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Trudeau teaches us guanxi

If too many managers fail because of an insensitivity to the importance of soft skills, is that because they are primarily “takers?”
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, on Aug. 31. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool

By Ian Hendry

This past week, our prime minister, accompanied by his family so he doesn’t miss a photo opportunity, made his first official visit to China in an effort to re-build commercial ties.

Asked how it went, our international trade minister, Chrystia Freeland offered two words: "little potato." The explanation is that Trudeau's name sounds similar to the Mandarin word for potato.

Freeland added that the "little" comes from the fact Trudeau's father Pierre would have been "senior potato." If memory serves me well, it was in 1994 that Jean Chretien and Team Canada visited China on a trade mission, and the patriarchs of the family-owned investment dealer I worked for back then, participated on the trip.

I vividly recall the impression I got that Chinese companies wanted to build relationships with well-established, hierarchical, family-owned businesses. So Trudeau’s approach to focus on the implicit understanding that Canada has to develop guanxi, made great sense. Guanxi is a concept rooted in a sense of reciprocity, and familiarity, which marks the beginning of a relationship, leads to trust and ultimately one hopes, to reciprocity.

Some of you will know the name Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, and a leading authority on generational diversity in the workplace. Long-time members may remember Tulgan’s visit to Toronto quite a few years ago. He has just recently provided the results of his August survey in which he asked, which is more important in an employee: hard/technical skills, or soft skills.

The results would surprise very few in HR - soft skills won by a landslide. Why? The commentary observed that you absolutely must have hard/technical skills in order to do a job in the first place. Without the hard skills, you simply cannot do the work. So one might assume that soft skills won because the hard skills are almost taken for granted: You can’t be a nurse unless you’ve been educated and certified. You can’t be a computer programmer unless you can write code. And so on. You either have the hard skills, or your employer will teach you.

But soft skills are far more elusive, harder to measure, harder to teach, and the impact of poor soft skills is sometimes more subtle until the consequences come crashing down. The cliché is that, “people get hired for their hard skills, but they get fired because of their lack of soft skills.”

As I was thinking about reciprocity, Adam Grant’s work about “givers, takers, or matchers,” came to mind. Reciprocity is, after all, the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, so it made me wonder if Canada’s idea of tit-for-tat (matchers) is the same as China’s view of even- handed business?

In the same vein, if too many managers fail because of an insensitivity to the importance of soft skills, is that because they are primarily “takers?” Results at any price can work for a while, but arguably not long term. Grant’s research focused on what it takes to succeed. Talent is key, of course, but effort, persistence, and drive are just as critical.

However, Grant identified a third, previously invisible, element: A person’s “reciprocity style.” In fact, it might not be surprising that most of us hate “takers” and feel somewhat elated when they meet their comeuppance. Indeed, one-sided relationships should not be considered as partnerships, and over the years employees in different organizations have pointed out that the term of “partner” for employees should never be used when views, or opinions, from the workforce have never been sought.

It is interesting to note that many of us actually operate an emotional bank account in our heads when we help others. A favour done by us today creates a deposit, with the accompanying thought that a returned favour may be forthcoming at a later date. For most recipients, there is a genuine intention to return such a favour.

However, if the relationship is one-sided, the giver continues to amass deposits to the account, to the point of being somewhat resentful. When we feel we are being taken advantage of, the relationship starts to strain. In a business setting, those staff belonging to the business that’s on the giving end may start to resent, or bad-mouth, the receiving business, wondering why they always have to help out the other business, or its staff, when the flow doesn’t go both ways.

An unenlightened leader may satisfy her own agenda in a meeting, without even considering that the giving party is expecting something of substantive value in return. Leadership requires relationships that add mutual value.

The moment a leader takes the relationship for granted – there is no relationship. In our business lives, I’m sure we all know colleagues who are inclined to be “takers.” Based on Grant’s findings, a lack of reciprocity might be a killer, so a good coach to a wayward executive might seek for him/her to calculate the balances in key stakeholder emotional bank accounts.

It is said that Trudeau is building relationships for the long haul. Given China’s size and importance as a trading partner, such a tack makes great sense, and, let us keep in mind that reciprocity in every day relationships is important for our own success. It is much better to be a creditor, but avoid bad loans.

Ian Hendry

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