Confucius was a Chinese teacher, philosopher and politician around 500 BC, whose influence is still felt in China today. You will see it in the respect given to older or higher ranking people. It is also evident in the general attitude towards hierarchy. So you can imagine how it influences the work culture in China.
Don’t question your boss
In the Chinese work environment, subordinates are expected to show respect to the senior manager. That means that they don’t disagree with their superior or criticize him, at least not directly and publicly.
A Westerner may think nothing about responding to his boss’ directions with some ideas of his own. If your boss is Chinese, you may want to rethink that approach. Or at least reword it in a way that acknowledges your boss’ good approach first before mentioning your additional thoughts. Managing up to a Chinese boss is very different from managing up to, let’s say, an American boss.
Managing downwards is also very different. A senior manager in a Chinese work culture usually gives very specific directions to his direct reports, who in turn pass those on to their teams. Staff members typically don’t question the superior, which would be seen as disrespectful.
Obviously, this is very different from the Western approach, where the senior manager usually formulates the overall goals, often with input from his or her team members, and empowers them to execute.You can see how someone who is used to the Chinese management style will likely be very confused or frustrated when paired with a Western style manager, or vice versa.
Challenges of the Chinese management style
The Chinese approach to management is very efficient in getting things done, if you give specific enough direction. However, it does not particularly encourage two-way communication. For example, if there are any issues encountered during the execution of tasks, those are not likely to be communicated upwards.
This requires the supervisor to closely manage the minutia of tasks and projects, something we would call micromanagement from a Western perspective. Of course, that does not foster ownership at the lower levels. The lack of ownership, together with a culture that emphasizes groups over individuals, contributes to personal accountability often being very fuzzy.
How to succeed in a Chinese work culture
As a Western professional working in a Chinese company, or even a Western company in China, where many employees are Chinese, you probably have to adapt your style to the culture to be successful. This also applies when you are dealing with Chinese business partners.
Be aware of seniority and hierarchy so you don’t inadvertently step on people’s toes. In the beginning, until you better understand the dynamics of your work environment in China, you should hold back with your suggestions to do things differently, or at least be very cognizant on how you present those.
When you manage Chinese employees, it is best to never assume anything. Your subordinates are unlikely to bring problems to your attention or challenge your directions. Therefore, you have to listen more for subtle clues and stay on top of the small stuff.
If you want to read more about the people and culture element of working in China, check out this Expat Guide – Managing in China. The Practical Guide describes many typical work situations and provides real life examples to illustrate the cultural differences in the workplace. It also gives practical tips and insights to help Western professionals be successful when working in China.