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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2 Responses to “Sometimes Managing People in China Sucks. Get Over It.”

  1. Westerners Managing Junior Chinese Staff : China Business Leadership Blog says:

    January 27th, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    […] at All Roads Lead to China noted an article called Truth Without Tears by Frank Gallo.  Both articles have good insight and […]

  2. Etienne says:

    January 28th, 2012 at 7:05 am

    Fully agree with your three points. Throughout the 15 years I spent in China, I have trained and coached a very large number of Chinese employees. I always tried to (1) create a level of trust for them in order to make them confident that they will be allowed to take initiatives, (2) back that by a system allowing me or other people to catch serious mistake before they get out of hand, (3) always use a mistake as a learning experience – at the same time making it clear than while everyone may make mistakes, no one is allowed to make the same mistake two times, nor make a mistake by going against clear company policies and values.

    Time consuming, certainly. But very rewarding when you see people develop fast. Also a good screen for lazy and careless people who do not like that environment and get more than their share of dressing down.

    As a foreign manager, you actually should get your hands dirty, unless the team is too large. Then the job is harder as you need to (1) apply this to the key managers under you and (2) find a way that they either do the same in their team. Alternatively, you need to pick a few good people lower down and make them understand that they have your support if they take (good) initiatives in spite of their less qualified direct boss. But this is tricky for sure !!!

    Now, honestly, I may be in China for too long, but this seems to be the way I used to be managed when I was in the West !