AsianScientist (Sep. 4, 2017) – By Rebecca Tan – When Associate Professor Michael Benoliel wanted to interview former United States Secretary of State Mr James Baker, setting up the meeting took no more than three weeks.
“I simply contacted his office and they invited me to interview him after they read about my credentials,” says Professor Benoliel, who is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources at the Singapore Management University’s (SMU) Lee Kong Chian School of Business.
Securing a session with Singapore’s Ambassador-At-Large Professor Tommy Koh, however, was not as straightforward. To Professor Benoliel’s surprise, it took two months to get a response from Professor Koh’s office after sending in an interview request and a copy of his book, The Upper Hand: Winning Strategies from World-class Negotiators.
“To my amazement, he actually took the time to read my book before meeting me. After he had finished reading my book, his secretary arranged for us to have a chat; he really wanted to get to know me, my interests and why I was interested in Asian master negotiators. Only after that was I granted the interview,” shares Professor Benoliel.
For Professor Benoliel, his encounter with Professor Koh exemplifies the deep difference in styles between East and West, and underscores the importance of his research into how Asian culture influences negotiation styles.
The realm of relationships
Realising that he did not fully understand how people in Asia negotiated, Professor Benoliel decided to interview master negotiators in Asia to develop a set of best practices. Apart from Professor Koh, he also interviewed some of the region’s most well-regarded negotiators, including SMU board of trustees chairman Mr Ho Kwon Ping, Indonesia’s former Minister of Trade Ms Mari Elka Pangestu and Infosys founder Mr Narayana Murthy.
“For me personally, I was struck by how important building relationships is. Whether you are negotiating in Thailand or Singapore or China, you will clearly see that people invest a great deal in building relationships and trust,” Professor Benoliel says.
“That relationship and trust, however, is not cognitive; it’s really from personal interactions and experiences with the other side.”
This difference, he adds, can be traced to Asia’s philosophical foundations. In particular, the teachings of Confucius remain highly influential, especially in East Asian societies.
“In Confucianism, the whole notion is that a healthy society must have harmony and good relationships,” he explains. “Therefore, there is great value in maintaining harmony though the careful cultivation of relationships and trust.”
The unspoken emphasis on harmony plays out in the language used during negotiations, with Asian negotiators preferring a more subtle and metaphoric tone compared to the direct and unambiguous choice of words favoured by Western negotiators, he said.
“The Chinese say: ‘Only the devil goes straight’, meaning that we should always be careful to protect the ‘face’ of the other person. Because of this, you should be more considerate and suggestive during negotiations rather than brutally direct,” Professor Benoliel says.
Cultivating cultural sensitivity
The preference for the indirect in Asia also extends beyond language to non-verbal communication, according to Professor Benoliel. Giving the example of how eye contact is an indication of trustworthiness in the European context, he points out how looking people straight in the eye can be seen as an act of aggression in Asia.
“If I don’t understand that the norm is different in Asia, and instead bring in my own European interpretation, I would say that we cannot trust people who do not look us in the eye. But it’s not a matter of trust—it’s simply a matter of differing cultural values,” he says.
“The more we understand where people are coming from, the less likely we are to make incorrect attributions of intention.”
Being mindful of these cultural differences is more important than ever in an age of globalisation, as the number cross-cultural interactions rapidly increases. China’s economy is already the second largest in the world and it may overtake the United States in less than a decade. The rise of Asian economies makes it necessary for Western companies to understand how to negotiate in an Asian context, Professor Benoliel says.
“Three hundred years ago, nobody cared about cultural negotiation because there was hardly any. Today, people who work at global corporations like Mastercard or Google will interact with people from other cultures on a daily basis,” he says. “However, my prediction is that in the next 25 to 50 years, different cultures will become closer to each other because of the high degree of interaction.”
Beyond the individual
Just as Asia’s collectivist approach has changed his understanding of negotiation, Professor Benoliel is expanding his research focus from successful individuals to successful corporations. Noting that the field of negotiation has thus far focused exclusively on the individual, he hopes to balance out the discussion by bringing in a macro perspective.
“When you look at innovative companies like Google or Apple, they have succeeded not just because of their people but also because their organisations have developed an ecosystem that facilitates their success,” Professor Benoliel says.
“Similarly, there are other companies well known for their excellence in negotiation, and I plan to analyse them at the systems level to uncover the structures and processes that enable good negotiation, so that others can learn from them.”
Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of the Singapore Management University Office of Research & Tech Transfer.