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Week 2 Opinion

When Promoting D&I in China, Localizing Strategy is Key

Keep the purpose, objectives and intended outcomes intact but localize everything else.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of D&I In Practice.

This week in China is an important one as the lunar calendar marks the Year of the Pig. Let’s take this as an opportunity to consider D&I in China as well as some of the key steps to take as you localize your D&I strategy in different markets. 

I’ve been fascinated with inclusion for most of my life and it was a main driver of my adventure from my home of Toronto to China in 2006. What’s kept me in this region for more than a decade is the only constant I’ve observed over these years: change. That, and the people I’ve met that are embracing that change along with me. As a non-Chinese person living here, I have found an open-mindedness that will break through a lot of the traditional stereotypes one may hold about this place and its people. Constant change has brought with it a well-developed learning muscle. There is a genuine appetite to grow in awareness and adopt best-in-class tools and strategies. Passionately curious, I keep at it, and it’s been an incredible journey every step of the way. 

When I asked about diversity back in 2006, several people shared a classic Chinese idiom with me: The bird which takes the lead gets shot first, understood as nonconformity gets punished.

I remember coaching one executive woman. In the middle of one session, her phone rang, and it was her daughter’s school demanding that she come and pick her up immediately. “Your daughter is not dressed appropriately for the field trip,” the teacher said. My client was shocked; she had dropped off her daughter at the school herself in the morning in her full uniform. “She is not toting her official school backpack. It will cause her to stick out on our field trip, therefore she is not welcome.” And just like that, the museum trip was off and our session was over.

Fast forward to 2019. One of my clients was just telling me about her daughter’s school, where they have a “creativity day” every Tuesday for children to pursue an activity of their choice. It’s an individualized learning experience where teachers help the students to explore and stretch themselves in endeavors that will nurture their personal growth. Her daughter is 8. 

For inclusion, the change is no less remarkable. Back in 2006, I found inclusion was not a word (let alone a concept) that people were thinking about and bringing it up often led to confusion in one way or another. In 2009, President Hu Jintao used the term “inclusive growth” at the 17th APEC Economic Leaders Meeting and it showed up again at the 5th APEC Human Resources meeting the following year. Since then, it has become a lot more mainstream. With the Belt and Road Initiative at the top of the government agenda, we’re hearing President Xi pushing publicly for “an open global economy focused on innovation and inclusion.”

"I have found an open-mindedness that will break through a lot of the traditional stereotypes one may hold about this place and its people. Constant change has brought with it a well-developed learning muscle. There is a genuine appetite to grow in awareness and adopt best-in-class tools and strategies."

Let me share some of the key things I’ve learned along the way working with top organizations at different stages of localizing diversity and inclusion strategy into China. 

  1. Don't make assumptions about how D&I is being understood on the ground. Create opportunities for facilitated discussions so people can connect and relate to the concepts in their own way.

    While gender, race, LGBT, disability, etc., may be the diversity dimensions your organization prioritizes and tracks globally, don’t assume these are the dimensions people relate to on the ground.

    In our course, Understanding Diversity and Inclusion, we guide participants to dissect the dimensions of diversity within their existing teams and look through a diversity lens at the highest and lowest performing teams they’ve been part of throughout their careers. Consistently, managers in China will identify expertise (functional background, product experience, etc.), company tenure, education background (specific school they attended, level of their degree, etc.), age, hometown (province, rural/urban upbringing, etc.) and personality (introverted vs extraverted, etc.) as being important dimensions that have led to better decision-making, increases in output, and more innovative solutions.

    Seeing and valuing different perspectives from different angles is not a new concept to China. There is a well-known ancient Chinese poem that reads, “A mountain, when viewed in face, may look like a range; when viewed from the side, it may look like a peak.”

    That’s not to say that gender and race are not important here, but it’s about acknowledging that the biggest global dimensions may not be so obvious at first. I’ve observed that when certain dimensions are pushed without discussion it can have a negative impact, and invoke people to either shut off (as in “this has no relevance to me”) or become defensive (as in “you don’t know” and “I know” kind of thinking.)  

    This approach of opening up how we look at diversity doesn’t have to work against metrics. I’ve observed how important metrics are in linking to transparency, accountability, even action, especially in this last few years as we’ve all tried to figure out how to meaningfully measure inclusion. And I’ve found that this approach works well to keep us grounded in the “D&I why.”

    As I am doing this work across different industries, languages and cultures, I’m consistently reminded of the universality that every person wants to feel seen, heard and understood. And as much as we want to drive organizational change and build high performing teams, everything centers around each individual. Let’s not underestimate the power of modeling inclusive spaces where people can really grapple with concepts of diversity and inclusion in their own way.

  2. Don’t attempt to take well-renowned global D&I-related programs and deliver them without localization. Instead, keep the purpose, objectives and intended outcomes intact but localize everything else. 

    This may sound obvious, and is clearly linked to how an overall business is structured and where D&I is fitting into that, but I’ve seen this done so many times that it deserves a call out here. Take the following into consideration in the different local markets you’re in.

    Language of delivery. If the majority population is speaking one language natively, run it in that language. Allow people to speak in the language they’re comfortable in, give time for discussions in multiple languages as necessary.

    I once received a call from a leader tucked in a bathroom stall in a hotel in Shanghai. “Em, I’m in an internal company training about inclusion but I’m so lost, what does this word, “inclusion” even mean?” An internal facilitator sent from headquarters had been talking for an hour plus in English and this woman was stuck yet felt too self-conscious to bring her question forward. I invited her to bring it up, encouraging her that if she has this question, so do other people. She reported back to me that an interesting conversation took place among a few colleagues after the program finished at lunch, but that the trainer had not been very helpful because she didn’t know anything about the local context.

    Use localized case studies and research. In our Unconscious Bias program, we look at how bias affects decision-making in the candidate review and selection process.  

    Once I shared a research study from the United States with a Chinese leadership team and the experience went horribly wrong. In the study, participants were asked to rate two similarly qualified candidates for police chief, one with more education and the other with more experience. In general, without specific identities attached to the applications, people thought education was more important as a criteria for the job. When candidates were assigned names, however, participants overwhelmingly preferred an application with a male name, even when it was associated with having less education. I thought we’d be able to use the study to kick off an interesting discussion. But instead, people became fixated on all the details of the study and why they weren’t relevant to their organization. It didn’t work.

    On the other hand, when I shared how one business in a multinational conglomerate went from nearly closing down to thriving in China by mitigating bias and reconsidering the key criteria they were using in the candidate review and selection process, people listened. The company had been assuming experience was the most important criteria for employees, but due to the nature of the industry and its highly regulated history, it was limiting their search to a very small group of people with a Chinese state-owned enterprise background. Sourcing an intentionally diverse team, pulling people from different cultures and with different industry backgrounds allowed them to innovate and break out as industry leaders in the space. People could quickly relate to this case, identify the bias and see the power of moving past it.

    When we first start working with a company, we’ll collect some relevant cases from them. We’ve been able to accrue an ever growing mini-database of local research, cases, and anecdotes that we’ll pull from in order to best serve our participants meaningfully.

    Localize activities. We won’t lead a traditional privilege walk in most Asian countries, even if people at headquarters are pushing hard for it after good results in other markets. Instead, we’ll run a different kind of activity where people explore how insider and outsider dynamics play out in their organization.

    I’ve had several global executives point out how impressed (and sometimes shocked) they are at the level of participation and engagement we get in our Chinese D&I programs, not only exceeding their expectations or what they’ve seen before, but exceeding what they observe in other parts of the world as well.

    Having a professional team who can thoughtfully construct the flow to ensure adequate reflection, discussion, and engagement, remain flexible to adapt to the group energy, and most importantly navigate the complexity is key.

    In my experience, keeping the purpose, objectives and intended outcomes as close as possible to existing programs is reasonable and wise. But it’s the “how” that requires a big rethink in order to be successful in local markets. We deliver almost all of our programs in two-person delivery teams to ensure this delicate balance of global-local is reached.

  3. Don’t underestimate the power of modeling from the top. Invest in inclusive leadership development. 

    I’ve had top leaders sabotage D&I initiatives and months of work in just a few minutes. In one case, it was the attitude of the regional CEO in his opening remarks to an unconscious bias session for the Chinese leadership team. In fact, he emphasized the priorities the company was pushing for, but he didn’t sound like he embodied it and everyone could feel that. I had felt a genuine curiosity in the room that morning when people arrived and settled in, but I literally watched the energy get sucked out of the room as people turned off after that.

    But I have also seen leaders energized by their involvement with D&I initiatives which has, in turn, led to changes in the dynamics of an executive team as well as infiltrating down into the broader organization. Let’s ensure that leaders are relating fully to D&I themselves – that they can demonstrate why they care, why it matters and why it should matter to others.

    I’ve observed that what leaders want to know most are very practical actions and behaviors associated with inclusive leadership so they can emulate them. Answering questions such as: How do I build relationships with people different from me? How can I disagree with people without becoming disagreeable? How can I uncover my blind spots?

As leaders become more comfortable to walk the walk and model inclusive leadership in their day-to-day business, others can feel it. And when leaders are bringing their whole selves to work, not only the rational, technical skills they’ve mastered but also their kind, supportive and curious selves, we’re getting the best from our D&I efforts. 

I love to see some of our global clients pulling from what we’re learning here in China and including it in their regional and global initiatives. An effective global D&I strategy will always require strong global feedback loops where we’re all learning and sharing from one another. 

Keep the dialogue going. 

What’s one action you’ll take after reading this? What’s been the most useful insight you’ve had here? Do you have a specific situation or challenge you’d like a fresh perspective on? 


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