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Leadership style in China

by: Diego Gilardoni

Why should I read this document? 

In the context of Chinese people management, a very important point that needs to be made is that, when it comes to the relationship between executives and employees in China, one must be very careful not to misunderstand the dynamics of Chinese hierarchy. 



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

  • In China, the boss is not a dictator, but a “paternalistic manager” who mixes paternal care for staff with clear expectations and hard discipline.
  • Building a good relationship with employees is essential. 
  • Participating in many social activities outside the office and after working hours is a good way to establish good guanxi with the employees.
  • Any work assignment should be extremely detailed and very specific, with each individual task or role clearly defined. 


The context

Chinese style management is a good example of the influence that Confucianism still has on the cultural and social fabric of China. The social order shaped around the thought of Confucius is based on the hierarchical structure of the family and on the relationship between father and son; a relationship that is replicated in all kinds of hierarchical order in the society, whether it is between the citizen and the State, the teacher and the students or the manager and the employees. Since this hierarchical structure is based on loyalty and obedience, for instance, the son must be loyal to his father and always obey his orders. However, this relationship needs always to be considered in a context of reciprocity, meaning that, if the son must be loyal and obedient to his father, the latter must ensure consideration, respect, and protection to his son.

The benevolent leader

Despite the modernization of the economy and the society, and the resulting trend towards more individualism among the younger generations, the management structure in China is much more hierarchical than in most Western countries. China is still a high Power Distance society and most employees tend to favour an authoritative leadership style. This style of leadership fosters a prescriptive, clear, controlled environment, and can be reassuring for younger middle management and the professional workforce that is not yet comfortable in dealing with a Western-style, consensus-driven and matrix-based business management.

This, however, does not mean that the boss holds absolute power and that he can do whatever he wants without considering his employees’ opinions and feelings. There are responsibilities, expectations on both sides. In China, the boss is not a dictator, but rather a “benevolent father”, the principles and codes underlying the Chinese management style could be defined as “paternalist management”.

The same goes for the relationship between a manager and his employees. The manager is usually seen as a benevolent leader, who mixes a paternal care for employees with clear expectations and hard discipline. This is very important to bear in mind for any manager assigned to lead and manage Chinese employees. Especially because, while in most Western countries HR management mainly focuses on processes, in China it focuses on the people.

This is why, in order to start building a guanxi with his employees, a foreign manager must be ready to give part of his free time to non-work related social activities (dinners, parties, karaoke,…) aimed at creating a good atmosphere among colleagues as if it were a big family. This is very important: in China, relationships within the company need to be built also outside of the office and the work hours by making the employees feel part of something bigger that goes beyond their daily professional tasks. It is essential to understand that a company’s loyalty to its employees counts first; only then employees will also develop feelings of loyalty towards the company. It is all about reciprocity. 

But obviously, in order to create a sense of belonging among the employees a few dinners out or company parties are not enough. What employees are looking for, especially among the younger generations, is to have a clear sense of the goals of the company and the feeling of being part of a collective effort to reach those goals. It is therefore essential to build a corporate culture that allows the employees to identify themselves with the company’s aspirations and objectives.

According to a recent survey, the most important aspects of corporate culture for most Chinese employees, especially among the younger generations, are a clear vision of the company’s direction, respected leadership, governance, and the belief in fairness and promotion on merit. In this context, a company needs, therefore, to go a long way to create a context where a diverse and dynamic workforce can feel that they can fulfil their professional and personal goals.

Ask everything, give nothing. A case study

A very performant HR Senior Manager from Europe is assigned to a rather small new venture in Beijing with approximately 60 employees. Upon arrival, she is received at the airport by one of her junior colleagues, who has been assigned to help her settle in. He very respectfully welcomes her and offers to take her to visit the city and help with what she needs. He also mentioned that he has organised for a dinner later during the day where the entire HR team will be present and they will go sing afterwards, mentioning that this will be a good way to meet the team. She declines without offering any explanation. During the weekend the same person repeatedly calls to offer to go to dinner or visit the city. She refuses and tells him that she will see him on Monday.

On Monday everyone is very nice and welcoming and the manager is asked out for lunch again. She refuses and eats at her desk. She starts the work by looking at the current processes for onboarding, exit, retention, performance reviews, etc. and barely talks to anyone. In the evening she gets home directly after work and turns her phone off. After a few weeks, the invitations stop, members of her team seems to always have other meetings to attend.

After a few days, she gets everyone in a meeting to share how things will be changed and getting the opinion on the changes. As the meeting finishes, the room is stubbornly quiet and she takes it as an agreement with the plan presented. After a few weeks, the manager realises that while everyone is answering "yes" to all of her questions, no one in her team is sharing anything and worse of all, the changes agreed upon have not been implemented. She proceeds to send memos about them which don't seem to be effective. She confronts the rest of the team by stepping into a meeting to express her discontent but she is met with nothing but silence. Frustrated after 3 months she decides to go back to Europe.  

What is happening here? 

How could this be solved?

What should have been done differently on both sides? 

References and interesting links

Last updated: 17.03.2021 - 11:02
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