With China’s growing influence, Chinese leadership is attracting more limelight from around the world. However, Chinese leaders are culturally, linguistically, and ideologically unfamiliar to many Western observers. Hence, it can be daunting to interview Chinese elites across a range of different organisations. We provide insights for those new to this somewhat challenging methodological ‘black’ box.
We conducted two major research projects that involved interviewing 42 Chinese leaders working in small and medium enterprises and multi-billion-dollar financial services companies in Shanghai and Beijing, China. We found that guanxi (informal and personal connections) can help gain access and build trust with Chinese leaders in these organisations. Interviewing is an inherently interactive process so it is essential to draw clues from interviewees and gauge early the atmosphere and adjust one’s behaviour accordingly. We suggest three stages of interviewing Chinese leaders to consider: exploring, engaging, and reflecting.
With the exploring stage, guanxi is a valuable tool to connect with the gatekeeper for gaining interview access. For example, in one of the projects, we used personal contacts to connect with a critical gatekeeper, the vice-chairman of a significant industry committee, who went overboard to provide contacts of the committee members and encouraged them to engage with our interviews. With the other project, we secured an introduction from a family member of the CEO who was a long-term friend and colleague. Otherwise, the access door could have been closed from the outset, as the CEO mentioned: ‘As a financial services company, we are always very busy and most staff need to work overtime. If my family member did not introduce you, I would certainly not support your interviews at all. I am now happy to support you fully. You can interview whoever you like at my company.’ Whenever possible, we suggest that researchers think about securing support from high-level informal relationships and networks. This can facilitate interview access, build trusted relations and gain buy-in from interviewees, though significantly, they did not and should not influence the process of the interviews.
Selecting a suitable communication medium is vital for establishing and strengthening connections with business elites in China. We began by contacting elites by telephone, but this proved ineffective, and an embarrassing experience as fraudulent or commercial advertisement telephone calls are common in China. We then switched to contacting interviewees by text message and e-mail. In particular, we found WeChat helpful in preparing for interviews and establishing guanxi because WeChat posts informed us of their philosophy and leadership style and the ongoing status of their organisations. This kind of information can complement the information available on the company’s website. We found that taster talks can open opportunities to build rapport and develop guanxi. This might appear too personal in Western contexts; however, it is a Chinese tradition to ask: ‘Where are you originally from?’ in a first meeting as Chinese people value town fellowship, referring to people originally from the same birthplace. For example, the first author and an interviewee’s wife happened to have town fellowship, which instantly cultivated connection and reduced the otherwise distant relationship.
With the engaging stage, we found the technique of mimicking is helpful. For example, our second project was focused on an elite financial services company. The profiles of interviewees showed pride in their high-level qualifications (e.g., MSc or PhD degrees from the University of Cambridge or Peking University). Hence we used self-promotion to enhance credibility by providing a detailed introduction of our research team and highlighting the top ranking of our institutions before the interviews. While this might appear boastful in Western contexts, it is a vital process of signalling your legitimacy as a researcher in Chinese contexts.
Chinese leaders tended to display drawings or calligraphic art in their office settings. The artefacts often signal their philosophy, leadership style or organisational values, which can be helpful prompts to engage interviewees. We also found the importance of embracing Chinese tea culture. For example, a board chairman was deputy head of a consultancy committee to the former Chinese President. We were concerned such an ultra elite with a senior government leadership background might appear aloof and hierarchical. However, the interviewee was highly approachable and began by inviting us to sit down for tea. The tea break was helpful as it nurtured a relaxing and informal environment. It also provided a moment for the Board Chairman to stop and reflect on his leadership given his hustle-and-bustle schedule. The interview lasted for three hours and proved to be highly productive. Undoubtedly it built up a rapport and strengthened guanxi, as the Board Chairman promised to recommend many other potential elites for us to interview.
Finally, with the reflecting stage, this is something we engaged with throughout all the interviews, which helped to continuously re-craft our interview skills. For example, in our first project, we found ourselves frequently struggling with ice breakers with interviewees as both parties appeared strangers to each other. Chinese people tend to be suspicious of strangers, which may mean they are cagey in their responses to questions. Hence it is essential to create rapport in advance. We found the importance of being open to idiosyncrasy. For instance, one interviewee was a celebrity leader who had frequently appeared on various social media platforms. To our surprise, the minute she sat down for the interview, she began to talk for approximately 40 minutes before we could ask her any questions. Over a brief pause, we managed to interpose one question, which was immediately followed by another 40-minute soliloquy. Hence the 80-minute interview became an almost exclusively one-way conversation for the interviewee and of limited value for the research team.
Guanxi quality can be subject to change throughout interviews. For example, a CEO was highly supportive around interviewing his staff; however, despite several rounds of negotiations, he still firmly rejected us interviewing external stakeholders such as customers because in his words they are ‘their God’. One incident, however, led to a change in his approach. The intensity of interviews created some problems in the first author’s throat. Once, she could not help coughing during the process of the interview. The CEO immediately noticed this fleeting moment and brought her a bottle of mineral water, emotionally articulating: ‘you wouldn’t need to work so hard.’ The CEO was regarded as the ‘most hardworking CEO’ by his employees. This incident was a turning point for the project because the CEO recognised the hard work of the research team and began to fully support us interviewing his customers, who otherwise may have been inaccessible.
What can others learn from our elite interviewing experience with Chinese leaders? First, we suggest that guanxi helps gain interview access to Chinese elites and build trust throughout the interviewing process. However, guanxi is not a given and can be enhanced through ongoing trust-building. Second, guanxi and trust-building are interactive and context-sensitive, so both parties play their part. Finally, reflecting can be informative, though it is also essential to embrace unexpected dynamics. By reflecting on the interviewing process, you can better understand how to conduct interviews more effectively, which we refer to as sense-becoming.
About the Authors
Dr Hongqin Li is Dean’s Research Fellow at Nottingham University Business School. Previously she was a Research Fellow at Aston Business School and a lecturer at Portsmouth Business school. Her research focuses on leadership, reputation, identity, and elite interviews.
William S. Harvey is Professor of Leadership at the University of Bristol. He is an International Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Corporate Reputation and Chair of the Board of Libraries Unlimited, which is a charity that represents 54 public libraries across the UK.
Jonathan V. Beaverstock is Professor of International Management at the University of Bristol. He has published widely on global talent mobility, financial services clustering and the competitiveness of the City of London, and world city networks. Jonathan is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.