When I started work in London in the late 1970s, we all understood the meaning and significance of ‘hierarchy’. You could gauge the seniority of an executive by the cut of their suit, the make of their car, the size of their office and even the severity of the secretary who sat outside the door! You certainly didn’t address senior people by their first name and, if you were very lucky, you might be invited to have lunch with a client in one of the Director’s private dining rooms (which served alcohol, unlike the staff canteen which offered only water and a strange orange drink). We didn’t know it at the time but this was the end of what would later be described by the post-war generation as “the good old days”, before Margaret Thatcher set about unravelling and deregulating some of Britain’s most protected institutions and then Tony Blair embraced egalitarianism with “cool Britannia”. Throughout the western world, scores of middle management positions have now been dismantled in the pursuit of profit and shareholder returns and most organisations and institutions now adopt a flat structure with open plan offices, hot desks, minimal reporting lines and even casual dress! My grandfather, who wore a tie on almost every day of his life (even doing the gardening after he retired) would be shocked by the informality of it all!

The same isn’t true in Asian culture, particularly in China, which has only recently begun its own industrial revolution and, in any case, with its long-held and deeply ingrained influences and beliefs emanating from Daoism and the teachings of Confucius, it will take more than a generation or two to dismantle the concept of ‘hierarchy’. Remember, China is modernising, not westernising!

I find it fascinating to observe the lengths that the Chinese will go to respect and give face to their elders, leaders and seniors. The fussing and detail that goes into the seating arrangements at meetings and dinners, the line up for photos, the gift-giving, the number and order of speeches, the decision-making process. It’s always important to observe these rituals and embrace them with the enthusiasm and respect they deserve. And, if you’re hoping to do a business deal, it will give you important clues as to how business gets done.

Some do’s and don’ts for foreigners trying to navigate the hierarchy in China:

It’s actually not that difficult, and it certainly isn’t rocket science! Respecting your elders, being polite, dressing up and deferring to seniority is something that our parents were taught by their parents and, depending how old you are, might have been taught to you as well. You just need to pay more attention to the importance of Hierarchy when you do business in China!

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