I’ve talked a lot on this blog about challenges faced by people and companies that want to do business in China. But what about your Chinese staff? What challenges will they face working with you? The main issue Chinese will face when working with Americans is their communication style.
American and Chinese communication styles are seemingly diametrically opposed. This is one of the greatest challenges for Chinese staff. Suddenly, they seem to be thrust into meetings, either one-on-one or in groups, where leaders keep asking for their opinions. This can be incredibly disconcerting.
The Clueless Leader
It is the leader’s job to make decisions, not the employee’s. A business leader asking their employee’s opinion brings up several thoughts for the Chinese employee. First, they may question his or her competence. “Why are they asking me, a lowly employee?” they may wonder, “Why did the company send them if they don’t know what they’re doing? Aren’t they getting paid all that money to know these things?”
Secondly, the relationship may appear too informal. While many younger employees just graduating from university may actually seek out father and mother figures at work, the boss should still be someone they respect that fits into expected social hierarchies. In Chinese business, if the boss acts too casual or too much like their friend, they may not take them seriously as a manager. They’ll think that they don’t really need to follow this person or do what they say.
Especially in a group setting, there is also a huge cause for concern regarding losing mianzi or face. The importance of face in Chinese business or life cannot be overemphasized.
Western managers need to understand that there is only one right answer in China. This is drilled into Chinese through home, school, and work life. To answer wrong or make a mistake is a huge loss of face and no self-respecting Chinese would take that risk, especially in front of their peers or maybe even bosses.
There is no tradition of discussing ideas and coming to mutual agreement on steps forward in a Chinese business. This is why Western managers often leave meetings with Chinese staff feeling frustrated that all they receive are silence and head nods to their questions.
The other danger for Chinese staff with answering a question, particularly one related to achieving results, is the risk of failure. Many Chinese hate taking responsibility in the work place because that increases their risk of failure leading to loss of face. Managers are paid highly in Chinese business not just because of their skills or experience, but because of the risks they are exposed to when taking responsibility for achieving results.
Are You Trying to Make Me Cry?
American managers come from a low-context communication culture. Americans have a relatively short shared history and are largely a culture of immigrants. Understanding is achieved through direct communication and brevity is considered an asset.
Chinese come from a high-context communication culture. They have 5,000 years of history and the Han Chinese still make up 80% of the population. How does this play out?
Maybe a new young Chinese employee comes in wearing sandals that don’t fit the professional dress code. A Chinese manager would probably say something like, “It’s a little cold in the office for sandals, isn’t it”. The employee would get the message that they need to wear shoes. The American manager would probably directly confront the employee and state, “Professional shoes are expected in the office.”
This kind of direct statement can be taken as very rude and hurtful by the Chinese employee. They’ve now lost face in front of you (regardless of if anyone else heard or not) and you’re clearly angry and have lost respect for them in order for you to speak so directly. You’d be surprised at how often what the American manager sees as a very small incident leads to tears and long-term resentment on the part of the Chinese employee.
Communicate to Succeed
Just like in every work place, when doing business in China, effective communication leads to strong teams and great results. Americans doing business in China may face many challenges, but Chinese staff are also facing many challenges when working with Americans. It’s important to understand and work with both sides of that dynamic.
Casey W. Xiao-Morris is a veteran China Business Consultant at Leverage China, LLC., helping her clients succeed in the Chinese marketplace. Casey can be reached at cxmorris@LeverageChina.com.