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Cross Cultural Management Guide for China

The tips below are for managers who want to learn more about the management style and business culture of China.

This guide provides some useful information for managers who are relocating to the country for employment as well as those who may have Chinese employees in their global or multicultural teams.

Topics include:

  • Hierarchy
  • Face
  • Harmony
  • Leadership style
  • Time and scheduling
  • Communication style
  • Negotiation

Being a Manager in China

The management style in China can not neatly be categorized, however, there are some common threads including that it's relationship-orientated, hierarchical, adaptive and rational.

  • Chinese management is influenced heavily by Confucian values including the idea of a leader carrying a paternal role.
  • To be a good leader is to be a 'gentleman', someone with manners and a person of inspiration.
  • Chinese managers focus on creating harmonious working environments and seek to build 'happy' workplaces.
  • Guanxi and the concept of personal networks are important in China.
  • Organizations are typically vertical in terms of power structures and reporting lines.
  • Facts, statistics, rationale and reason are highly valued in the decision making process.

The Role of a Manager

Successful management in China is more likely if you bear in mind that each person has a very distinct role within the organization, and maintaining that role helps to keep order:

  • In general, the manager may direct the activities of subordinate team members and expect direction to be carried out as requested. 
  • The concept of mianzi ('face') is very important and needs to be understood by managers. 
  • Managers tend to take on a paternal attitude towards employees.
  • In return they receive loyalty.
  • Managers should protect an employee's reputation by not chastising, challenging or criticising them publicly.
  • In the event that they wish to communicate bad news to their employees, they may well use an intermediary to protect harmony within the manager/employee relationship. 

Approach to Change

Whereas China has traditionally had a medium tolerance for change and risk, this has changed dramatically over the past decade.

  • In more traditional companies cultural sensitivity is essential as the fear of exposure, and the potential of embarrassment that may accompany failure still brings about aversion to risk.
  • Any ideas raised by an individual need to be raised gently to avoid exposing that person.
  • Change can be easily embraced, especially it it delivers short-term results.

Approach to Time and Priorities

China is a moderate time culture and typically there may be some flexibility to strict adherence to schedules and deadlines. Nevertheless, the expectations of global working have caused the Chinese to adopt relatively strict standards of adhering to schedules.

  • In Chinese culture, it's normal to take your time to reflect and deliberate before coming to a decision; being too quick can be seen as rash.
  • Deadlines frequently move and as a manager, you should always have a backup plan. 

Decision Making

Effective  management needs to bear in mind the hierarchy of this culture which may impact decision-making in the following ways:

  • There may be informal networking between employees themselves or supervisors and employees, although actual power is generally held in the hands of a few key people at the top of the organization.
  • Although changing, China's ingrained bureaucracy is still evident in government offices and all but the most entrepreneurial companies.
  • Departments tend to work quite independently of each other and only share selected information.
  • Rivalries often exist within the same company.

Boss or Team Player?

In China there is a significant deference to authority and generally an inhibition to speaking out. You may find that:

  • This impacts open teamwork as people are generally less willing to speak up. 
  • If you are managing a group, and want to invite the sharing of ideas, then ensure you emphasise that this is an open environment and that all contributions are valuable.
  • More recently, this trait has been changing in the younger generations who have found employment in multinational companies and have embraced the idea of teamwork and participation.

Communication and Negotiation Styles

Relationships and harmony are very important factors in Chinese business culture. As such, the communication style tends to be subtle and indirect with a preference to avoid any kind of confrontation. 

  • In negotiations, the value placed on relationships and harmony means that the Chinese generally seek a win-win outcome.
  • It's extremely important that you organise your negotiation team well. 
  • Ensure that you have a senior executive on the team to act as the 'voice of the group'. 
  • All other members of the group should be quiet unless explicitly invited to contribute. 
  • You should also identify a member of the team to play an intermediary role.
  • This role plays a 'go between' function; interfacing with the intermediary on the Chinese team to resolve any issues and, as such, protect harmony between the two group leaders. 
  • Make sure you bring along a senior-level executive to be part of the negotiating team.
  • The Chinese will enter a room based on rank and you must make sure you do the same.
  • Only the most senior person will speak during discussions.
  • Success is more likely if you are aware of some of the negotiating tactics that are often deployed.
  • These can include using silence to put pressure on you to concede points and delaying everything until the last minute so that you feel pressured to push things through quickly.
  • It is worth maintaining your composure at these times.
  • Under no circumstances should you lose your temper or you will lose face and irrevocably damage your relationship.
  • Avoid miscommunication by ensuring written material is available in both English and Chinese, using simplified characters and trying to phrase your questions so that they require more than a yes or no response.
  • This will allow you to make certain you were understood.
  • It is imperative during the contractual agreement phase to have independent legal advice from someone intimately familiar with the business environment in China.
  • Do not overlook national laws and be extremely cautious about those you are choosing to do business with.
  • It is worth checking the financial status of all related companies.

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