U.S. and Chinese Management Expectations By Kimberly Kirkendall

I was meeting with a company recently. They called me because they were considering making some changes to their management team. They were frustrated with the behavior of leader in their company in China, a Chinese executive. Their concern? He (let’s call him Wang) was not on the plant floor enough. He wasn’t communicating regularly with them about day-to-day details at the plant. They wanted him to design and lead some production improvement projects and he wasn’t following through.

I suggested that before they consider replacing him, which is both costly and time consuming, that it would be good to take a look at their procedures.  I could work with them to assess day-to-day business transactions and how they had structured the communication of business needs. This would give us the short term benefit of identifying Wang’s strengths and weaknesses, we could better identify what capabilities we would be looking for in a replacement, and at the same time we could identify areas where we could improve their procedures.

But really…I was thinking during the discussion that the underlying reason for their dissatisfaction with the manager was cultural.  The above complaint is one I hear often, and its common struggle for US owned companies in China. Not because of the capability of the manager, but because of our different expectations of what a manager does.  Let’s take a look at one difference between how U.S. and Chinese value management communication.

To do this I am going to look at the behavior three ways; what we say our goal is, what that really means, and then how we feel about it. So let’s look at management communication in China and the U.S. through that lens.

U.S. WAY:

  1. What we say we do: Americans believe that our management style is open, that we empower our teams to engage and contribute to the organization by giving them overall goals and encouraging them to create a solution.
  2. What it really means: Your boss is going to give you a goal, maybe a loose outline, and expect you to figure it out. You know that phrase, right? To figure it out involves you coming back to them with questions regularly through the process. They (un)intentionally give you incomplete information (because it would be insulting to give you all the details) and expect you to come back and ask for more information. In an American work environment, you should ask your supervisor regularly for feedback as you progress. If you don’t, then they worry that you aren’t making any progress and you may go astray. And you had better ask more questions, because they didn’t give you everything you needed up front in the first place.
  3. How it feels: If you are American, depending on your personality, this can either be liberating or irritating. Yes, you have more flexibility and input, you can be creative and you have a lot of freedom in how you perform your job. Equally, it can be frustrating to only have the outline of the project change as you proceed, watch the goals change as you gather more information, and stop and start while you wait for feedback.

CHINESE WAY:

  1. What we say we do: Chinese believe that their management style is clear and efficient, that they give their employees clear instruction and direction and the employee can be successful with less risk to them and the organization.
  2. What it really means: Your boss is going to give you very specific goals, and information and details on how to meet that goal. You are expected to stay within the framework of your role and not venture outside of the parameters. If your task involves coworkers you will go to them early and often to gather information. You should not ask your supervisor questions, if you do that means they failed (they didn’t give you clear direction) and you failed (you didn’t understand it).
  3. How it feels: If you are Chinese, depending on your personality, this can be either liberating or irritating. Yes, you know exactly what to do to succeed, your boss will give you clear direction and you are responsible for your part of the project, not for things that you can’t control. However, it can be frustrating if you want to be creative in your job and/or expand your skills outside of your current role.

CONFLICT: Obviously, the conflict is when you have a boss from one cultural expectations and the employee from the other.

EXAMPLES:

  1. Chinese in the US managing Americans: An old friend of mine was asked to move from China to the U.S. for a six month assignment as interim Director of Supply Chain. She is Chinese, had 20 years’ experience, mostly with U.S. companies and had worked for this particular company for five years. After she was in the U.S. for a month or so I called her. When I asked her how things were going, she said “Americans drive me crazy. They can’t just get things done without coming back all the time with questions. My teams in China would have just taken care of it. It’s such a waste of time.”
  2. U.S. factory in China: I was working with a client in China, the GM of a large 400 person high tech factory in southern China. As we were meeting on a project, his Chinese Plant Manager came in. Their discussion was about a new product that would be coming to the plant, and what lines they would use to manufacture it. The U.S. manager threw out ideas (and then grabbed them back and threw out more). He said “what about lines 4 and 8” and as the Chinese manager was thinking through 4 and 8, with just a few minutes going by…the American said “no…what about 5 and 9” Over 5 minutes the American changed their mind a few times (he was, after all brainstorming). I could see the Chinese manager getting more and more frustrated.
  3. U.S. Manager talking about a Chinese employee: The U.S. manager said to me that the Chinese employee was hiding something, that they weren’t being transparent about the problems at the factory. Why? The Chinese employee only mentions a problem to management after they have identified and started working on the solution.
  4. Chinese intern on a project: I hear this from Chinese students here in the U.S. who are interning at U.S. companies. As a matter of fact I just had this conversation with one of my interns. The students are given a broad outline of a project, and then the boss is gone. They don’t give them much information on how to complete the project, its not something they have done before, they don’t have the data needed, etc. The Chinese intern isn’t comfortable asking the boss for more information, so the project stalls and both sides are not happy.

SOLUTIONS:

  1. The Chinese manager would need to understand this is how U.S. workers have been socialized in the workplace. If you aren’t coming back to give your boss updates, you aren’t doing anything. I wouldn’t try to change their behavior – “when in Rome” as they say.
  2. This is similar to the above, but if the U.S. manager really needs his staff’s input to make a decision – he needs to frame it that way. If the U.S. manager had framed the discussion better in the first place, their Chinese manager could have worked within that structure. Rather than saying “we are going to decide where to put this product” if he had said “we are going to think about 5 or 6 different options for this product, and then we will narrow it down to the best two options. Then I want you to take the next few days to analyze those two and give me the pros and cons of both.” No problem – the goal was outlined, and the Chinese manager could work on that (clearly stated) goal.
  3. In this situation the answer is procedures. Having a procedure that forces problems to be written down on a form and management notified. How you implement that depends on the function of that particular position / department. But any client that works with me knows that I am stickler for procedures. They eliminate a lot of cultural misunderstandings.
  4. With my intern, I framed the situation for him – told him I expected him to give me an outline of the project, and then I would comment on it, and give it back to him. And that we would repeat this pattern back and forth a few times. I told him I know he wouldn’t be comfortable working this way. But, this is how Americans are, and to work in the U.S. he needed to get more comfortable with it. The first draft he gave me – 90% complete. Lol.

SUMMARY: Overall, U.S. management behavior expects information to be communicated up. We expect employees to “bring us problems” and “keep us updated.” In China the expectation is that information will be communicated down so that managers “prepare employees to succeed” and employees are focused on implementation of those tasks.

There is not a right and wrong. Or if there is – you should adapt to the environment you are in. Not force your U.S. communication value system onto Chinese employees in China. And Chinese managers/employees in the U.S. need to adapt to the expectations here.

FYI – this is a small part of a training program I have for companies (one for U.S. teams, one for Chinese teams) that started when Disney asked me to work with them more than 10 years ago. There are patterns in behavior like everything else, and as much as the projects we work on involved regulatory procedures and accounting processes and quality systems – those are influenced by cultural norms. There are many reasons why we have the behavior norms that we do, but to learn that you need to take the class!

This client had the class, but its hard to change your own expectations!  I wanted to use the exercise of reviewing their communication and procedures to remind them of those lessons, and help them create a better system to keep everyone on track.

OVERALL – It’s important to be competent both in the transactional side of business, and the cultural / behavioral.  Developing that skill set in your team is critical. Learning from advisors who have both technical and cultural experience is also.

By Kimberly Kirkendall, President, International Resource Development & CFO, Greater Cleveland Chinese Chamber of Commerce

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U.S. and Chinese Management Expectations