ASIA: WIZENED AND WISER. - In Asia, older is wiser - and more senior. So how can a young western executive convince 'elders and betters' not to be slighted by a youthful visitor?

by Richard D Lewis.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In Asia, older is wiser - and more senior. So how can a young western executive convince 'elders and betters' not to be slighted by a youthful visitor?

As they say in Korea, if you're not 40, you're nobody. The dictum reflects the attitude which prevails throughout most of Asia that important decisions, especially in the areas of politics and business, should be left to the mature and experienced.

This is most apparent on the political stage in China, where government leaders are rarely younger than 60, often 70 or 80, and, in the case of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, still pulling the strings at 90 plus. But in Japanese corporations, too, promotion and advancement depend almost entirely on age and seniority. Japanese managers derive their authority from the number of years they have worked for their firms and from the date and quality of their university degree. So a Tokyo university graduate from 1960 will almost certainly be a bucho (senior manager); a Waseda university man from 1980 no more than a kakari-cho (section leader). Meanwhile, males graduating after 1990 are currently being rotated to gain experience and are often dogsbodies. It all has little to do with talent, intelligence or drive. Even the demonstration of brilliant results or achievement may only be rewarded surreptitiously. And those rare young men who are rapidly promoted in Japanese companies soon regret it: senior colleagues frequently gang up against them, making corporate life unbearable.

The indigenous Japanese company would rarely make the mistake of putting a young man in this situation, but foreign firms in Japan often fall into the trap when they stumble across whiz kids. They may be sent to the UK or US for special training and then redeployed in Japan in a more senior position. Their return will be resented and co-workers over 40 will take every opportunity to make them eat humble pie.

Such exaggerated respect for age stems from the principles of Confucianism.

Business in China, Japan and Korea is conducted according to the precepts of the Chinese philosopher. These include an emphasis on education, titles, thrift, moderation, kindliness and, most emphatically, respect for seniority, this being spelt out in Confucius's five unequal relationships: between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, senior and junior friend. Obedience to this hierarchy is mandatory.

So where do western businessmen or women fit into this scheme of things since it is not uncommon for western firms to send younger, energetic executives to visit their Asian customers? People under 40, whatever their reputation or brilliance, strike Asians as being junior and inexperienced.

Added to this is the fact that the higher-ranking, more grey-haired the visitor, the more prestigious the visit for the host.

So how should a comparative youngster sent out to Hanoi or Hong Kong behave to get the best from potentially tricky encounters? First, visitors should take heart from the fact that their foreignness will to some extent excuse them from unintentional breaches of courtesy. Dressing smartly but conservatively is fairly straightforward advice, as is the tip to establish one's qualifications, credentials and expertise very early on.

Certainly, following such guidelines (with a little additional flattery for delicate male egos thrown in) has long made Margaret Thatcher extremely popular in Japanese business circles, in spite of her sex and relative youth when she first achieved real political influence.

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