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Speaking up in Chinese companies

Chinese culture usually avoids conflict, but speaking up following the failure of new product development can help future projects and yield valuable workplace lessons, says new study co-authored by Professor David De Cremer of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Silhouette shadows of business people talking in office

David De Cremer

Professor David De Cremer

In China, even mild personal conflict is traditionally frowned upon in work environments as it runs counter to the Confucian value of harmony in face-to-face situations. As a result, Chinese workers are not motivated to speak up about failures or setbacks within a company or other organisation.

At the same time, however, new product development (NPD) is of great importance to China’s transitional economy as it emphasises greater domestic consumption rather than government investment – with the country’s 13th “Five-Year Plan”, for 2016-2020, emphasising innovation to forge more sustainable national advantage.

This contrast forms the backdrop to a newly published study co-authored by David De Cremer, KPMG Professor of Management Studies at Cambridge Judge, that examines how “voice behaviour” (expressing helpful recommendations to others, suggesting changes for improvement) and learning from failure can enhance future NPD in China.

The findings: “Our results show that when voice is raised, the effect on NPD is increased, which suggests that the situation may be improved when voice behaviour is present,” says the study published in Asia Pacific Business Review. Speaking up and learning from failure can make people “more willing to share new and novel ideas with other team members,” which helps instigate the process of new product development.

“Therefore, contrary to existing practices in China, where it is considered more appropriate to remain quiet in a situation where emotional conflict exists, raising voice, even in a heated situation, may alleviate and improve the situation,” found the study, which is based on 320 questionnaires by people, mostly project managers, involved in intra-organisational NPD projects. “Our findings clearly stress that learning from failure when a conflict takes place can actually be beneficial and therefore conflicts should not be avoided that much if one focuses on NPD.”

The managerial implications of the findings are that organisations should be encouraged to create environments in which team members can share their thoughts following failures, and view “task conflict” (differing attitudes or needs that frustrate a task’s completion) as a normal part of daily business that can yield valuable lessons for future NPD.

“Any conflict in China has traditionally been seen as damaging to workplace performance, because it runs counter to cultural sensitivities,” says Professor De Cremer, who has worked extensively in China. “Our study presents a far more nuanced view, finding that voice behaviour in the form of constructively speaking out following a failed product development can help companies be more successful the next time around.”

The paper acknowledges that because the research focused on the particular cultural and economic situation in China, the results may not be generalisable to other countries.

The study – entitled “When new product development fails in China: mediating effects of voice behaviour and learning from failure” – is co-authored by Bang Nguyen and Junsong Chen of East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, and David De Cremer of Cambridge Judge Business School.