6 Differences between a Western and a Chinese workplace

Differences between Chinese and Western workplaces

A Chinese workplace can be so different from a Western one, in things you may not expect.

Someone who is planning to go to China for work asked me the other day what the 5 key differences are between working in China and the West. I thought I’ll answer this question for everybody.

Here you go:

1. Management in China is hierarchical

A Chinese boss is not used to being questioned by a more junior employee. Even making suggestions and sharing opinions upward is an art form to avoid any appearance of criticism.

2. Little cross-functional transparency

Strong top-down hierarchies prevent transparency across functions, making collaboration challenging. Departments tend to work within and don’t let “outsiders” question or suggest anything.

3. Problems swept under the rug – until they blow up

To avoid the loss of face, problems are usually not brought up with the manager or even a client. Instead they are ignored in the hope they may go away, or a creative workaround may be found – without communicating the deviation from the plan.

4. Never assume anything

Management in China needs to be much more “in the weeds” to stay on top of the hidden problems or workarounds. You have to ask very specific questions and closely follow how work is actually done, otherwise you might find yourself with results based on a faulty workaround. The problem is that you don’t know what your don’t know.

5. Good enough is good enough

Cha bu duo“, loosely translated as “good enough” is a common term in China. Details seem to be less important than in the West. Don’t expect perfection, “good enough” (barely) may be all you get in a Chinese workplace.

6. Thinking is collective rather than individualistic

Employees rarely take ownership or go the extra mile. The goal is not upset the overall balance and hierarchy, and not to stick the neck out.

So I ended up with 6 key differences, rather than 5. Well, cha bu duo.

If you enjoyed this post, 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. To quote a reader “I’ve witnessed every single thing you mentioned, and had some AHA moments too. Great book.” and another said “The concepts you cover are spot on and the strategies you suggest make a world of sense.”


6 Differences between a Western and a Chinese workplace — 3 Comments

  1. Factors like race, body weight and appearance also count towards the position in the hierarchy.

  2. Pingback: Work Culture in China – Chinese Cultures