Imagine being promoted to managing director of your company in China. How would that make you feel? Perplexed, pleased, excited, or perhaps a mixture of all of these feelings? This possibility might seem pretty remote for most young expats. That is why I am sharing this story to help you prepare for that moment in the future.
In 2002 I joined a very reputable recruitment company to establish branch offices in Amsterdam and Brussels. It was a tough and challenging period working with many nice people during exciting times. Then my life turned a new page when I went to China. When my boss asked me to come to Beijing, I did not have to think about it. I was very excited to learn about business in China.
Today I’m glad that I made that decision. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here to talk about expats managing Chinese employees. Over the years I have heard expats complain that Chinese workers do not understand teamwork or cannot solve problems alone. Sometimes I wonder if they have ever tried to connect with their employees besides just dropping a “how are you” once in a while. I have three suggestions for expats managing Chinese employees.
The first problem has to do with speech pace. Expats from English-speaking countries are often blamed by Chinese colleagues for speaking incomprehensively fast. Unfortunately, without any awareness that they are speaking too quickly many expats simply blame “the Chinese” for not understanding English.
Think about it the other way around: what would happen if a Chinese manager spoke Chinese to foreign employees? The expat employee would feel awkward at work. For that reason, I suggest foreign managers slow down when they speak. Make sure you get responses (either verbally or through body language) from your Chinese employees. To encourage feedback, you might ask them what they think of your plan or how they are going to execute it.
Second, many expat managers have difficulty listening to their Chinese employees. If you are troubled by Chinese employees’ active obedience problem, here is my advice to you. A successful expat manager needs to understand Chinese culture and have good listening habits. In Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the fifth effective habit is listening.
I benefitted a lot from this habit in my management style. In my last company there was a shy Chinese girl named Joy. One day I asked her to come to my office to give me feedback on the company website. I could see her hands tremble as she listened to my long speech. At that point, I realized that I would have to stop talking and listen to her thoughts. At first she was nervous, but she calmed down when she got active responses. I wasn’t surprised that her feedback was very helpful. If you want other people to listen, you have to listen first.
My last tip for expat managers is to reject the image of “the big boss” in company culture. Ideology and cultural values are deeply rooted in Chinese minds; even those who mask themselves with Western culture sometimes behave in traditional ways. For instance, I can feel the “big boss” problem from the way some employees ask for help, how some girls flush when I give them feedback, and even when someone prepares my coffee.
However, I try my best to discourage my colleagues from thinking this way. Expat managers should try to build rapport with their Chinese employees and break the cultural ice between them. The ideology of the “big boss” originates from the hierarchical structures of feudal society. In modern society, it evolves into courtesy. For example, your opinions are seldom rebutted by Chinese employees, who don’t dare to contradict you. One of the problems this causes is that you will never discover the creativity and intelligence of your Chinese staff.
Adapting to a new culture is a big step for expat managers. I hope my suggestions can help you become one of the many good managers in China.
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