“Chinese bastards”: What we can learn from Daimler’s cross-cultural incident

dbchina cross-cultural

When emotions hit a high, intelligence drops to a low

Whether we like it or not: Sometimes people lose their temper and act out against others. And it is usually not a pretty picture. When this happens to company leaders on foreign assignment it can create a ripple effect with far greater reach than the untamed emotional release itself. In 2016 a cross-cultural incident surfaced which included a senior executive of German car and truck maker Daimler who held a leadership position for the company in China. According to Chinese news reports Rainer Gärtner, a German expatriate who served as Daimler’s trucks and buses president in China at the time, had made racist remarks in an argument over a parking spot in Beijing.

Peppered language and pepper spray

While it remains unclear what exactly happened during this quarrel, the reports indicate that it began with the executive cutting into a parking space ahead of a local motorist. This allegedly lead to an altercation with strong language, during which the Daimler executive said: “I have been in China one year already; the first thing I learned here is: All you Chinese are bastards.” Going by the media accounts Gärtner als0 used pepper spray on the bystanders who had begun to form a crowd around the scene.

dbastards cross-culturalApologize and admit to your mistake

Regardless if the news reports about this incident are accurate – the story created a bit of a wave in China where this type of behavior was viewed as an insult to the entire country. Daimler responded quickly by issuing a public apology and by removing Gärtner from his job. The company said: “Such an incident reflects in no way the values of Daimler and we sincerely apologize for the concerns raised by this matter.” The German car maker realized that the best way to address this issue was to take full responsibility for their employee’s behavior, even though Daimler considered it a “purely private issue.”

Humility vs. “German engineering arrogance”

This case is a great example for how Western companies can shake off the stereotype of being overbearing and arrogant in other parts of the world. In working with our clients we occasionally experience a certain sense of self-importance within companies who are exporting their know-how into foreign markets. This is especially true for organizations built on engineering, R&D, and intellectual property. German companies often meet this description – and German engineers, while viewed as highly competent and skilled, have a reputation for being condescending and presumptuous at times.

Daimler’s damage control worked because the company honored Chinese culture much better than their executive did. “The nature of the dispute and in particular the manner in which it was conducted, irrespective of any comments alleged to have been made, is adjudged to be not only of concern to the public but viewed by us as detrimental to the standing of our company, unbecoming of a manager of our brand and prejudicial to our good name,” it said in their apology.

This display of humility is likely to restore some credit among car buyers in China – one of the most important markets for any manufacturer. Daimler understood that in the end, people won’t remember the name of the culprit. They’ll recall the organization he was associated with.

Don’t let it come to cross-cultural clashes

Aside from the corporate response to this gaffe there are some human resources and leadership development aspects to consider from this episode. For instance, what could have been the reason for Mr. Gärtner’s abrasive actions? If he really has such strong feelings about an entire culture and its people, why did this go unnoticed for so long? Before his transfer to China, Gärtner spent six years working in South Korea. Did he have similar outbursts there, or was the Beijing incident a one-time, albeit unfortunate affair?

Global executives can be under an enormous amount of pressure. Working in a different value system, with a language that can be challenging to learn, and with a work style that is significantly different from your own takes its toll. Add to that the fact that your social and personal life are affected by the cultural transition just as much.
Smart global companies select executives for foreign posts not only based on their subject matter expertise but also on whether they have the necessary cultural dexterity to succeed abroad. Assessments can measure the readiness of aspiring global talent, but they don’t guarantee success. No assessment can prepare a company, if an expat executive hits roadblocks overseas – no matter if those are professional or personal.

How cultural coaching can help

That’s why more and more organizations rely on the effects and benefits of coaching for their global leaders. Having a cultural resource as a sparring partner and sounding board which accompanies you on your career journey can be mission critical on foreign assignments. Being able to reflect on your work and social life abroad, and to receive situational and applicable feedback with the help of an expert is a valuable asset for international business success.

Our Global Leader Coaching program helps executives examine their situation and understand where they can unlock potential. They will also challenge themselves to see different perspectives and to engage with their role as a global leader with greater clarity and understanding.
Cultural knowledge can be learned via training. Increased cultural competence needs practice. Successful global leaders demand a workout buddy to practice with. One who accompanies them on their journey to realizing their full potential in an increasingly diverse work environment.

Let’s talk about how cross-cultural coaching can benefit your organization.

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