Moving to a new city there are patterns, unknown rules, and often times one will over step without knowing so. Trying to be culturally sensitive in this new city, we thought we would simply bring interested students to the local Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Government Christian Church). We were told this was legal and it was the one place we would be able to worship together. After attending only two times, we were approached by a foreigner that had lived in that city for more than 10 years. She simply said, “Which of you have been attending the government church?” We raised our hands in this small group of foreigners. She simply said, “Yea, you can’t do that anymore. My police friend asked if you would only come at Christmas and Easter. Which means they don’t want you to attend or bring anyone to these services, anymore.” I asked her, “Why did they tell you?” She responded, “They were given an order from their leadership and they didn’t want to embarrass you nor themselves.” Indirect confrontation is the root of many honor/shame countries. I will admit that this situation left me with lots of questions and no one to ask them to. Working within this system of leadership designed to be both hierarchal and save face produces a little anxiety for the westerner that wants to understand the “why”.
More than any time previous, I began to see some of the foundational methods of confrontation and the dynamics of leadership. For the Chinese, the group’s concerns outweighs those of a single person. Society’s needs overshadowed the needs and achievements of the individual. Just as successes adds to honor, a failure similarly reflects upon the group. Actions are calculated to maximize honor and minimize shame. Right and wrong are defined in terms of bringing or taking away honor. “As long as the results bring honor, the moral issues are secondary. Success can be measured in wealth, power, or education. For example, a student who fails brings shame. Cheating leads to a positive result (good grades) and as long as they are not caught, the action has brought honor and is acceptable. However, if the student is caught, the same action brings shame. In order to preserve lost honor, the family may choose to hide the wrongful act and its consequence.”1
In a community-minded culture, people are more likely to think and act the same as their family. If individualistic cultures are about standing out and how to be innovative, communal cultures are more about keeping the harmony and blending in. As I reflected on my research within these cultures and Edwin Friedman’s view of leadership, I realized how Chinese thoughts are seemingly the antithesis of Friedman’s “differentiated leader” concepts.
In larger societies, as in families, the ability to cope can be lost as “anxiety escalates as society is overwhelmed by the quantity and speed of change and as the institutions or individuals traditionally used to absorb or bind off society’s anxiety are no longer available to absorb it” 2. Without a strong leader at the helm of the country, or the family, Chinese would feel like their boat was set adrift without direction. This country that was founded on revolution has the ability to channel that underlining aggression to create “anxiety reducing scapegoats” in an extremely effective way. When tension arises, that aggression is redirected to those that might want to publicly shame the community. This is seen in China when there are trade wars, apparent encroachment on the country either politically, geographically, or economically. The country is rallied against the “object of the day” to allow honor to be restored and anxiety to be alleviated. In such an anxiety-driven context, society becomes increasingly undifferentiated, unimaginative, unwilling to undertake risk and hyper-reactive. “Chronic anxiety might be compared to the volatile atmosphere of a room filled with gas fumes, where any sparking incident could set off a conflagration, and where people would then blame the person who struck the match rather than trying to disperse the fumes.”3
There is not the time to review the “herd-like” or even “blame displacement” concepts of Friedman in greater detail other than to say that these two concepts are utilized to create a society that love and trusts its leaders. Trust has been defined as an implicit moral duty that one person will not bring harm to the other. Trusting in leaders involves a certain vulnerability, and followers’ willingness to do so is greatly influenced by how leaders treat them. Chinese often have a view of submission and reliance on authority. This traditional view “could be one of the most influential factors influencing the relationship between differentiated empowering leadership and trust in leaders.”4 Chinese followers tend to be unconditionally obedient and loyal to their leaders. In China, leaders are treated as fathers and followers are seen as sons. Sons have the instinctive tendency to trust their fathers. Thus, these followers are less likely to be suspicious of their leader’s behavior. 5
Friedman doesn’t refer to a leader as someone who dictates to others, but to “someone who can maintain the kind of non-anxious, well-principled presence”6 that he has described. Chinese traditionally are longing for a strong leader that is able to stand strong against the changing tides of the world. This is seen as someone that is not intimidated by other nations and has helped the Chinese from being overly anxious about change. When this type of leader emerges the people feel pride and safety. They are willing to overlook the loss of, what the west would say are, personal freedoms for the good of the nation, the city, and the family. Thus, the conversation is not about right or wrong, but what brings about honor and shame.
1 Muller, Roland. Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door. Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation, 2001. Naylor, Mark. “Fear, Shame and Guilt.” Cross Cultural Impact for the 21st Century. 1 August 2010. Web. 17 August 2014.
2 Friedman, Edwin H., Treadwell, Margaret M, and Beal, Edward W. A Failure of Nerve : Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New ed. New York: Seabury Books, 2007. 57
3 Ibid. 58
4 Li, Shao-Long, Yuanyuan Huo, and Li-Rong Long. “Chinese Traditionality Matters: Effects of Differentiated Empowering Leadership on Followers’ Trust in Leaders and Work Outcomes.” Journal of Business Ethics 145, no. 1 (2017): 81-93.
5 Ibid. 91
6 Friedman, Edwin H., Treadwell, Margaret M, and Beal, Edward W. A Failure of Nerve : Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New ed. New York: Seabury Books, 2007. 89