Managing local staff as a foreigner working in China is a difficult task that many China expats will face. Whether they are sent here by a company from their home country or start their own business, foreign managers will come face-to-face with major differences in workplace dynamics.
I sat down with Daniel A. Janssen, founder of China-based consulting firm Bili, to discuss his experience of managing Chinese staff, the challenges he’s faced and the strategies he’s developed over the last 15 years working in China.
As a manager, I try to be a leader, which means providing purpose, meaning and vision to my staff. From my experience working with Chinese managers, there tends to be little communication of these concepts.
I find Chinese managers merely engage in task management and reporting to upper management. They provide inadequate job descriptions to employees and unclear tasks, following up only to make sure things get done.
I am a purpose-driven leader. Leaders provide vision and resources to carry out tasks, encourage, motivate and guide the ship. I have been a personal development advocate from the beginning, which I make very clear to my staff. My primary goal is to develop them, to push them to their skill limits.
The response has been very positive. Chinese employees very much want to be a part of purpose, meaning and vision. I have seen my staff be more dedicated, try harder, display greater pride in their work and be more supporting to other team members.
What are the biggest challenges or barriers to managing well as a foreigner working in China?
You see the difference in training between China and the West. I’ve had two foreign employees at different times in the history of my company, and any time I had a problem I knew I could turn it over to them with confidence that they would find the resources and do some extra ‘digging’ to get the issue solved.
Chinese workers typically don’t work like that. You usually have to push them with questions like, “Well, did you do this part? What is preventing you from solving this?” They have difficulty identifying what is blocking them and identifying barriers, weaknesses or a lack of skills or resources.
I’ve had to do a lot of hand-holding during my time as a manager in China. When faced with a problem I’ve seen some Chinese staff give up and stop communicating. You come back a week later when nothing has been done, asking "Why didn't you raise these issues in our discussion last week?"
There’s a saying among foreigners working in China that managing here is like running a kindergarten. This, of course, is not intended to be pejorative or derogatory, but the fact is that Chinese employees generally struggle to identify and admit to difficulties. This puts more responsibility on the manager to guide staff through solving problems.
But this is not surprising. There’s a big difference between the culture and education systems of China and the West. At school, Chinese students are not taught to ask questions, offer challenges, dig for information or seek out resources.
As a manager, therefore, you have to put things in place to enable your staff to emerge out of their passivity and solve problems for themselves. This is the number-one challenge I hear from foreign managers in China.
I did at times get frustrated and say words or show an attitude that may have made my Chinese staff feel unappreciated. It’s hard to keep a frustrated attitude in check when running a busy company. It’s easy to forget that culture and practices are different in China and that the people are not taught to be critical thinkers. Some foreign managers are extremely rude to their staff as they are not aware of these differences.
A lot of patience is needed in this area. If you find yourself getting frustrated, take a break and go for a walk. It’s not helpful at all to lose your cool and fly off the handle. I never see Chinese people do this and it’s a big mistake for foreigners to do so.
If you do go off the rails, be humble and apologise. Your Chinese staff will appreciate that. Most importantly, don’t look down on them or publicly criticise them as they may ‘lose face’. Especially don’t make a leader lose face in front of their subordinates.
Chinese staff are commonly afraid to speak to foreigners. I would suggest taking them out for dinner or a drink to show your human side, that you are a person, too. Connect on a personal level as they know little about foreigners and it’s sometimes hard for them to talk to us due to language and cultural differences.
Have some one-on-ones with your staff, too. Listen to their troubles as opposed to just barking orders at them. Treat them like a person with feelings and not just some underdog subordinate. Learning some Chinese language will also be advantageous, especially if you plan on staying in China for a long time. Language and culture go together.
This is a very good question. In the West, one key method of management is to praise publicly and privately criticise. Recognise people so co-workers know they did a good job. The opposite seems to be true in China, where public criticism is one way managers beat employees down.
Perhaps this is a question for the Chinese to answer. I assume they want mission, vision and reasons why they are doing what they are doing, for their work to be better explained and made more purposeful. This would, of course, entail better trained managers.
Organise in a simple way, breaking down workloads into manageable tasks with a clear accountability system.
I have found journaling to be an effective system. Create a work journal of tasks that you color-code; mark urgent tasks in red, blue for next in importance, normal tasks in black and completed tasks in gray. Add dates and Chinese translations where necessary.
I find my Chinese staff are generally better at reading and writing than speaking English, and so this method works better than simply assigning tasks verbally. Also, this journaling method is a non-threatening way to add accountability that can be shared across the whole team.
Management also needs to compensate with regards to meetings. I’ve found my Chinese employees generally do not prepare for meetings or make agendas. Management needs to compensate for this and ensure that staff are going to prepare and contribute well in meetings. I’ve found meetings with suppliers can be very frustrating as excuses are given instead of solutions. Prepare for this in advance.
Pride needs to be built. You’ve got to find ways to get your staff to take pride in their work instead of just doing a task in as quick a way as possible. I’ve never had an employee ask me how they can do a better job. Perhaps it stems from the education system where students are taught to memorise with no dialogue with the teacher.
Kevin Rudd, Australia’s past prime minster, was asked what China needs from the rest of the world. His answer was simple: Respect.
Understand where your staff are coming from. China is a developing country. Your employees need to be respected no matter how under-developed the system is that you work in. Let them know what you want, that you’re here to help and you expect them to improve. All of this will go a long way.
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