While Chinese and Western companies have been doing business with each other for many years, styles of communicating often prevent them from working together as efficiently as possible.

The Chinese tend to emphasize nonverbal communication, such as body language and gestures, while Americans focus on verbal communication and directness when making business decisions. Americans use the word “no”; the Chinese use less concrete words, such as “perhaps.”

The Chinese, who tend to conduct business on the basis of relationships, are comfortable with ambiguity. Americans conduct business typically on a more quantitative basis such as value and cost, and are averse to uncertainty.

Nuances in ways of thinking also hinder understanding between the two groups. In China, people tend to think of themselves as part of a group. Americans, on the other hand, focus more on individual ideas and actions.

Failing to understand such basic differences makes it more difficult for business practitioners — both Chinese and American — to adapt when placed in a context outside the one that is most familiar to them.

My life bridges the Eastern and Western worlds. My work focuses on helping managers better understand the difference between Eastern and Western management techniques so that they can incorporate the best — and avoid the worst — of each.

Making the World Smaller

As a youth in Taiwan, I studied philosophy and the Chinese classics with a cousin of Puyi, “The Last Emperor” of China. In 1981, I moved to the United States on a quest to “make the world smaller.” It was at the University of Maryland, where I received my MBA and Ph.D. degrees, that I learned the nuances of Western culture and made my first strides toward fusing philosophies and practices of the Eastern and Western worlds.

I was fortunate to study with another great mentor, William H. Newman. Bill was a leading strategist, thinker and scholar. He served as sixth president of the Academy of Management and was a Batten Institute Fellow at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business until 2002. One of the indelible lessons Bill taught me was how to see situations from seemingly opposing perspectives.

The Eastern Paradox

The concept of “transparadox” offers us a new way of thinking about ideas that appear to contradict each other, but which may be two sides of the same coin. Transparadox proposes that principles that on the surface seem to be oppositional — such as competition and cooperation — are interrelated or even interdependent, often connected by a series of implicit links.

By making these links explicit, we can come to understand that even seemingly great differences are not irreconcilable.

The Ambicultural Executive

Given their philosophical differences, how can Easterners and Westerners successfully combine their management strategies?

Western philosophy tends to embrace individual achievement, independent action and a controlling orientation. Eastern philosophies, influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, espouse interdependence, balance and harmony.

The term ambicultural, which I coined during my research on bridging Western and Chinese management practices, may ultimately define the study of East-West management as a whole. Say it aloud and ideas like ambidexterity and cultural sensitivity come to mind. The premise is that every culture has its own strengths and weaknesses, which are manifest in that culture’s business practices.

Ambiculturalism combines the best of disparate cultures. Practicing ambiculturalism requires disciplined focus, expansiveness and proactivity. Ambicultural professionals possess traits such as:

  • Openness to new ways of thinking
  • A capacity for transcending divisions by embracing ideas from other parts of the world
  • An ability to see the wisdom and strength in other cultural and business paradigms, culminating in a deeper understanding of their own culture

But strengths cannot be gained nor weaknesses avoided until they’ve been defined. Thus scholars may, for example, examine how ambicultural integration can be applied to balance opposing organizational forces, such as innovation and tradition, or flexibility and tight control.

Bridging the Cultural Chasm

The idea of ambiculturalism is taking root. An Asian edition of Harvard Business Review translated the word into Chinese, while many business students will study the term in the new edition of an established textbook on strategic management.

It is not surprising that the idea is spreading. People are eager to find new ways to transition more easily between Eastern and Western norms, practices and expectations.

For example, during job interviews Asian companies not only consider the candidate’s competence, a focus for employers in the West, they also focus on learning about the “whole person.”

Combining the better of two cultures can help managers bridge the cultural chasm underlying them.

How You Can Become an Ambicultural Manager

The ambicultural concept applies beyond transnational business relations. Business practitioners can use the concept to navigate work styles across industries, regions and even departments within a single company.

Putting ambiculturalism into action requires a holistic approach:

  • Be observant and recognize differences in work traits.
  • Respect the differences between work cultures.
  • Seek understanding of how and why the differences exist.
  • Use the information gathered through observation to examine your own work and management approaches, in order to rise above differences.

When American businesses began to expand into different parts of the world, U.S. practices entered the global mainstream. It is our distinct cultural foundations, however, that govern the way we think, behave and make decisions. The next step — or leap — will come when leaders and managers everywhere are willing to accept that differences exist, and to consider local views while examining their own. In this way, we will be able to take the best from each others’ approaches to work and life and develop a far more effective and humane approach to globalization.

Ming-Jer Chen, Leslie E. Grayson Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, is a leading authority in strategic management. He is recognized for his pioneering work in competitive dynamics and ambicultural management. Chen is a fellow and past president of the Academy of Management and author of the book Inside Chinese Business: A Guide for Managers Worldwide.

About the Expert

Ming-Jer Chen

Leslie E. Grayson Professor of Business Administration

Chen is a leading authority in strategic management, a field that helps companies align corporate policies and resources with strategic priorities. He is recognized for his pioneering work in competitive dynamics — how firms compete and collaborate worldwide — and ambicultural management — how to integrate the best aspects of seemingly oppositional business cultures and practices, such as Eastern and Western, or competitive and cooperative.

Chen’s corporate clients include Merck, FedEx, Rolls-Royce and Tencent. His work has been featured frequently in global media, including ForbesThe Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, and he contributes a regular column to Harvard Business Review (Chinese). Chen’s article “Becoming Ambicultural: A Personal Quest and Aspiration for Organizations,” based on his 2013 Academy of Management president’s speech, appeared in Academy of Management Review in 2014.

B.S., National Taipei University; MBA, Ph.D., University of Maryland