East and West Thinking Together Brings Wholeness

Chinese and Western management thinking, Wendy Tan

“My hypothesis: the coming together of Western and Eastern perspectives brings wisdom and wholeness. We need to understand better how to hold two seemingly opposing ideas at the same time whilst still functioning productively.”

Is Western Management Thought dying? I asked 15 conference attendees this question. Thirteen from Asia said no. Two said yes; both were from the West.

Western Management Thought has reigned for the last 80 years. This way of thinking has emphasized rationality, efficiency, and technical processes as the primary means of getting results. A recent IBM study (2012) involving 1,700 global CEOs suggests that as the world gets increasingly more connected, traditional thinking about competitive advantage such as optimization of processes and supply chains will no longer be sufficient. Instead, there is a call for greater collaboration, partnership innovation, and engagement of customers as unique individuals. These all point to relationships as a source of competitive advantage, rather than technical processes.

At the same time, the global economic crisis, plus the rising importance and confidence in Asia have resulted in a quiet search for alternatives in management thought. Whilst Asia has benefitted from Western thought tremendously, there is also an increasing interest in the wisdom from ancient Chinese philosophy. China alone has much to offer from its 5000 years of history.

All these suggest that perhaps a time for an integration of West and East
perspectives is near. This article focuses on three questions:

1. What are the West and East perspectives?
2. How are these two perspectives different?
3. How can integrating the two lead to wholeness?

I will use my experience to describe and contrast the West and East perspectives, and subsequently describe ideas of its integration. My hypothesis: the coming together of Western and Eastern perspectives brings wisdom and wholeness. We need to understand better how to hold two seemingly opposing ideas at the same time whilst still functioning productively.

Organization development practitioners operating in cross-cultural contexts,
especially in Asia, may find this article useful in adapting Western management ideas in Eastern environments. To OD practitioners in general, it is hoped that this reflection on West and East perspectives will help us draw on the wisdom of both.

Being Chinese, raised in Singapore, and schooled in Western thinking, I need to qualify that when referring to the West I mean the United States and Europe. When I say East, I primarily refer to countries with strong Confucian influence such as process re-engineering form the backbone of modern organizations. China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Chinese and Western management thinking, Wendy Tan

Western Perspectives in Management

Just as Western meals usually proceed in a step-by-step manner (soup, main dish, dessert, and coffee or tea), so does Western Management Thought. Leaders define strategy, key performance indicators are set, departments receive priorities, employees develop work plans, and we measure obsessively. Balanced scorecard,
management by objectives, and business process re-engineering form the backbone of modern organizations.

Reducing the whole to parts and then managing parts is a hallmark of how Western Management Thought works. An output is systematic structure and processes to achieve results efficiently. These enable continuous improvement and have paved the way for the development of the present mega multinational corporations. At the same time, this mechanistic and reductionist approach assumes control and predictability over outcome.

A CEO remarked that every year after the (stretch) targets are set, we work like mice on the treadmill to meet the numbers. We achieve the numbers. We start all over again. We are like a machine within a large machine. You may be familiar with his experience.

What is the result of all this focus on efficiency? Some leaders tell us about their disenchantment, disempowerment, and disengagement. Some high level executives feel trapped in their roles. Statistics show increased stress levels and reduced engagement. Training and books to increase resilience, engagement, and a sense of meaning are proliferating.

But rather than dethroning Western Management Thought, this article urges the coming together of Western and Eastern perspectives. Let us look into the Eastern perspectives.

Eastern Perspectives in Management

In a Chinese meal all the dishes are placed in the middle. People are given a bowl of rice and from the dishes in the middle, they take what they want, the amount they want and when they want it. In contrast to sequential dishes in traditional Western meals, without a systematic process comes space for flexibility and emergent responses.

Chinese thinking is flexible and emergent, rather than linear and logic-based. The Chinese phrase 摸石头过河 (pronounced as mo shi tou guo he) is to cross the river by touching the stones. The book Thirty-Six Strategies of the Chinese (三十六 计, pronounced as san shi lui ji) shows the flexibility of Chinese thinking that guides actions in murky situations where black and white solutions are untenable.

Eastern perspectives on business and management tend to be broad and principle based. The word business in Chinese is 生意 (pronounced as sheng yi, which is meaning of life). From this perspective, business is a means to life and does not take on a life of its own. Tao Zhu Gong (陶 朱公), a highly successful Chinese businessman in 500 BC, defined the Chinese perspectives on business management (Wee, 2001). Applying the right principles at the right time and in the right way to achieve a higher purpose represents wisdom in Chinese thinking.

As such, the Eastern tradition does not lay out a process in sequential steps. Instead broad philosophical guidance in business gives scope for flexibility, and success is more dependent on the depth of wisdom of the individual leaders. This also means more grey areas to navigate and weaker emphasis on defined systems and processes. This in turn reduces efficiency and makes global scalability of traditional Chinese businesses challenging.

We can further compare Western and Chinese heroes and ways of exercise to understand the Western and Eastern views of the world…(pls click here to access the full PDF article)

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