Emily Levin

Managing a Cross-Cultural Team: China

by Emily Levin
January 2020

Are you about to begin adding employees in China? There’s a lot to learn to set them up for success in your organization.

With a GDP of $23 trillion, the People’s Republic of China is the world’s second largest economy and has experienced exponential growth over the past decades—moving from a virtually closed economy in the 1950s and 1960s to a major manufacturer, exporter and technology innovator. Though it has experienced some recent slowing, the Chinese economy is still three times the size of the third, fourth and fifth largest economies (Japan, Germany and the UK), combined.

China is also an enormous consumer—the fourth largest country in the world by area, it is the largest country in the world by population. About 1.4 billion people live there.

When we talk about incorporating employees in China, we are (for all practical purposes) talking about team members located in Beijing, in the innovation demonstration zones designated by the government, or in the special economic zones of China, in which many economic policies have been relaxed to accommodate foreign investment or partnership.

In some cases those two kinds of zones cross over, but in both types, most of the cities are in Eastern China—including the areas of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Zhengzhou, Guangzhou, Wuhan, the Pearl River Delta, and Tianjin. Western China tends to be more rural and not as commonly trafficked by global business.

Chinese culture can be described as highly collectivist and high context. Workers tend to understand their work within the larger picture of shared group goals and, depending on the culture of the company, may dislike being singled out for either criticism or praise. They expect to dedicate serious time to establishing relationships at work and to building a climate of guanxi—or shared trust, respect, gift-exchange and cooperation.

In general, Chinese culture greatly values harmony and tradition and tends to frown on overt aggressiveness, self-promotion, and excess emotionalism. That said, many work cultures are still highly demanding and high stakes. In fact, according to China Daily, 80% or more of employees in China say they are overworked.

Overworked and stressed or not, Chinese work environments tends to be hierarchical and formal, with deference to those of higher status. This doesn’t mean Chinese work cultures are distant or cold. The emphasis on relationships results in a lot of quality time spent with your team, at work and away from work and a lot of personal sharing.

China’s growth might be slowing down a bit over the past few years, but its war for talent is still intense—particularly with the rise of its tech and services sectors in recent years.  In 2019, unemployment reached an impressive 3.67%, in a country with a labor force of more than 900 million workers. This squeeze is expected to continue as workers age, due to China’s enforced population constraints, first implemented in 1979. The population is in decline—shrinking 3% last year. The millennial generation currently comprises 25% of the workforce, and the overall number of workers in China is expected to continue to fall and wages to rise over the next decade.

Due to a four-decade policy of “one child per family” aimed at controlling population, China’s millennial population is largely made up of only children. This has created some defining characteristics for this generation in the workplace—not least of which will be the impact on these now-thirty-somethings as their parents age, and the sole burden for their care will be placed on one offspring.

This “only child” generation also tends to drive themselves very hard, as they are also the sole focus of their parents’ dreams and ambitions. In an already perfectionist culture, this has a very real impact. Another outcome for this generation is a virtual gender parity—as families which might previously have preferred males has refocused on educating and providing opportunities for only daughters.

 

China: By the Numbers 

  • Population: Approximately 1.4 Billion
  • Time Zone: Although China is a very large country, it has only one time zone, known as ‘Beijing Time,’ which is eight hours ahead of UTC.
  • Language: The official language in China is the Beijing dialect of “Standard Chinese,” or Mandarin—which is spoken in both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.  Cantonese is also commonly spoken in Guangdong and is the official language in Hong Kong.
  • Currency: Renminbi (abbreviated RMB or CNY, for Chinese yuan—known in Hong Kong as the CNH)
  • Office Hours: Technically, working hours are Monday to Friday, from 8:00am to 6:00pm, and a lunch break from 12:00pm to 2:00pm—however the realities of Chinese workplaces mean workers are often at work far later than 6, and often work on Saturdays. Some multinational companies only offer a one-hour lunch break, making working hours 9:00am to 6:00pm.
  • Appointments: Appointments are required for business in China, but don’t be surprised if no one is on time in this polychronic society.
  • Scheduling: The best times to schedule a meeting are mid-morning (from 10:30-11:30—before the noon-2pm lunchtime) and in the late afternoon when people have returned from lunch and finished their naps (3:30-5).

 

Chinese Management Style

Here are some more expectations Chinese employees might have from you as a manager, or how you can expect your Chinese managers to conduct themselves:

  • Connect: As a collectivist culture, Chinese people put a tremendous emphasis on relationships and group dynamics at work—especially when compared with Western countries. Be prepared to chat about your personal life with employees in China—sometimes fielding questions that might feel invasive to people from more private cultures—and expect to spend lots of time with co-workers and employees both inside and outside of work hours.
  • Allow people to “save face”: Be cautious about how you share critical observations in China. Chinese culture is predicated on the concept of miànzi, or saving face, which is the preservation of one’s reputation or dignity in social and business situations. Chinese business culture discourages calling someone out for criticism, in public or private. Giving feedback, therefore, might better take the form of giving explicit new instructions, to avoid giving offense. Likewise, you can expect a reluctance from subordinates or peers to call you out or give you tough feedback directly. If you are looking for input from your employees in China, you must read between the lines. Chinese bosses, however, might be blunt and direct in their instructions—particularly if they’re trying to put you in your place—to the point of giving offense to Western employees who usually expect more autonomy.
  • Confidentiality: Chinese companies and employees are very serious about protecting company information—a concept called bǎomì. Though this can be interpreted by Westerners as a lack of transparency, it is considered disrespectful to try to get too much information out of a team before they trust you. If you push too much, you may end up with vague or indirect answers—at least until people know you better.
  • Physical Fitness: Yes, you read that right. From group morning song-and-exercise routines to start the day, to apps that track employees’ steps (and dock their pay if they don’t meet the goal), Chinese businesses take a direct interest in the healthy lifestyle choices of their employees.
  • Watch your no’s: It is uncommon to hear a blunt “no” in the Chinese workplace, as it can often cause the recipient to lose face. As a high context culture, Chinese team members will prefer you to use more euphemistic phrases like “maybe” or “I will think about it”.  This might feel needlessly unclear to you, but your Chinese employees will have no trouble reading between the lines. However, be aware that in China, people will often offer a ritual invitation that they don’t really mean. This may provoke a ritual refusal (such as “maybe another time”) that may also be simply for show. This may result in a strange—to the Western mindset—repetition of invitations or refusals. It may be necessary to go through this process to be sure where you stand. Likewise, you may get a “yes” as an answer, when the person you are talking to is merely expressing that they hear you. It’s important to apply some scrutiny to your conversations with Chinese employees, because language cannot always be taken literally.
  • Know your place: Hierarchy is very important to the Chinese and they will expect you to know your place in the pecking order. Deference and respect must be shown to higher ups and Chinese team members may be uncomfortable with the flatter structure or open communications many Western companies cultivate. Chinese workers typically do not have access to or direct contact with managers of managers, and if you try to circumvent the chain of command in either direction you could end up making people very uncomfortable.
  • Don’t lay it on too thick: American employees love being praised and recognized for being superstars, but employees in China prefer being praised as a member of a team. Your Chinese team members will be uncomfortable with too many effusive compliments, but this depends on the culture of the company in which they work, and not a hard and fast rule.

 

What To Expect from Your Employees in China

What should you be expecting from your team members in China? Here are some of the broad brushstrokes of common attitudes, behaviors and beliefs you might encounter from your Chinese employees:

  • WeChat, not email: Chinese employees tend not to use email as ubiquitously as their Western counterparts. Indeed, many ignore emails in favor of instant messaging app WeChat (or as it is known in China: Weixin). Used for both work and personal purposes, the WeChat app fits with the immediacy and always-on nature of 9-9-6 work culture. Email, for various technical and cultural reasons, has never caught on in China to the extent that it did in the West, and relying on it alone can be frustrating to team members located in other countries trying to get a response from colleagues in China.
  • An afternoon snooze: The Chinese are known for spending long hours at work—but not all of those hours are spent working. Many Chinese workers will take a long lunch break—sometimes up to two hours—then return to the office for a nap. People bring pillows and eye masks to work, and some companies even provide roll-up cots or dormitories for this purpose.
  • Formal address: Your team in China may resist calling you by your first name—especially if you’re the big boss. In fact, you can expect your title to be appended to your name, and be addressed as Director Johnson, or Manager Smith, etc. (Also, note that in Chinese, surnames come first—followed by the given name.)
  • The long way around: Being overly direct and up front in communication style is frowned upon in Chinese work culture. The wide power distance between managers and employees can also make employees more circuitous about how they approach difficult conversations. Be patient about listening and learn to look for what is unsaid in conversations, as much as what is said. This goes double if your employees feel they are not perfect in English or another workplace lingua franca. Perfectionist Chinese employees are more likely to keep quiet than feeling insecure about their language skills.
  • No arguments: Most employees in China consider debate to be distasteful and are not taught to argue for their ideas. You may be surprised by the quiet that greets you in team meetings. Even if you invite other points of view after expressing yours, you are unlikely to get much. Even if they vehemently disagree, your team may simply nod along with you when you share your thoughts. You would be smart to solicit their thoughts first. Likewise, your subordinates are unlikely to bring problems to your attention and more likely to sweep things under the rug until they blow up, so look for subtle clues and be proactive about asking questions to head off possible future issues.
  • Chabuduo: Chabuduo, or “close enough,” is an attitude many Chinese hold that allows for some corner cutting. In chabaduo, the focus is less on the result over the process or rules and is reflective of a generally flexible, improvisational, and risk-welcoming approach to work. This can result in wildly different results and will drive managers from more precise cultures a bit batty.
  • Superstition: Superstitions are still rather common in the Chinese workplace—from feng shui to symbols of good luck. Four is unlucky, but eight is lucky. You might see the color red, or cabbage sculptures and plants—such as money trees or ferns—that are symbols of prosperity or good fortune. Superstitions also govern symbols of bad luck, so before you give a gift to a Chinese team member, be sure to check that it’s not on the taboo list. (Hint: No clocks, shoes or umbrellas, please!)
  • Gifts: In China, relationships are at the heart of business. Which means gift-giving is common among business contacts. However, the important thing to know is this is reciprocal, and is part of what is known as guanxi.  In the West it’s easy to interpret guanxi as bribery—particularly as it can involve the exchange of cash—but guanxi is about exchanging social capital. If you receive a gift, you should understand that you are expected to reciprocate, albeit not always in kind. If you provide a gift or boon to employees, don’t be surprised if they refuse a few times before they accept. But do expect them to reciprocate. Tradition demands it.
  • They can’t Google that: Your employees in China will likely not have access to everything on the internet you have access to. Beijing has implemented a system of online censorship measures that restrict Chinese citizens’ access to content that the government has determined is inappropriate—including popular foreign websites and sharing platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Google. (The biggest social media platforms in China are WeChat, Sina Weibo and Tencent Video.) Known as The Great Firewall, this system may prevent your Chinese team members from being able to see or respond to the same online content that you can see.
  • Imitation: They say it’s the sincerest form of flattery, but most Westerners end up unpleasantly surprised if employees in China copy them or “steal” their ideas. It’s important to know that in Chinese culture it is common to mimic success and isn’t as taboo or frowned upon as it is in other cultures.

 

For a more thorough overview of hiring employees in China, please visit our Globalpedia.

Looking for more advice on finding, hiring, and managing your global team? Globalization Partners can help.

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Emily Levin

Emily Levin

Communications Manager, Globalization Partners

Emily Levin joined Globalization Partners in July 2018 as Communications Manager. Emily has extensive experience in external and internal communications, content creation, and social media management.