Work Culture and Effective Management Style

China's work culture is still strongly influenced by traditional Confucian values, even though newer generations of Chinese employees are beginning to challenge these old standards.

In earlier days, organizations tended to be built on loyalty, or guanxi (Chap. 46), rather than merit. The leader would choose staff according to personal and professional connections—people who the leader knew would be loyal. This provided leaders security in their position and ensured that strong subordinates would not attempt to replace them. Many local companies still operate in this manner. The concept may have lost some of its dominance, but personal loyalty still holds great influence in company life and is often valued more highly than company loyalty. Because of this, Chinese companies face a great risk when key personnel leave, since their colleagues often follow suit due to guanxi.

In China, hierarchy and title are highly respected in the workplace. The management style tends toward the directive; instructions, opinions, and decisions are rarely questioned or criticized. Whether at a staff meeting or in public, employees will usually not disagree with the leader—this would cause a loss of face for all parties concerned. Often subordinates will not say “no” when given a task, even if it is impossible to accomplish. Given impossible tasks, they may provide an alibi or not even attempt the task, but say nothing in the hope that someone else takes the blame.

The hierarchical approach has helped Chinese companies to operate with speed and focus in an ever-changing environment. But the deference to authority it invokes, combined with Chinese education's emphasis on rote learning, have also strong disadvantages: it often leads to comparatively less creativity and personal initiative amongst employees. Silo mentality is pervasive and strong in Chinese organizations, with little sense of overall responsibility outside the scope of work. Not surprisingly, Chinese employees are often less comfortable with matrix organizations which require reporting to multiple managers or supervisors. Chinese employees may also have difficulty dealing with high degrees of uncertainty, and when faced with situations without explicit orders—where they may be unsure of what to do—they may post-pone decision making which slows the process.

China's companies and their employees tend to be rather flexible. Because of their experiences working in a rapidly changing environment, they are inclined to schedule meetings on short notice, respond directly to emails and phone calls, and implement decisions very quickly. While this flexibility certainly has big advantages, it can also be problematic, as it may prompt decisions without the appropriate analysis or organization.

In general, employees are motivated by rewards and recognition. They often focus on attaining financial success, security, and a positive perception in the public eye. A benefit of this is that—given the right incentives—Chinese employees have a progressive, competitive spirit. On the other hand, it is often only work that is visible is well-executed. Work that will not be rewarded with praise, merit, or money may be poorly executed, or even ignored. Sometimes competition can also become unhealthy as co-workers impede each other's productivity and jockey for authority in their positions. Even managers, having risen through the company hierarchy, may suffer from an “emperor of the office” complex: a focus on garnering praise and deflecting criticism rather than on growing the underlying business. The latter can have a trickledown effect, harming the atmosphere and attitude of all the manager's subordinates.

The following chart lists some typical behaviors and expectations that Chinese employees exhibit in their workplace, and how managers can use them to the business' larger success—without stepping on any cultural toes (Table 30.1).

Table 30.1 How to effectively manage Chinese employees

Chinese employees.. .

Effective managers...

Employees want clear instructions and guidance from superiors, as well as defined areas of authority and responsibility

Delegate tasks and projects clearly. Emphasize the group's responsibility for their aggregate results, rather than individual responsibility for component results. This discourages unhealthy competition and power struggles among employees

Employees value and influenced by personal connections and obligations (guanxi), so building a guanxi network is important

Try to build positive guanxi with employees by taking an interest in their personal lives and hobbies. Be sure to participate in and encourage company social events or sports teams. Always keep promises and return favors—this is the “currency” of guanxi!

Employees try to give others face and maintain their own face in professional interactions

Check on employees frequently—this gives them the opportunity to bring up problems and issues with projects in an way that maintains their face. Reward and recognize good performance publicly, and only give criticism privately (even then, be constructive!)

Employees give strong respect to hierarchy and titles Managers are obeyed and very rarely criticized

Act competent and professional at all times, trying to fit the image of a distant, but benevolent “Confucian” manger.

Humbly accept but never seek praise.

Don't succumb to “emperor of the office” mentality—encourage creativity and positive criticism when possible!


Warning: High importance of informal communication

In China, the decision-making process requires much informal communication and deviates much from that in the west. In the west, even meetings of high ranking executives could include open discussion and exchange of ideas. In China, managers and stakeholders would have already exchanged ideas and arrived at a mutually beneficial agreement before the official meeting. The meeting marks the last step in such a process and is used to formalize a decision.

China also differs in that all high-ranking managers must be in agreement about key initiatives. This can lead to situations in which a whole project needs to be reconsidered if only one high-ranking manager is not convinced about an initiative or decision.

Tip: Avoid criticizing colleagues of subordinates publicly

This approach goes along with the concept of face (mianzi) and connection (guanxi). Do not criticize staff, especially managers or supervisors, in front of their peers and never reprimand them when their subordinates are present. Such criticism has to be discussed in separate face-to-face meeting.

Tip: Fight the “silo” mentality

It is important to encourage cross-functional collaborations among a range of functional groups to break into the often present “silo” mentality of departments, functions or divisions. Get-togethers, workshops and team activities, along with a top-down managerial emphasis on the importance of cross-functional work, may be useful.

Tip: Reach out to Generation Y

It will be essential for companies to find ways to meet the younger generation's needs and to keep them motivated. This generation, which makes up nearly 50% of the country's workforce, is unlikely to tacitly accept outdated business practices and social structures.

INSIGHT: Nandani Lynton, CEIBS University

1) Working with China's Generation Y

Raised as only children burdened by the academic expectations and dreams of parents and grandparents, many Gen Ys suffer from unhealthy anxiety and perfectionism that can create self-doubt, performance anxiety, and, ultimately, procrastination.

Many managers find Gen Y members ambitious and demanding, hypersensitive, and almost allergic to criticism. They are puzzled by the amount of "emotion" Gen Y employees add to the workplace. Though they take for granted that hierarchy exists, Gen Ys do not comply with hierarchic rules in the way the previous generation—the generation of their managers— does. This creates friction between young staffers and supervisors.

Gen X middle managers tend to be less assertive, and may rarely voice opinions in meetings, yet they are now managing groups of young people with good English skills who are fully confident in speaking up and in interacting with foreigners. The young want to take initiative and share ideas but lack experience. Their immediate bosses at the middle level may thus feel squeezed, disrespected, and unable to deal with their young subordinates.

2) Attractive Messages for Generation Y

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