Sometimes Managing People in China Sucks. Get Over It.

Friday, January 27, 2012 9:51

Just finished reading the HBR blog post Truth Without Tears in China, written by Frank T. Gallo of Aon Hewitt in Beijing, and it is a PRIME example for me of how expats managing in China need to understand a few fundamental facts about managing in China

1) Chinese(born and trained) employees expect to be managed in a way different that those born and trained in other parts of the world
2) While sometimes mangers need to be careful to understand the culture, and how people want to be managed, there are just times you have to be the bad guy

At the core of the post is the interaction between an expat consultant and a junior analyst.  The expat trusted the analyst to manage a relationship, and in the process the analyst did something without the approval of the consultant.  No body was harmed, but the fact that the analyst had not cleared it with the consultant was the real issue.  An issue which reuslted ina  a bit of a dressing down.. which her hurt her feelings.

It was a classic example of where expats need to be more sensitive for how they should manage junior staff:

The point here is that an American’s reaction to this exchange with Jim would have been very different. While we Westerners recognize that “the truth hurts,” we also believe that telling an employee directly what they need to do differently is a best practice in helping one to grow. Bosses express their “disappointment” with juniors all the time. [...] Jim would have been better off in the first place by not even dealing directly with the very junior Ling, using a mid-level consultant to serve as a middleman instead. The Chinese have a term for people in this role: zhong jian ren. Not only might this more experienced zhong jian ren not have sent the material in the first place, but he would have protected Ling from the loss of face that happens when he or she did actually disappoint someone senior.

Is this really the way to manage staff?  Particularly young staff who are theoretically being trained to assume more responsibility over time?

In my experience.. if you have hired this person with a long term desire to see them grow within the organization… absolutely not.

First, if you are going to delegate the responsibility of managing a client relationship to a junior staff, then you have to do what you can to prepare them for hte task, build in a system that mitigates the impact of a failure, and will have a process at the end whereby said employee can understand what they did right and wrong.  But, more importantly, if you are going to delegate the responsibility, you have to prepare yourself for whatever happens and not get angry if it goes wrong.  After all, it was YOUR DECISION to trust the staffer, and regardless of how severe the clusterf*k, it was ultimately your responsibility to make sure they were prepared.

Second, if and when things go wrong (and they will when managing across cultures), a good manager will learn how to give the most effective dressing down. In the case of this staffer, given the relatively minor offense of not ccing in the boss, a simple “here is why you should have cleared it with me first” would have done.  It would have been a learning experience, not a dressing down, and in the end the staffer would have understood better about managing boss and client relationships.

Finally, this article seems to indicate that in China it is better to delegate to a middle level (let’s assume that exists) than to manage directly.  That, in doing so it will insulate ht e(foreign) manager from having to be the bad guy. When it won’t. First, if it is the goal of the manager to incubate their junior staff, then they should be actively engaged in a process whereby the staffer is tested and reviewed.  That is how the trust and loyalty of junior staff is built in China, particularly between a senior expat and a junior (local) staffer.

So, for all you foreign mangers, my suggestion after reading this article is to do the opposite.  Trust your employees, work with them to make sure they have the capacity to meet expectations, and be the bad guy sometimes.

Hiding behind others will make you no friends in the office, and it certainly will not build loyal staff.

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