Sunday, May 20, 2007

Managing Through Understanding

By Donny Huang*

One of the most frequent complaints heard from expatriates about their Chinese colleagues is that “they are not proactive” or “do not take initiative”. Although this does not apply to everyone, it is often true. This is because ‘being proactive’ or ‘taking initiative’ is simply not yet in the Chinese consciousness; asking Chinese staff who the most proactive person from e.g. their school days was, will most likely result in them thinking of the class ‘trouble makers’.

On the other hand, most expatriates will agree that their Chinese colleagues are extremely good at following orders. This is because fulfilling one’s role is a strong part of Chinese social culture. Understanding the roles and relationship-based nature of Chinese communication is essential to building trust. By understanding how the individual fits into Chinese culture, expatriates can enhance their personal effectiveness when dealing with local staff.

Motivating Chinese Staff

Confucian philosophy teaches that a man has to be capable of managing himself first; then he needs to be able to manage his family, his country, and eventually the entire world. This philosophy has been the driving motivation for Chinese intellectuals for centuries and goes some way to explain why Chinese individuals look for common threads connecting their personal, social, and professional roles.

Leadership that only motivates individuals is not enough. Ideally, personal, social, and professional achievements should all be rewarded and recognised. In addition, reward schemes should not only target individual performance, but also the team performance. The ideal reward system in China should take into consideration both individual performance as well as that of the team/department.

If the reward offered is too individualistic and bottom-line oriented, it may create pressure for the recipient and his/her group, which could negatively impact on the relationship between team members.


The Chinese communication style is indirect and highly contextual. In the communication process, Chinese people are expected to safeguard others by saving ‘face’ and maintaining social harmony. It is important to convey a message implicitly and indirectly, especially if bad news is being delivered. Sometimes, a gesture can say more than a thousand words.

Multiple layers of relationships with others define the self. ‘Face’ or ‘mianzi’ is defined through concepts of self-worth, social pride, honour, dignity, insult, shame, disgrace, humility, trust, mistrust, respect, and prestige. It plays a key role in Chinese personal interaction; giving other people ‘mianzi’ is the greatest way of paying respect. Conversely, saying ‘no’ directly should be avoided at all costs as criticising someone publicly is normally considered immature behaviour.

The result is that in meetings, Chinese staff tend not to voice their true opinions and feeling if it involves a negative response; they only interact in a group when they feel the environment is safe. Rank dominates the meeting room and determines with whom one should speak and when. Those in a lower position are generally expected to remain silent, only speaking when spoken to. The best way to solicit suggestions and honest opinions is to talk privately with each individual.

One way around this is written reports. In China, written reports are the formal way of communication in the workplace and requests or recommendations are expected to be in writing. Good writing skills are thus highly respected and emphasised.


Due to the concept of ‘face’, it is sometimes quite hard to get honest feedback in China. Don’t be misled if your employees come to you looking for advice or suggestions. It is common for Chinese subordinates to come to their supervisor for advice and they are comfortable taking orders from their superiors. This does not mean the communication is a two way street though.

When giving negative feedback make sure it is done in private, not publicly where it would result in a loss of ‘face’. The person giving the feedback should not have a close relationship with the individual, but should be a superior. Chinese people will rarely give negative feedback to their ‘friends’. For this reason many multinationals have given up on the 360-degree feedback procedure in China. It is best to gain and give feedback through individual conversations.

Delegating Tasks

China is a relationship-based society. Priority is often given to relationships over the completion of a task and the emphasis on planning and meeting deadlines is not as strong as in the West. Thus it is a clear decision if the choice is between jeopardising a harmonious relationship and completing a task on time.

Critical is that Chinese employees tend not to make decisions outside their roles and responsibility for fear of violating the balance and harmony in the working relationship. Chinese organizations are very hierarchical and decision-making process is centralized at the top of organization. Because of this factor, and because employees in China are generally process-oriented, any work delegated should be very specific, with each individual task or role clearly defined. When tasks are clearly defined, they will usually be completed very effectively.

Thus to increase effectiveness, Western managers should get involved in tasks at the beginning, clearly define the role for each team member, constantly monitor the progress of individuals and tasks, and ultimately act as a checking function to make sure that the project as a whole is on track. The beginning phase is the most critical here: it is imperative to make sure that the tasks expectations from superiors are clearly understood by all. Only then can and should work be delegated.

Leading Chinese Employees

The Chinese strive to fulfil their assigned roles in every aspect of life. Social roles have historic roots that can be traced back to the ‘five relationships’ of Confucian thought: father-son, ruler-subject, husband-wife, older brother-younger brother, and friend-friend. The authority figure in each of these roles has several obligations and is greatly respected. The personal identity is closely connected with the social role. Thus they are always conscious of their positions as above, below, or equal to those around them.

Sensitivity and training are key here. If a Western manager adopts management practices such as delegation or empowerment, they need to pay attention to these Chinese cultural values. It is important for the Western manager to keep in mind that, without proper training, the Chinese staff may not be comfortable making decisions beyond their roles or responsibility. Even those who are capable and willing to make those decisions may be put in an awkward position if they are forced to do so: by acting in a more Western manner, a Chinese employee may well gain the respect of his Western boss, but lose that of his colleagues making a harmonious work-life as good as impossible.

Western managers can sometimes mistake this for a lack of initiative at work. Don’t make this mistake. Appreciate that in the role as boss, it is your role to train the team to understand your management requirements. By pushing any one member of the team forward, you could cause huge conflict among the Chinese team – a conflict you may not be made aware of until it is too late.

China is a very hierarchical society. Power is respected, and the power distance is high. The Chinese emphasis on maintaining harmony and good relationships may seem ‘soft’ to Western managers more used to dealing with hard numbers, structure, and regulations. The expectation that an executive will be sensitive and understanding seems at odds with the picture of a tough leader in the West. The Chinese management style however mixes a paternal care for staff with clear expectations and hard discipline, similar to the good father image of a Chinese family.

As such Chinese employees have certain expectations of their leaders, such as that they be firm, disciplined, caring, reserved, and careful with words and promises. In essence, leaders function much like a father figure. Indeed, Government officials are often called “father” and “mother” officials.


The key features of a Chinese management style are to develop trust among all parties and a strong emphasis on balance and harmony. The combinations of ‘Guanxi’, role fulfilment, and group-harmony result in a leadership style dependent on developing good relationships and maintaining balance with all parties. Driving results through structure and system, which is so fundamental to the Western management style, may thus not be the best way of getting results in China.

Any Western manager operating in China must find a balance between these two worlds to lead China operations effectively. To this end, General Managers of multinationals in China often need more lenience from their HQ than those based in countries with a more Western approach to management and leadership.

*Donny Huang, managing director, 4stones Cross-cultural Consulting Group.

This article is published in 02/07 issue of Business Forum China (



Anonymous Elvina said...

Good post.

2:01 PM  
Blogger JRollingson said...

I also found this to be an interesting post. While living in China as a foreign teacher I quickly had to learn the social politics found even within academia.

It was unheard of to challenge a senior teacher let alone the dean. This was also the case with teacher student relations.

I found myself having to encourage my students to challenge me (as the teacher) and each other during class discussions.

One technique I utilized in my course was having mock debates based on Lincoln/Douglas debate style around various world topics. This was an awesome experience in watching the "West" mingle with the "East". The students really got into the debate and I do have to say that I was outdebated a few times...

9:22 PM  

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