Cultivating Ethical Agility: face and assuring safety and quality in the supply chain

In this chapter, we add the concept of Ethical Agility to our Ethical Triad. The core idea of Ethical Agility is that one must not only understand the ideas of the Ethical Triad, but also be able to put them into action. This requires not just understanding the Triad, but agility in applying it. To accomplish that, i.e., to be ethically agile in China on the most basic level requires fluency with two fundamental elements of Chinese thought, behavior, and culture. These have been at work in several examples we have already considered, but not discussed in explicit detail: “face" which is the English translation of two different words in Chinese, midnzi ([fli^j") or lian (M); and guanxi which may be loosely translated as influence through reciprocal social connections.

It is safe to say that every Westerner who has ever done business in China has heard of face and gudnxi and understands them to be crucial ideas in the Chinese business environment. However, the cultural depths behind these terms are very rarely understood in adequate detail or precision. As a result, face is commonly and over-simplistically thought to involve simply flattery and sensitivity to public image while guanxi is often interpreted as cronyism, or in the worst case, as an opportunity to curry favor through bribery (Santoro, 2009, pp. 101-128). Such superficial and sometimes facile versions of face and guanxi are common, even among executives who have done a considerable amount of business in China. They are, however, misrepresentative of the authentic ethical values and principles behind these familiar terms. These inaccurate interpretations and their sometimes-cynical applications can grease the wheels of commerce in China. They work well enough on some basic level, and they require very little in the way of understanding Chinese culture or personal self-reflection and growth. However, they are very far from maximizing the power of personal-plus-business relationships. With a modicum of study and personal engagement, Western business executives can enjoy a level of cultural interaction with their Chinese counterparts that is both more effective in achieving their commercial and ethical objectives and more personally satisfying in the sense that they can achieve a more authentic experience as world travelers. The latter, we think, is a significant motive for Western businesspeople, the overwhelming majority of whom are, in our experience, in China not only to make money, but also to experience personal growth and to unlock and savor an elusive but intriguing culture. In this and the next chapter, we offer such “reflective practitioners” a more complete and accurate cultural primer on the nuances of these widely heard of, yet rarely understood, keys to unlocking Chinese ethics and effective business relationships. Understanding how to create and maintain guanxi requires understanding face first, so this chapter focuses on face while the next chapter will take up gudnxi. We will conclude this chapter by applying what we learn about face to another important and common business ethics and public policy concern—assuring safety and quality in the manufacturing supply chain.

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