Towards understanding self-deprecative behaviour in a consulting relationship: My White Face in Asia


Rei’s boss, Alex, had forced Rei to work with me after a survey indicated that Rei’s management style was “totally unacceptable”. Attrition is Rei’s group was 47% a year! Yet Rei was an outstanding marketer, salesman and technical whiz.

For one year, I shadowed Rei for 5 days a quarter; every four hours we would have a feedback session, over lunch or supper.

During the initial two visits, the shadowing was a learning process for us. Rei and I did have a few things in common, and we “leaned” on them heavily at first.  Both of us are history buffs, read voraciously, and follow boxing. Naturally, it was not easy for Rei to accept my presence which at first undermined his authority, and both Rei and many of his direct reports speak poor English with a very heavy accent, which made the listening process very, very tiring.

A huge change occurred  during my third visit. We met for breakfast in a hotel in Bangalore, and he told me that “all this work with you is very humbling”. This was very much unlike Rei, who had been very reserved with me. I shadowed him for two days in India and we flew off to Bangkok on a punishing night flight. During the flight, he asked for my opinion on many issues in which I felt that he had a higher level of expertise. (For example, he asked me how I thought Mao had blended certain elements of Confucianism to drive communism into the Chinese countryside! At 3 am!)

As the week progressed, he continued self-deprecating ever so slowly, giving me more and more “face”. When he introduced me to his staff in Shanghai, he told them to watch the way they speak about me, because Professor Allon “may” understand you, which greatly exaggerates my ability to understand spoken Chinese. (I am not a professor, nor do I have a doctorate.)

On the fourth and fifth day of the third visit, Rei was more engaging with me than usual, and actively spoke with me. He stopped writing down my feedback, and started frank discussion. He told me that “we do not share the same understandings” about the motives of  team members”. He also told me that “although you are not naïve Allon, may I suggest that you re-examine the way that you read Paul’s behaviour.”

From then on in until the end of the project, a pattern emerged: Rei self-deprecated, praised me, thanked me, and then engaged me.

Rei’s self-deprecating was (and remains) to be a strategy he uses which allows him to open up to Westerners in positions of power and influence. Rei creates “credit” by self-deprecating and piling face onto the person he is dealing with, and this credit provides Rei with a springboard to actively engage without showing lack of respect.

Rei, 谢谢 .Thank you for reading this, commenting on this, and allowing me to publish it.

PS-For more on the westerner and OD, read this.