I had a Chinese boss.
She hated to give out appreciation or any sort of compliment. She’s quick to dish out criticism though. The no compliment/rule by fear management style is very much weaved into the fabric of Chinese culture.
In one of our latest team meetings, some of my colleagues and I (we’re all Westerners) finally spilled out everything we'd be feeling since the day we stepped foot into the school.
We were really honest. We told her it’s pretty brutal to only hear negative things about your performance at work. We told her we’re human and want to feel valued and that doing a good at work is important to us. We all had personal stories to cite.
Only hearing, “why aren't you as social and happy as this person? Parents like when you are happy!!” and “this parent said these awful things about you and you need to fix them” made us feel like we were filming Office Space 2 and also that we were doing a really poor job.
There was a drawn out silence. It was clear she was tearing up.
After about 20 seconds, she muttered softly, “I don’t know how to do it.”
Tears came flowing.
Because she’s Chinese, she said, she’s worried about the language barrier and using the right words and a few other reasons that I didn’t fully understand.
But we all know that's not the truth. The truth was hidden deeper, which we found out a few minutes later.
Years ago she was a teacher at the school before she became a director. And she had been shown very little appreciation.
“You want to talk about appreciation? I’ve been here for 7 years and not one person has celebrated my birthday.”
“I used to hide in the classrooms at work because I was so afraid of my bosses screaming at me. I felt like a little mouse running from the creaks in the floor, I was so scared to see and interact with anyone. But I got through it, and you should too. You have to motivate yourself and find ways to handle it.”
Power makes us do strange things. And fulfilling the status quo, doing what we deem is acceptable based on established precedents, is perversely satisfying. Sometimes way more satisfying than doing something we know is right, but has an uncertain or risky outcome.
After all, if you vehemently hated something, and now you’re in a position powerful enough to change it, wouldn’t you do it? Don’t you have the responsibility to do it?
We feel we can’t be successful unless we’re following the previous order exactly. Unless we're doing exactly what the guy before us did.
Admittedly, I do it too. Whenever I'm writing, I cringe at the idea of following a different formula than what other successful bloggers have used. Whenever I'm coaching a client, I hesitate to offer advice that I haven't heard from another communications expert before.
But it's bullshit. You're a slave to fear and the opinion of others. The quality of advice you give, the creative work you do, the solutions you offer will all be second rate. Your ideas full of doubt and unoriginal. The people around you suffer. The world suffers.
The next day after the meeting, my colleagues and I chipped in and bought our boss a spa day as a belated birthday present. The first one she's ever gotten.
China wasn't built in a day.