Confidently Influence

Western Executives & Leaders


Underlying Cultural and Logical Differences in Persuasion Dynamics


How many Taiwanese business professionals do you know who confidently and consistently influence Western peers and senior executives? I don't mean just persuading a Westerner on a single topic from time to time. I mean knowing how to influence them systematically and predictably.

It's a rare skill -- or better to say -- a rare set of interlocking skills.

Why is it so difficult? After all, most Western professionals with a few years business experience can reliably influence and persuade their own executives.

In the last seven years, I've trained and coached around 500 Taiwanese professionals, including many senior executives, country managers, and CEOs. I've spent hundreds of hours observing and analyzing cross-cultural persuasion processes, including diagnosing my own numerous failures and mistakes! I've tried to think deeply about the Chinese philosophy, history, language, logic and culture that I've studied for about 20 years, to find underlying differences in Taiwanese versus Western influence dynamics.

In this article, I will offer a brief case example, discuss deep causes of differences between Taiwanese and Western persuasion processes, and introduce several factors that interact when you attempt to influence Western peers and leaders. This article is the first in a series I will write to explore this profound topic. Subsequent articles will delve deeper into specific influence dynamics, common barriers, and several different methods to succeed.

Let us begin with a true story:

True Tragic Mystery:

A few years ago, one of my clients -- a senior manager at one of Taiwan's few global brands -- came to me in great disappointment and confusion. He asked me to interpret a total failure he witnessed during a meeting of his colleagues in America. My client, whom I'll call Mr. C, was a gifted marketer and a highly successful regional sales executive. His personality was very open, friendly, smart and humorous: exactly the kind of Taiwanese whom Westerners tend to like best.

Here's what Mr. C recounted to me:

"I just can't figure out what went on at a corporate meeting in America last week. It was a mixed team of about 15 people, with several senior engineers, a few new hires, and some managers. They were all American or European, except me and another Taiwanese executive with 8 years seniority. The more senior Westerners had 3 or 4 years’ experience with our company."

(My client was one of this global corporation's first employees who had worked for a dozen years with the founders and C-Suite executives. He was the most senior executive at the meeting, though he was not meeting's chair.)

Mr. C continued: "Our topic included an analysis of our company's core competencies, and how these could be better leveraged globally. I couldn't believe it. All the Westerners just jumped in suggesting all kinds of ideas, and nobody ever asked me or my Taiwanese colleague for our opinion. I was one of the early employees who built our competencies, but nobody at the meeting showed interest. Also, several junior engineers with only a couple months' experience jumped in to suggest competencies or their analysis, but they know almost nothing. How can this happen in America?"

I asked Mr. C if he later spoke up to offer his knowledge and analysis. He replied, "No, neither of us Taiwanese spoke. We were just too shocked, and nobody asked us."

So I asked Mr. C: "What happened when these young engineers stated inaccurate information or weak logic? Were they criticized, punished, or did it damage their reputations?"

"No, they all just kept on discussing like everything was normal and OK."

Then I asked him: "So what did the group and its leaders do with the foolish ideas and mistakes?"


Can you guess the answer? Have you witnessed that process among excellent Western professionals?

Truth-Seeking, Risk & Trust: Underlying Dynamics:

What usually happens is that as the discussion proceeds, members at all levels attack and analyze the lousy ideas, wrong facts and poor logic. As they proceed, together they form a shared understanding or group consensus that's logically far stronger than any individual's input.

The key is, the Westerners aren't usually judged harshly for a bit of poorly formed logic or a few incorrect facts. The Westerners trust the group to filter out the poor ideas. Given this, whom are they most likely to judge harshly?

The people who don't takes risks to make high-value contributions.

If a Westerner in a meeting says two poor ideas that are quickly dismissed by the group, a couple not-bad analyses, and one brilliant insight or recommendation, everyone will respect and appreciate him, and continue to be influenced by him.

Mr. C told me much the same thing: the meeting participants moved past the poor ideas, kept the good ideas, and everyone seemed satisfied.

Now here is a second crucial question: Why didn't the meeting participants seek Mr. C's experienced judgment?

Here's what I believe, based on observing Westerners interact with East Asians in thousands of encounters, and frequently asking the Westerners about their feelings afterwards:

Successful Westerners generally expect everyone with any potential important contributions to just jump in and say them. Unlike Asians, they don't usually specifically request the contributions or wisdom of the most experienced members, because those senior members always contribute, in their own preferred way.

I'd guess that some of the enthusiastic junior Americans and Europeans at my client's meeting didn't even notice that the two Taiwanese never spoke. The junior guys just got caught up -- happily or heatedly -- in the fast flow of ideas. Likely, some of the more senior Westerners noticed the quietness of the Taiwanese. The aggressive Westerners likely judged the Taiwanese to be "poor contributors" or "lacking confidence." The more globally aware or kind-hearted Westerners likely figured the Taiwanese had English or cultural barriers, but didn't want to discomfort the Taiwanese by asking them to speak. Most crucially, Western colleagues, even the aggressive ones, almost never intend in their heart to show any disrespect, even though their actions naturally appear disrespectful (and politically suicidal!) in Taiwanese culture. These are the main attitudes Western business people usually tell me.

(A caution to note: The dynamics I’ve characterized above are common in well-run companies in the West that have good employees. Most high-tech companies are like this, but not all finance companies. Poorly run or highly political Western companies or teams may crush open debate. To use excellent Western debate processes in a politicized team can be very dangerous to one’s career, in the West as much as anywhere else in the world.)

To me, Mr. C's story recounts a tragedy not only for sincere Taiwanese professionals, but also for the clueless Westerners who neglected to explore his profound knowledge.

I explained all this to Mr. C.

Ever open to new challenges, he resolved to try different approaches in his next Western meeting.

East vs. West: Raised & Educated Under Opposite Dynamics

I've shared this story dozens of times with Taiwanese clients and students over the last few years. They always wish to know, "What makes the Western corporate people act so differently from us?"

Having grown up in the Western way, but also having interacted with numerous Asian friends since age 13, and later having learned anthropology and cultural analysis, I think the main answer is this:

Compared to Taiwanese, those Westerners in my client's company grew up with:

· different expectations & rewards

· different truth-seeking processes

· different role models, teachers & coaches with far different attitudes

· opportunities starting in childhood to practice Western logical analysis and vigorous open debate thousands of times before they stepped into that meeting.

I'd like to offer a few paragraphs that describe the vast differences in the focus, underlying spirit, core skills, intellectual competition, and discussion culture in the West, compared to Taiwan. Even if you've heard some of this before, I'd invite you to consider how deeply your Western peers and executives were trained to be different from most Taiwanese, and how your efforts to influence Westerners must systematically take this into account.

Think about this for a moment: Who are your Western peers and superiors that you want to persuade? Like you, they are the top 1-2% of their society. What logic structures, discussion dynamics, argumentation processes and political ground-rules did they learn, that are different from yours?

Generally, the parents of your Western peers gave them both freedom and challenges to learn to think for themselves, to defend themselves with logical evidence if they disagreed, and later to choose their own educational and career path. Kids generally enter into logical debates with their parents in the top 1-2% of Western families around age 6-8, and most of these parents accept such debates and use them as learning experiences for their children.

In Western schools, the best students generally get the best teachers. What does an excellent American, Canadian or British teacher do when a student offers an answer or logical argument in class, and is 80% correct but 20% mistaken? Usually, the teacher will say something like: "That's good preparation and excellent thinking about X, Y, and B. Now, who in our class can offer a critique about his point Z?" Or, the teacher may personally ask questions or mention facts to help inductively lead the student or classmates to a better analysis of Z. In other words, the teacher is supportive when the students are partially wrong, but show some good logic.

You might consider, how did your teachers respond when you were 80% right and 20% wrong? Or even when you were 90% right?

The better Western professionals, unlike most of the best Taiwanese, have had 10-20 years of practice and approval debating with partially formed opinions and logic.

At what age do good Western students first learn Aristotelian logic structures and debate processes? My peers learned them at age 15, in English and Geometry classes. Nowadays school kids learn these even younger: between the ages 10-12. By the time your Western peers graduate from high school, they've practiced Western logical persuasion in essays many dozens of times, and in a 1,000+ discussions. Additionally, they've observed logic coaching input from facilitative open-minded intelligent teachers several thousand times. University gives them thousands more opportunities to refine their logical argumentation, debate, and influence skills. Few Taiwanese have received such opportunities and positive reinforcement for taking risks to form arguments of superior value.

Can Western Logic be Readily Learned, and Can Chinese Logic Synergize with It?

Most Westerners simply get confused and become impatient when confronting Chinese logic patterns in Taiwanese presentations, reports, and business discussions. Both the structures and sequences are a complete mismatch with the Western style. Westerners quickly get lost, even when a Taiwanese commits no logical error. Furthermore, Chinese logic patterns require better memories than Western sequences, and Taiwanese are certainly far more trained in memorizing than Westerners. Yet, your Western business peers rarely say to themselves, "Wow, I wish I had a memory as good as my Taiwanese colleague's, so I could understand her logic." Rather, they cannot perceive the coherence or value of Eastern logic structures, and in their pride they simply assume you are a chaotic thinker. This does not favor persuasion success.

Fortunately, well-educated Taiwanese can generally learn to effectively utilize Western logical hierarchies, sequences, and persuasion methods fairly quickly.

Key Factors for Further Exploration:

Now, briefly, I will highlight several factors that interact when you seek to persuade and influence senior Western managers and peers. Note that the factors arise from both sides of the culture divide:

· Logical structures & preferred sequences...

· Appropriate cultural patterns of demonstrating strength: softness vs. "honest assertiveness"

· Culture of debate vs. authority & face-protection; how to challenge with Western respect

· Power differentials between the Taiwan team and the Western team: who needs what from whom

· Memory capacity (Westerners rarely realize Taiwanese are usually better.)

· Westerners' unfair use of the English advantage, and how to overcome this

· Cultural affinities and details

· Persuasion planning, using multiple venues, communications and processes

· Using incisive questions to reveal hidden problems, incorrect assumptions, and potential win-win solutions

· Socializing and trust-building processes


In this initial article, I've endeavored to illustrate some tragic current realities that Taiwanese encounter when seeking to influence Western peers and executives, and to partly clarify the underlying dynamics involved. But more importantly, I wish to suggest a realistic hope...

...that you -- with your current experience, skills, knowledge and hard work -- can definitely learn to master Western logic and persuasion processes, and to fundamentally influence your Western peers and leaders. They need you and your wisdom more than they realize. You need their flexibility, support and collaboration. Almost none of them will ever successfully cross to your culture. You must and can become the better bridge, a corporate key person who reaches them, learns the strength of their logic, offers the wisdom of yours, and reliably persuades them so as to make both sides better. On this path, success beckons.

By Gary Lewis, Senior Consultant of Infelligent Coaching & Consulting Inc., ©2012