Feng Shui is serious business in China, and the workplace is no exception. Philippe Vigoureux, a leading intercultural consultant, shares a narrative that highlights the importance of understanding local beliefs before imposing your own.
During my time in Shanghai I had a chance to meet the General Manager of the Chinese subsidiary of a major luxury products group. When I spoke to her about my activities as a consultant in the intercultural field, she was keen to tell me about her early years in China and particularly about one peculiar episode which left a strong impression on her.
An Intercultural Gaffe
She explained: “This is what happened to me! Shortly after I took up my post, I noticed that the offices in one part of the building were too compartmentalised and in my view this has an impact on the fluidity of the communication in general and on teamwork. I spoke to several colleagues about this. I suggested opening up the offices by removing most of the partitions, creating a more ‘open-plan’ effect. Everyone said ‘yes!’.
A date for the conversion work was arranged with no disagreements, with the dismantling work scheduled for a weekend by a specialised company. But suddenly…boom! When I arrived on Monday morning, I noticed that large cactus plants had been placed where the alleyways intersect, and each office was surrounded with small cactus plants and that the pregnant women were all absent. Everyone was busily at work, yet the atmosphere was quite tense. What could have happened? A number of colleagues who were particularly close to me noticed my confusion and came to my aid.
According to Chinese superstitions, we are surrounded by spirits which circulate around us. Some of these are malicious or even harmful, and we should, therefore, take measures to make life as difficult for them as we can. They explained that now I’d removed the partitions, the spirits could circulate freely in the offices and the only way to protect themselves was with cactuses. The spirits will catch themselves on the cactuses and this keeps them away. In Feng Shui, the cactus contains negative energy.
My mistake was to have interpreted their ‘yes’ as meaning ‘yes’, which is rarely the case here!”
The Solution: A Feng Shui Master
I asked her how she solved the problem. She continued: “I, directly and indirectly, consulted my staff and gradually got the message that if I wanted offices which were more open, this must be achieved using the advice of a Feng Shui master. No sooner said than done. I chose one of the best in Shanghai, who visited the site and confirmed the opinions held by the staff. At the same time, he tried to help me rectify my mistake without losing face.
He identified the most natural routes the spirits would take passing through certain windows and crossing the area. He had me reinstall some of the partitions, without adversely affecting my initial goal of achieving greater fluidity. Smiles began to appear on people’s faces once again, and the pregnant women came back. The large cactus plants have gone but the smaller ones are still with us!
Feng Shui must be taken seriously in the Chinese business environment. The colours used for decorations, the office layouts, the proximity of exits… everything must be taken into account to create a peaceful atmosphere.”
Some time later, I learned that everything was going much better at the company, and that the little cactus plants had progressively disappeared.