My Way, Then The Highway

As local talent pools increase and companies begin hiring management from their ranks, working within and understanding cultural divides becomes ever more critical.

As local talent pools increase and companies begin hiring management from their ranks, working within and understanding cultural divides becomes ever more critical.

One of the more common complaints that I get from foreign managers in China is that their Chinese staff are resistant to change. They face that dreaded situation where they tell their employees to do something, the employees nod their heads, say, “yes,” and then just do things however they want to do them, essentially ignoring their instructions entirely.

Now, there are a variety of reasons for this, many of them having rather deep cultural roots that will take a fair bit of time and effort to address. However, there’s one cause that companies can address much more easily, and with much more immediate impact.

I happen to enjoy the Dilbert comic strip, written by Scott Adams. Several years ago, he coined the term “bungee boss,” to describe the phenomenon of managers who are brought in from outside the company, stay for a short time, and then leave. In Western nations, this is primarily an issue in high tech companies that are going through very rapid change; but in China, it is almost the status quo.

Foreign employees in China tend to stay for one to three years; a smaller number will stay for five; very few will stay longer than that. In their home countries, when a manager leaves, or is promoted, they’ll usually be replaced by a subordinate who will be promoted into their position. But in China, when they leave, their replacement will usually be someone else flown over from their home country. And in many cases, the replacement, being entirely unfamiliar with how the previous manager did things, and entirely ignorant of the office relationships, will come in and try to change everything to the way they think it should be done.

Foreign employees in China tend to stay for one to three years; a smaller number will stay for five; very few will stay longer than that.

Many times, when I’ve talked with Chinese staff who have been reticent about doing what their foreign manager says, their response has been, “The first time my boss asked me to change, I made a real effort. But then he left after one year, and was replaced by another manager who wanted me to change everything again to do it her way. And when she left after two years, we got another new manager who wanted to change everything again.” After going through this several times, Chinese staff can tend to get an attitude that, “You’ll be gone in a few years, but we’ll still be here, so we’ll do things the way that we think is best.”

And to tell the truth, it’s not that unreasonable. If you are coming in and expecting them to make the effort to listen to and understand what you want, should you not be making an equal effort to listen to them, and understand their situation? If this is the third time they’ve changed bosses in the past five years, and every time has meant significant disruption to their work as each new boss changes everything, is it not understandable that they become frustrated and resistant to change?

The good news is that it’s fairly easy to address this issue. The ideal solution is that when you are going to replace a particular manager, have their replacement come three months earlier, and work with them side-by-side, to see how they run things, and to get to know the people, and the relationships both within the office, and with clients/partners/suppliers. Then, when the old manager leaves, the new one can take over with minimal disruption, and have a far smoother transition. Yes, it means the company has to pay two salaries for that three month period; but that’s paltry compared to how much the company will save by having a smooth changeover.

This solution may not always be possible, so there are other alternatives. It seems obvious to me (but often not to some foreign managers) that when they first arrive, rather than telling people what to do, they should be asking questions and seeking to understand how things have been done previously, and why. The new manager may not be entirely familiar with how the previous manager did things, but it is far, far easier for that one manager to change and adapt, than it is to get all their employees to change (especially when those employees know that their manager will be gone in a few years anyway).

Some companies tend to rely on their corporate culture to ensure consistency, but I caution against this. A corporate culture that is effective in an American company, with American employees, will often not be so effective in China, with Chinese employees. So just because the new manager is from the same company, it is wrong to assume that their experience in their own country is sufficient to make them competent managers in China. There should also be additional training done for such managers, particularly training focusing on cross cultural differences, so that they can better understand how to adapt their management style to the environment in China.

0714_culture tellerJohn Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.