An often heard comment in the business world is that companies over-appreciate cognitive skills and as a result, their functioning is too cerebral. It can even be said that when we talk about company culture, we actually talk about a cognitive culture where we have clear concepts about values, norms and ways of working and thinking (Barsade & O’Neill, 2016). Of course, our thinking abilities are important to how we make decisions and achieve successes, but over time, we have come to realize that emotions are not only what makes us human but are also a crucial element in the decisions that we make (Lerner, Li, Valdesolo, & Kassam, 2015). As a result, it is unwise to ignore the emotional underpinnings of our business decisions.
The business world is an interesting context to study the impact of emotions as it involves tension between two forces, which are cooperation and competition. On one hand, companies pursue profit seeking and much of their narrative is focused on winning the game and being better than the (business) competitor. On the other hand, to remain competitive, one needs to innovate, and in this innovation process cooperation is key. As such, important business decisions always have to be weighted along those two dimensions of cooperation and competition. Whether companies will assign sufficient weight to the cooperation process may well be an emotional matter. Emotions can help corporate decision-makers to make sense of the business context and accordingly influence the decisions they will take. For this reason, to achieve cooperation with a business competitor, some degree of respect and admiration is needed so you also pay attention to the good things of your competitor. It’s this kind of emotion that interact with the decision-making process that makes companies subject to human experiences – as anthropologist would say.
Human experiences – including emotions – thus shape what companies want to pursue and as such structure their decisions. Being a successful decision-maker then implies that we are open-minded so we can learn from our social environment (i.e. business competitors) and integrate these new insights into our own decision-making. Feelings of admiration can help in this situation. Admiration is a social emotion. It helps people to focus on others by observing what they are good at. As such, it is a positive emotion that shifts people’s focus to others (people or organizations) and motivates self-improvement by activating a desire to learn from those others that are being admired. As an emotion, admiration is thus a kind of guide that directs our attention, focus, and values, which translates into a learning experience that will influence our decision-making (Schindler, Zink, Windrich, & Menninghaus, 2013).
An important question that needs to be addressed to understand fully the value of admiration is how sustainable and resistant to pressure its emotional influence really is. That is, it’s relatively easy to admire another person or organization when one is not in competition or when competition exists but a difference in power position exists. Things are somewhat different, however, when the relationship between the own organization and the other party is more aversive and intense in terms of conflict. Can admiration then still be felt and influence decision-making? An interesting example of such a situation concerns the relationship between the Chinese telecom organization Huawei and the US. In the last few years, in the context of the US-China trade war, the US has constrained the business impact and influence of Huawei to a large extent. The company has been blacklisted by the US over alleged national security concerns (De Cremer, 2019), so US companies are barred from working with the Chinese tech firm without approval.” As a result, Huawei, for example, lost its license of Google’s commercial components for Android, which has led to a sharp loss of sales of their smartphones. In addition, the conflict significantly escalated further when the daughter of the founder Ren Zhengfei, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver, Canada. An international warrant, issued by the US government, charged Meng and Huawei with bank and wire fraud in violation of American sanctions on Iran.
Despite all this hardship – as imposed by US sanctions – Ren Zhengfei has been communicating in ways that signals admiration for the US. Indeed, Ren Zhengfei has initiated a strategy in 2021 that inspires the company to keep expanding outside China and added that in this expansion process Huawei still had much to learn from the US in terms of science and technology (Yujie, 2021). Admiration underlying the awareness that much can be learned from the enemy has led Ren Zhengfei to say at multiple occasions that the company wants to learn from the US and continue delivering services to US customers. Specifically, Ren Zhengfei has more than once emphasized that the US has the world’s most advanced technologies and that cooperation with US companies will remain a top priority. In addition, Huawei has also made clear that they want to hire US talents and bring them to China (Ye, 2021). As Ren Zhengfei mentioned: “we need to attract the best American talent and follow the salary standard in the US market.”
For many, it may be hard to understand that in the heat of the battle, to say so, Ren Zhengfei still feels this emotion of admiration for the achievements of the US. One reason why this may be the case is that the spiritual leader of Huawei has always emphasized that doing business at a global level requires that the processes of cooperation and competition work in tandem. It’s a well-known story that Huawei build positive relationships with its European competitors to gain access to the EU market (De Cremer & Tao, 2015). Another reason is that Ren Zhengfei has always expressed admiration towards the US – even long before Huawei rose to the ranks of global leadership in its industry. He has always enjoyed the fact that Americans are frank and open in their communication and thus not afraid to ask difficult questions. In several interviews, he has repeatedly said that he really gets US culture and really likes their take on how to manage a company. In fact, it is somewhat of a running joke that Huawei is actually a US-made company, because most of their strategy, leadership and management systems including human capital management originated from collaborations with US companies like IBM, Hay Group, PWC, Mercer Consulting and Accenture.
An interesting question that many observers may ask themselves is whether this emotion of admiration has blinded Huawei somewhat that they maybe do not recognize the real intensity of the conflict as they keep emphasizing learning from the US. On one hand, one could say that this rather emotional approach is a strategy, based on the work of Sun Tzu and his book “The Art of the War.” (Chen & Lee, 2008) According to Sun Tzu, in a context of war, the best outcome is no fight and therefore one should try to find out what and how the other party thinks (Wu, Wu, & Li, 2001). Or, in other words, “to know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” And, this is exactly what Huawei has been doing in the past (i.e. copying US management styles) and in a way continues to do so when they refer to their desire to keep learning from the US. On the other hand, the emotion of admiration may definitely have shaped their view on the conflict that has emerged between them and the US, but not necessarily in a blinding way. In fact, the feeling of admiration that the company expresses towards the US, is likely accompanied with feelings of hope to get through these difficult times. Admiration and hope tend to go together, which should not be a surprise, because admiration is a positive emotion whereas hope is an optimistic state of mind. So, in terms of valence both feelings match together and probably work together to explain why Ren Zhengfei keeps repeating that he still sees a lot of opportunities in their relationship with the US. Of course, he realizes that there will always be setbacks (Chen, 2021), but they do not seem to weaken his admiration for the US and thus also his feelings of hope that one day these setbacks will not be there anymore. Because after all, the best way to solve a war is not to have a fight at all. Indeed, as Sun Tzu famously said: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
About the Author
David De Cremer is a Provost’s chair and professor in management and organizations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. He is the founder and director of the corporate-sponsored “Centre on AI Technology for Humankind” at NUS Business school. Before moving to NUS, he was the KPMG endowed chaired professor in management studies and current honorary fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School. He is also a fellow at St. Edmunds College, Cambridge University. He is named one of the World’s top 30 management gurus and speakers in 2020 by the organization GlobalGurus, one of the “2021 Thinkers50 Radar list of 30 next generation business thinkers”, nominated for the Thinkers50 Distinguished 2021 award for Digital Thinking (a bi-annual gala event that the Financial Times deemed the “Oscars of Management Thinking”) and included in the World Top 2% of scientists (published by Stanford). He is a best-selling author with his co-authored book (with Tian Tao and Wu Chunbo) on “Huawei: Leadership, Culture and Connectivity” (2018) having received global recognition. His recent book “Leadership by Algorithm: Who leads and who follows in the AI era?” (2020) received critical acclaim worldwide, was named one of the 15 leadership books to read in Summer 2020 by Wharton and the kindle version of the book reached the no. 1 at amazon.com. His latest book is “On the emergence and understanding of Asian Global Leadership”, which was named management book of the month July (2021) by De Gruyter. His website: www.daviddecremer.com
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