May 16 2012

Change in China - 10 Tips for Success

I recently worked on an engagement in China. The core activity was an analysis of the companies HR and organization to recommend changes. It was an enlightening opportunity for me. I experienced a totally different work ethic and learned so much about the way national identity informs cultural identity.

Here I offer my insight from the experience in the form of a set of recommendations for anyone who may be considering an assignment in China. 

I begin with my favourite topic of communications. Of course one of the communication challenges was the language. I didn't know any Chinese on arrival. I can't say I knew much on leaving. However I was fortunate to be working with someone who did. I did find that the younger Chinese were more capable in English and almost relished the opportunity to speak English with a native speaker. However, when you are taking time to interview a number of employees about the process and their feelings around their workplace you need to be able to use sometimes complex and irregular language. Recommendation 1: make sure you have someone to work with who can translate good business English.

 Reflecting on the content of the communications there are two areas to mention. Chinese folks do no want to say something bad about a colleague or someone in their group. Chinese also like to tell you the story of what happened with scene setting and surrounding information as added extras to the facts. This means that you have to allow for both of these situations. Recommendation 2: allow more time for interviews with employees.

 Talking about poor performance is nigh on impossible. Or should I say having a Chinese manager to address it is almost impossible. You have to consider alternate methods to express lack of achievement. This means you have to say the person “did as expected” or “still has areas to achieve” rather than didn't or failed to do something. I found a strong reluctance to measure performance with KPIs or the like as this would mean indicating failure. Much more was made of the relationship in the group. Recommendation 3: find a way to say failure without being negative in the choice of words.

When you have western expatriates or foreigners in a business they often gravitate towards the English speaking Chinese. Understandable I guess; but they really need to lose the halo effect with the English speakers. Recommendation 4: don't get confused between English language capability and working competence.

Money is often said to make the world go round and it certainly does in China. Challenging any preconceptions you may have China is a thriving market economy fast charging toward capitalist ideals. For the average worker this means they want to have a family, buy a house, a car and live well. To do this they need money. To get the money they work and work and work. Now I will cover a little more on this in the next paragraph but the core need to maximize income means the Chinese will work as many hours as you give them. Recommendation 5: forget work life balance.

Even though the Chinese worker is willing to work all those hours it doesn't mean it's right. However they will strongly push back if you try to cut them because they see that as a cut in income. There are Labour laws in China regarding hours of work. These state that the maximum working hours are 44 per week with up to 36 additional overtime hours in a month. Now if the worker wants to work more and you have them available they will take them. Be aware that they soon start living within the means of the higher wage and won't like any attempt to take it away. Recommendation 6: if you try to reduce working hours have an alternative way of making the money.

The assignment I was working on reflected a recent organizational structure change. Effectively a new management layer had been added in because of an expanding workforce. Now this is where Chinese and western ways align. Both like to work in silos and use management structures vertically rather than horizontally. However to get more lateral and horizontal interactions you need to play to the group mentality. Recommendation 7: to get people to work across silos create laterally connected groups e.g. Team leaders and middle managers.

I was working with a foreign company based in China. Their senior management were all expatriates. Now long term plans must surely be to integrate Chinese into the management team but in the meantime there has to be an appreciation that there are a significant number of individuals from outside the culture running the show. This means they are stressed living and working many miles from home and challenged to adapt to an alien way of life (to them of course). Recommendation 8: remember to consider the western workers who need the organization to support them too.

In China relationship and saving face are paramount to the workplace. However there is also a strong element of grade, seniority or superiority complex. By this I mean that only someone who is in a senior position to the person can tell them what to do. This means that any thoughts of empowerment culture or similarly peer working relationships will hit a stumbling block. But if you are able to differentiate roles then you have a chance of getting buy-in for this. Recommendation 9: clearly define roles within the team to express responsibilities and working expectations but be prepared to have push back on taking on any peer responsibilities.

My final comment relates to privacy, confidentiality and restricted communications. It is often necessary for discussions and communications to be kept within a number of people and not shared, or for employee information to be kept private. However, in China there are no secrets, or any attempt to keep things such as wages, management discussions or any work related activity private. This leads me to my final comment. Recommendation 10: until you have established a solid and trusting relationship, never discuss anything with an employee and expect it to stay secret, even if you ask for it to do so.

I perhaps should have another recommendation about working in China, but I think this applies to work in any new and different place. Enjoy it! For many people working in Change, they are more open to differences and are therefore more positive about the new and finding out about what can be done differently. Working abroad in a completely different country to normal is an ideal opportunity to test this and I can only speak from personal experience, but I would confirm that this is most definitely the case for me. So for anyone else out there, I recommend that you take any opportunity to work abroad and in so doing enjoy it for what it is and if it is China that you choose to go to, then I am sure these 10 tips will help you through the experience.

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