invitation from my own sister? No, but I might notice it if other people got one and I didn’t. I would think it’s sending me an indirect message that I’m not as welcome to attend as others are. The point is not to convey information about the time and place (although it does that too), the point is to make me feel sure I’ve been officially invited.
My mistake was thinking about the suggestion box as an information gathering tool. The Chinese, on the other hand, justify the existence of a suggestion box not because it can convey information (although, it is occasionally used for that!). It is primarily an invitation, a public sign of good will from the lofty boss to the normal people. And if it’s not there, it’s felt.
As Oscar Wilde would have said: “The Chinese feel the only thing worse than having an empty suggestion box, is NOT having an empty suggestion box.”
From the series “In Chinese Shoes,” all about decoding and sympathizing with cultural topics that baffle Westerners. See other articles from this series below.