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Wish I’d Known That

December 22, 2012
The Changing Face of Chinese Management

The Changing Face of Chinese Management

This week I found a book I wish I’d read two years ago.  It could have saved me (and others) a lot of trouble.  Of course, it never would have occurred to me to read before the trouble started.  And once the trouble started, I was too busy with the trouble, but that’s a flimsy excuse.  You might wonder, what book could this possibly be?  The Digha Nikaya? The Bible? The Bhagavad Gita?  Huckleberry Finn?  Nope.  I needed to read The Changing Face of Chinese Management by Jie Tang and Anthony Ward.  Speficially, I read the first chapter, “Of different minds,” twenty simple pages that could have changed a lot.  Of course, most of it I’ve figured out the hard way by now.  So I’ll just share it with you.

As regular readers might know, I attend University of the West or UWest, a small, private, non-profit university in Los Angeles County.  UWest was founded about twenty-years ago at Hsi Lai Temple, a large branch of the Fo Guang Shan organization based in Taiwan. Overall, the relationship between UWest and FGS is quite good.  However, it does inevitably bring Chinese/Taiwanese and other Asians (and a smattering of other nationalities) into close contact with Americans and other Westerners.

I am convinced this is a good thing.  In fact, it’s part of the mission of the university to “facilitate understanding and appreciation between East and West.”  It’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about UWest.  It is a very diverse and welcoming place and one of the few where traditional Asian forms of Buddhism and more Americanized/Westernized Buddhisms mingle freely.  Yet as enjoyable and edifying as this is, such cross-cultural exchange is also fiendishly difficult at times.  Sometimes these difficulties seem insurmountable and I get discouraged.  Not only are Chinese and American culture very different, but in some very important ways they fundamentally disagree with one another.  (It’s not as simple as “Chinese” and “American” culture, but those are the most convenient labels.)

There are common practices in Chinese workplace culture that Americans find negligent at best, probably unethical, and criminal at worst.  Likewise, there are common American workplace practices that Chinese find to be highly offensive, disrespectful, useless at best, actively harmful at worst, and frequently ridiculous.  Things come most sharply into focus in the area of communication.  This was noted in a New York Times article about working in China:

The Chinese now rising in the work force were raised and educated in a system that tended to prize obedience and rote learning. Their American counterparts may have had more leeway to question authority and speak their minds. This can affect workplace communication.

When Corinne Dillon, 25, was working at a multinational company in Beijing, she noticed that her Chinese colleagues were sometimes hesitant about expressing their opinions, which she thought was rooted in views about hierarchy.

“Because foreigners are often in higher positions in companies, or even when they are not, there is sometimes an implicit respect given to them that makes Chinese people not want to directly disagree with them for fear of being perceived as impolite,” said Ms. Dillon, who is now director of sales and marketing at That’s Mandarin, a language school based in Beijing.

The difference cuts both ways. Ms. Zhao, of Blue Oak Capital, recalled her first experience working for an American at an American-run agency in Beijing. What her American boss perceived as directness left her feeling humiliated, she said. “I remember I was so embarrassed when my American boss told me he didn’t like something I was doing, right in front of me,” she said. “The Chinese way would have been much more indirect.”

Communication styles, Professor Taras said, can create workplace challenges. “Americans often perceive the Chinese as indecisive, less confident and not tough enough, whereas the Chinese may see Americans as rude or inconsiderate.”

The book by Tang and Ward tries to explain some common Chinese workplace behaviors and why they happen.  Twenty pages are far to few for such a complex subject, but it’s a good start. They cover the differences between collectivist cultures like China and individualist cultures like America and how that impacts power and authority, harmony and hierarchy, trust and suspicion, conflict and decision making, and communication.  In addition they talk a little about the Confucian and Communist roots of certain Chinese behaviors and the influences of tradition and modern globalization.

Nothing I read surprised me very much (although it would have two years ago), but I found myself becoming more and more discouraged.  I think I was looking for a way to understand Chinese workplace culture that would lead me to completely respect how they do things.  In fact, there is much to respect.  The Chinese are very loyal to their families and communities.  They prize relationships very highly, without the personal/professional divide of American workplace culture.  All relationships are personal relationships, which creates a strong sense of mutual connection and caring.  They value peace and harmony above all things.  And they have a fabulous work ethic, often working very hard and putting in long hours.

However, there is also much I just can’t understand and, more troubling, actively disagree with.  To start out, I’m no good at indirect communication and the Chinese are masters of it.  It seems to work quite effectively for them, so I can’t criticize the system as such.  However, even for an American I’ve always been very blunt and straightforward.  Unfortunately, when talking to Chinese people I’m frequently an idiot.  I miss the message entirely.  And although they may understand me, I often seem horribly rude.  Sometimes they understand what I’ve said but still don’t get the message because they don’t think I mean things literally.  They’re looking for a more subtle, indirect meaning that isn’t there.  Sorry, folks, but I’m just not that clever.  Tang and Ward explain:

Chinese communication stands in direct contrast with the American aversion to ambiguity and preference for blunt and direct speaking (Mead 1990: 132ff).  The Chinese favor the reserved, the implicit, and the indirect (hanxu). Consequently, the Chinese are constantly on the alert to ‘read between the lines’ of any message.  Things stated baldly leave too little room for manoeuvre, for tactical retreat to preserve harmony.  Hanxu also inhibits the forthright expression of emotion, particularly negative emotion.

I can concede the point, to a degree.  So many fights have be caused by a careless phrase followed by “I didn’t mean it that way!”  We could all take a little more care with our words, but care is a far cry from deliberate obfuscation.  I don’t know if they have the concept of a “lie of omission,” but it certainly fits the bill.  Tang and Ward note that “silence is often considered the safest course” in Chinese communications, which is the exact opposite of the American definition of the word.  I just can’t square with this subtlety which feels too much like deception, even if it is supposedly in service of noble ends.

The ideal towards which Chinese communication seems to strive is that of harmony.  Tang and Ward describe China as “well within the collectivist camp.”

Such societies tend to be characterized by participation in intense social interaction that affords little privacy, leading to a corresponding stress on the need to maintain harmony. …In such a world, much can be left unsaid, common knowledge and shared opinions can be relied upon to fill the gaps.  …Central to the collectivist view of life is the distinction between those who belong to one’s group and those who do not. …Favouring insiders over outsiders is expected rather than frowned upon.

This is because only insiders can be trusted to react and reciprocate in appropriate ways.  Outsiders are dangerous and worthy of suspicion.  Therefore, it is only natural that in business dealings, as in other things, preference will always be given to family and community.  We might call that nepotism and corrupt, but in Chinese culture it is an ethical imperative to look out for the members of one’s group in such ways.

This leads Chinese to cultivate extensive networks, called guanxi, based on mutual favors and friends-of-friends style associations.  Which means getting something done is more about who you know than what you know.  It also leads to a much different relationship between boss and subordinate, what Tang and Ward call a “high power distance” relationship.  Decision making authority is more centralized in the boss, but the subordinate can also rely on the boss to direct their work and tell them what to do more explicitly.  A much lower degree of independence and autonomy is expected.  This can, and does, lead to frustration among American workers with Chinese bosses and, as the NYT article demonstrated, confusion and hurt feelings among Chinese workers with American bosses.  To complicate maters more, the Chinese often seem reluctant to make decisions at all.

This is where I have the greatest trouble with the book.  It is one thing to say that the Chinese make decisions more patiently and carefully or that they prefer to do so behind closed-doors, but wholly another to say they try to avoid them altogether.  Yet, that is exactly what Tang and Ward indicate.

“The hierarchical nature of Chinese society also militates against making decisions and submitting them to public scrutiny. …Research comparing decision making among Taiwanese and Western subjects has found the former more ready than the latter to panicking under the pressure of time, passing off responsibility, procrastinating, and rationalizing away problems (Bond 1991: 85).  The difference owes much to a tradition of training from childhood to rely on superiors and the group for guidance in dealing with the unexpected.

This seems to be a logical conclusion of raising children for obedience rather than critical thinking, but Tang and Ward go on in a manner I have deep reservations about.

[Saving face] fuels a lively inclination among the Chinese to vent less polite thoughts and feelings about others behind their backs. …Among the Chinese, concern for face mixes with fear of gossip (yulun) to strengthen even further pressures to conform.

… The Chinese managers, both public [government companies] and private, favoured the less assertive ‘compromising’ and ‘avoiding’ solutions [to conflict], in contrast with the British officials who preferred the more assertive ‘collaborating’ and ‘competing’ styles.

… Those in command act as if they have complete authority, taking care to avoid situations where their powers are visibly circumscribed.  This accounts for the absence of the most important players from the negotiating table, with the inevitable lengthening of negotiations that this entails.  Staying behind the scenes allows important figures to change their position without loss of face.

… [Chinese managers] exhibit a reluctance to make decisions and an inclination to shift responsibility and blame on to others.  As for communication, they are unwilling to share information, failing to pass this on to their subordinates or other departments.

These statements strike me as the most highly unethical and leave me wondering if they are really true and unbiased. Avoiding responsibility, indecisiveness, procrastination, going back on your word (even if communicated through a subordinate), and blaming others are some of the worst workplace infractions an American can commit.  Just one would be considered reasonable grounds of termination.  Together as common practice they are indefensible – in the American workplace.  In the communist Chinese workplace they may be entirely necessary to preserve one’s life (and one’s family) from the Communist Party chopping block.  In that case, I can generate a certain amount of sympathy for the Chinese worker. There is more than just communism at work here, however.  The collectivist demand for “harmony” (which doesn’t look very much like my definition of “harmony”) is also at play.

When I see these traits exhibited by my coworkers (Asian or otherwise) in America and at my university no less, I have a problem.  Which is why I struggle with Tang and Ward’s descriptions.  I want to believe that I am misunderstanding or missing something and that certain objectionable behaviors serve some kind of higher purpose.  I want to be able to put the trust in my superiors that a Chinese worker apparently puts in her boss.  However, my American training to question everything leaves me very ill suited to the role.  Even more so when such questioning are seen as highly insulting when asked. This can be surprising to an American worker used to having a boss ready and willing to address such questions without offense.

Of course, not all of my superiors and coworkers are like this.  Not even all of my Chinese/Taiwanese superiors and coworkers are like this.  Many meet the highest American ethical workplace standards and also somehow magically manage save face, cultivate guanxi, and achieve harmonious relationships.  I have an absurd amount of awe for such individuals.  Sometimes my American coworkers even manage it, though never quite at the same level of mastery.

Overall, I’ve found The Changing Face of Chinese Management as useful as it is troubling.  At the very least, it or something like it should be given to anyone working in a company with as many Chinese and Taiwanese people as UWest.  If parts of it are wrong, I’d love to find a better source, but even if some things are unflattering, it may help the poor hapless worker in question to not make quite as many mistakes as I did.  No one deserves that much trouble.

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