Towards intercultural effectiveness in Sino-African organisations: Exploring synergies and differences in communication culture

The global workplace is a microcosm of wider society (Nair-Venugopal, 2015) and one of the most important contexts of intercultural interaction in the 21st century (Martin & Nakayama, 2015; Ladegaard & Jenks, 2015). The global outlook of many businesses therefore makes the notion of intercultural communication effectiveness (ICE) increasingly relevant as home and host countries interact in organisations with the need for managers to learn to function effectively in other cultures (Dean & Popp, 1990; Hammer, Gudykunst, & Wiseman, 1978). For instance, in a foreign environment, “Knowing how to listen, how to interrupt, how to praise, and how to scold, are more important to a foreign manager than learning the language” (Berger, 1987, in Dean & Popp, 1990, p. 405). It can be assumed that the same principles apply to the host country’s organisational incumbents who also strive to interact in a way that is effective for meeting their goals and maintaining their comfort and harmony.

The intercultural encounter plays out in Chinese organisations in Africa where Chinese and African counterparts bring to the organisation their espoused values and norms, developed over time, as appropriate ways to manage their specific environments (Schein, 1990). This creates a unique set of challenges and highlights the assertion that what works in one setting may not achieve similar levels of success in another (Hofstede, 1980).

Despite an abundance of theories that should serve as prescriptive guidelines for effectiveness in intercultural contexts, the continuing challenges and barriers to effectiveness raise the need to find out what being interculturally effective in different contexts involves. That said, in discussions centred on effectiveness, the International Business Trend Report (Training & Development, 1999, cited in Liu, Volcic, & Gallois, 2011) singles out intercultural communication skills, problem-solving ability and global leadership as three highly essential competencies in the global workplace. Communication has long been identified as the basis of human interaction (Samovar & Porter, 1995), and its value is evident in organisational settings in which it plays a critical role in processes from negotiation to conflict resolution, to name only a few.

China in Africa: the situation and the challenges

Illustrative of the extent of China’s involvement with Africa is the fact that only two countries in Africa have not benefited from Chinese aid (Brautigam, 2011). In addition, China’s non-discriminatory approach to financing development and infrastructure projects in various sectors has had positive spin-offs for African economies (Baah & Jauch, 2009) to the extent that today both South Africa for instance and China regard each other as “strategic partners” (Guliwe, Mkhonta, & Vickers, 2009, p. 300). This is evidenced by a strong Chinese commitment to strengthening ties, symbolised by its sponsorship of South African membership to BRICS (Park & Alden, 2013). However, as China’s presence in Africa continues to grow, so too have the complexities of the engagement. Park and Alden (2013) use the metaphor of a double storey to describe the engagement, where engagement “upstairs” involves the bilateral, multilateral, political and economic engagement between South Africa, China and other international partners, while the “downstairs” level is seen to involve processes taking place at the level of small businesses and ordinary people (Park Sc Alden, 2013).

The organisational context is situated at the downstairs level, where the challenges faced include a harsh business environment characterised by uncertainty of supply, dynamics of negotiation, resolving disputes, communication, a negative public image, coexistence, religion, personnel management (Laryea, 2010; Feng Sc Mu, 2010), trust, power distances and goal orientation (Men, 2014, in Giese, 2014). Scholars who have sought to investigate the cause and solutions for challenges report differences in cultural, behavioural and social norms as major challenges for both managers and employees (e.g. Men, 2014, cited in Giese, 2014). Illumination on the challenges faced within Chinese organisations in Africa is provided by Zhong Jianhua, China’s ambassador to South Africa from 2007 to 2012, who points out that even stable Chinese organisations with years of experience in Africa occasionally struggle with labour and social issues because of the wide gap between Chinese culture and the varied cultures of Africa’s diverse population. Dietz, Orr, and Xing (2008) concur, viewing the combination of Chinese and foreign forms of communication and cultural norms as one of the biggest challenges facing Chinese companies going abroad.

Interestingly, in a recent study in Tanzania, Men (2014) reports that Chinese people see dual adaptation by interactants as a possible solution. The Chinese should adapt to local needs and the Tanzanians should adapt to the Chinese work ethic and goals (Men, 2014, in Giese, 2014). This contrasts with the view that the extent to which Chinese employers

Sino-African intercultural effectiveness 105 develop an understanding and acceptance of local practices determines the nature of the relationship they enjoy with local employees. This is because, “local employees simply view the Chinese as different people occupying a strangely familiar role as their bosses” (Arsene, 2014, in Giese, 2014, p. 7). The perspectives presented here differ, with the Chinese perspective advocating dual adaptation while the African perspective is seemingly more one-sided. The African perspective seems to be that onus is placed on the Chinese to understand local African practices. The view presented in this chapter is that, owing to the long-term nature of the engagement, a dual consideration - each of the other - may be more profitable.

In all the challenges, a key concern highlighted by Zhong Jianhua is the inadequacy of basic in-depth research of the African market, making it impossible for the Chinese to avoid potential cultural complications (Von Schirach, 2012). Therefore, it appears that more suitable approaches are needed to achieve desired communication outcomes with minimal misunderstandings. Such approaches can only be created with the benefit of knowledge and understanding. With this in mind, a “multiview” approach (Chigwendere, 2016) to understanding communication in Chinese and African cultures is engaged. Using this approach, the synergies and differences in African and Chinese communication cultures are explored, resulting in a theoretical framework for communication between Western, Chinese and African cultures. The next section briefly presents a conceptual framework for understanding intercultural communication in African and Chinese cultures.

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