Part 6 of a weekly series entitled, The Bamboo Ceiling: Managing Chinese Employees Beyond Stereotype
By William R. Dodson
3 May 2002
A Chinese expression says that all Chinese are Emperors: the boss at the company, the husband in the household, the wife with her children, and so on. The historical model for organizing Chinese has been one of hierarchy. Indeed, the I Ching, a canon of Chinese thought and philosophy considered to be four thousand years old says of the Family: “Within the family a strong authority is needed; this is represented by the parents. If the father is really a father and the son a son, if the elder brother fulfills his position, and the younger fulfills his, if the husband is really a husband and the wife a wife, then the family is in order. When the family is in order, all the social relationships of mankind will be in order.”1 The family patriarchy serves as the practical framework for human relationship throughout Chinese society, even to this day.
This model works fine in corporations with Family structures, as Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner discuss in their book Riding the Waves of Culture. Family structures have a father figure at the head that ensures the welfare of everyone in the group. Everyone in the group supports the role through his actions, taking even the most trivial details to the chief for review and decision, if not for a blessing. A Chinese employee in a Western bank described to the author that “… if the boss is Chinese, I talk with the boss first if there is a problem; I let him agree with the approach I’ve thought of. Even if I know I can solve a problem on my own, I yield the opportunity to the boss so he can feel like a superman – I give him Face.”
Face – mianzi -- is paramount between Chinese who work with one another in a Family-oriented business structure. However, Face is less important in the Guided Missile orientation than having the proper qualifications to get the job done. Guided Missile business structures are popular in the West, especially in America, in which businesses tend to be project-oriented. The program manager works with the team like a football coach that assumes team members are best suited to play out each of their roles. The leaders function is less to ensure the comfort and unity of the group so much as to exhibit to customers (internal or external) goals the group has met that achieve a specific objective.
Chinese do work well in the Guided Missile orientation; however, they do not necessarily feel the most effective in such a directed environment. The source of that feeling is that Chinese do not feel deep relationships with their co-workers. In China, as in much of the world apart from the United States, the people one works with are to a large part the people with whom one socializes after work. Socializing as a group adds dimension of personality to the people with whom one works, and builds trust between members as individuals see confirmation of behaviours through various conditions. The sense of trust between members is what drives them to give their utmost: it’s important for team members to support one another, and it’s of paramount importance that each gives the other Face.
Western managers can make the most of their Chinese employees and detach them from hierarchical/patriarchal conditioning by taking the time upfront to interact with Chinese outside the office. Outside the office is a prime opportunity for cultural exchange. As one Chinese accountant who works in a multinational retail business put it: “You don’t want to get too personal with people you work with daily in the US… how can a foreigner be fully socialized in after-hour drinking, in sports chatting, etc? The cause is culture difference… no matter how Americanized you’ve become, your interests outside work are very different. Thus, work is not that enjoyable if you cannot socialize with your peers. This is not just saying hello, and talking about weather in the office.” Western managers should expect to modify their interests, their conversation topics and the games they play the same degree to which they expect their employees to adapt. An investment like that will build the trust Western leaders look for in their Eastern counterparts but so often find elusive in these competitive times.
William R. Dodson is Managing Director of Silk Road Communications, L.L.C., a management consultancy that builds and improves working relationships across cultures. He is the international business editor of the American Management Association’s (AMA) MWorld Journal of Management, and writes the weekly column “The Cultured Business”, found at www./ and at the Global Perspectives section of the AMA’s member website. He can be reached at wdodson@/ or +1 (847)722-7817.
Read other articles in this series at: The Cultured Business.
(1) I Ching, Number 37, The Family