Last week, I returned from a speaking tour of Asia where American bravado met Chinese humility.
I am a leadership and motivation speaker who tells people to expect success, make decisions with confidence and to advertise their strengths and wins. That is the exact opposite of the Chinese way, which is to be humble and sense that failure looms.
I just got an e-mail from my new friend, Elmer Cheng, who is senior manager of product development for Polygroup -- the company that manufactures most of the artificial Christmas trees and backyard swimming pools in the U.S. He is the 24-year-old son of Paul Cheng, the patriarch and founder of the company.
When I was in Hong Kong, I interviewed the family for a book I am writing about leadership, globalization and the Chinese way. I woke up to an e-mail today where Elmer gave me something significant to ponder.
"We do not know how to handle praise very well," he wrote of the Chinese people. "We are always unsure how to respond and it is almost borderline embarrassing. Of course, praise is always welcome but in practical terms, some Chinese may see it as useless, because receiving it does not teach you how to improve or maintain success. Receiving criticism on the other hand, gives you a path of what needs to be done. What drives us is the fear of failure and not a moment of praise. Success is always temporary, failure lasts much much longer."
That is the exact opposite of what American business leaders are coached to do. While it seems a little dark, this Chinese concept interests me because, for them, it seems like it is an equally effective model for success. They obviously are doing something that works. Last year, Polygroup was recognized as Walmart's supplier of the year for the fifth time.
I don't imagine I'd get much business as a motivational speaker speaker on leadership if I stood in front of major corporations telling people to hunker down and fear failure. While some of the American business leaders I know don't brag on themselves, few will underrate or abbreviate what they have done.
When I interviewed many business people in China and Taiwan, almost all minimized their achievements. When I would ask them to summarize their successes, I got a lot of silence and stares -- not because they didn't know, not because their achievements were classified information, but because that simple, ice-breaking question caused real discomfort for them. I'd been told that the Chinese people were humble, but I never expected that humility to be so pronounced.
Would they be more successful if they stopped fearing failure and started pounding on their chests saying, "I'm successful! I'm wonderful! And, doggone it, people like me!" I don't know. The Law of Attraction, which says our thoughts create our reality, has spawned a self-help industry in the U.S. where people have tapped into the their inner guru to remind themselves that anything is possible if they expect success. Elmer Cheng showed me that much is possible by respecting failure and shutting up about the victories.
I told him I am going to post an article about his thoughts on the Huffington Post, one of America's top ten websites. His response? "You can use my quote but can I remain anonymous?" I told him it is important for me to use his name so readers will know I didn't make anything up. Reluctantly, he agreed.