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Managing Chinese employees

by: Diego Gilardoni

Why should I read this document? 

The different ways of thinking and of seeing the reality of the Chinese, coupled with the collectivistic and highly hierarchical character of Chinese society, creates such a peculiar cultural environment that it becomes essential for foreign managers to change their views on how to manage people by adapting their models to the Chinese reality. For Western companies especially, just sticking to the way they are used to working in the West will simply not work.

To increase effectiveness, foreign managers should get involved in tasks at the beginning, clearly define the role for each employee, and constantly monitor progress to make sure that the project as a whole is on track. 

Important! 

5 most important things to know about managing  in China (if you only read one thing that is what you should read)

 

  • At least at the beginning of a business relationship "micromanagement" is essential
  • Any work assignment should be extremely detailed and very specific, with each individual task or role clearly defined. 
  •  Managers are expected to give orders and employees are expected to follow them.
  •  It is generally considered inappropriate for employees to express their opinion in a meeting unless they are asked to by their boss. 
  •  If a manager needs to criticize an employee or give negative feedback, he must do it in private, and not in front of other colleagues, to preserve the employee’s face

 

Understanding the context

Starting from childhood within their family, Chinese are generally raised to follow instructions from the top and are used to a well defined hierarchical structure in which each person has a clear role. 

The Chinese educational system reinforces that by teaching students to conform instead of fostering independent thinking. Chinese education is focused on rote learning instead of promoting critical thinking. Chinese students are not encouraged to question the concepts imparted on them by their teachers. Since China scores high in Power Distance, in the structure of Chinese schools, it would be unimaginable for a student to question a teacher. The teacher is always right.  Students, therefore, are not used or encouraged to raise their hands to ask a question or to state an opinion. This context impacts the development of soft skills such as creativity, proactivity, risk-taking, leadership and spirit of initiative.  Which will of course impact the way they act as employees.

Implications for managers

In such a context, it is obvious that a European manager, preparing for an assignment in China, needs to take this context into serious consideration and be prepared to profoundly adapt his management strategy to a completely different reality. Because they will inevitably face situations that would have been inconceivable to them back home. This adaptation process will take time and will not be easy, because it involves the ability to really reconfigure one’s mindset and basic assumptions about people management. The home organisation should invest and make time available for this essential preparation if they want the manager to be successful. 

For example, if a foreign manager is used to involving employees in the decision-making process by asking for his employees’ opinion, or if that same manager is used to leading meetings where everyone is encouraged and willing to speak out and to share their ideas, he cannot expect the same to happen automatically in China. In a Chinese company, it is generally considered inappropriate for employees to express their opinion in a meeting unless they are asked to by their boss. In some cases, offering one’s opinion without invitation could even be seen as an act of insubordination. 

 

Face saving, balance and harmony

As it is generally considered inappropriate for employees in China to openly express opinions different from those of their superiors, Chinese employees tend to agree with them because of the fear of making everyone lose face. In a situation where something really important needs to be discussed, the employee would talk to the superior and express his opinion, but exclusively in private, not in front of his colleagues, in order to preserve the manager’s face.

Another critical point when it comes to managing people in China is that usually Chinese employees avoid making decisions outside their role and responsibility for fear of violating, the balance and harmony in the workplace. It is therefore essential that any work assignment be extremely detailed and very specific, with each individual task or role clearly defined. Chinese are really good professionals and they will complete tasks effectively as long as they are clearly defined in order to avoid any room for ambiguity and misunderstandings. A foreign manager might be used to giving assignments without getting involved in the small details because these are considered implied and it is expected that the employee will deal with them without the need for any additional instruction and will ask if needed. When giving instructions to a Chinese employee, especially at the early stage of a working relationship, any detail that is considered important must be explicitly stated, even if from the managers’ perspective these details are obviously implied in the context and do not need to be told. Every task must be clearly stated and care must be taken so that the employee has clearly understood what his responsibility is and what the management’s expectations are. A good piece of advice is to create very detailed written guidelines including a job description, expected performance, tasks, responsibilities, and expectations. If it is not clear whether the employee has fully understood his task, the manager should talk to him in private and make sure that he/she does. 

In many Western countries, such a degree of involvement of a manager would be seen as “micromanagement”. But, in order to guarantee the success of a project in China and to avoid that something gets “lost in translation”, at least at the beginning of a working relationship, "micromanagement" is essential.

A European manager has been tasked with taking over operations for a shoe manufacturing company in order to increase the profitability of a certain line of product. 

On his first day, he decided to meet all the employees together to introduce himself and tells them that he expects complete transparency and that they all should feel free to come and talk to him directly if there are problems or if they have ideas. One of the coordinator’s shares details on all the employees of the team and our new managers decides on changes to be made to the production line in order to increase the quality as he was tasked.

 As no one comes to see him in his office, as requested, he decides on a weekly company wide open meeting where all employees can share ideas and opinions on how to improve process and quality and share what they think of the new changes. The manager gets frustrated as most employees come to the meeting but do not raise their hands and only share banalities if forced to speak. 

After 6 months, the profitability of the line has not improved as targeted and the manager is getting frustrated and lashed out at some of the employees publicly.  Frustrated and not feeling supported he decided to leave the organization. 

 

What should the manager do to improve the situation? 

When it comes to problem-solving (and in any business venture in China there will definitely be many problems along the way), it is not enough to just ask employees to think about a solution. In order to actually get some real feedback from an employee, the request must be formalized and structured. It should be a formal assignment, with a clear goal and a clear schedule. The employee must understand that his role is to think about any kind of idea that could help solve the problem and that he must do it within a specific deadline. When the proposals are ready, they will be discussed only with the manager face-to-face, in order to avoid “face-saving”-related pressure or embarrassment. If a manager needs to criticize an employee or give negative feedback, he must do it in private, and not in front of other colleagues, to preserve the employee’s face. 

 

References and interesting links

  • Wang, Jia, Wang, Greg G., Ruona, Wendy E. A. & Rojewski, Jay W., « Confucian Values and the Implications for International HRD », in Human Resource Development International, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 2005, p. 320.

  •  « Winning in China: Building Talent Competitiveness », Manpower Inc., November 2010, p. 3.

  • Global Mobility: Moving the right people to the right place at the right cost. A collection of White Papers from the 2014 Expatriate Management Conference, Mercer, p. 28, https://www.imercer.com/uploads/GM/qol2015/pdf/Global-Mobility-Moving-th....

  •  2016 Greater China Employee Intentions Report, Michael Page, October 2015, p. 25.