BJCG Article: Speaking Up in the Chinese Work Place

Cecilia Fan looks at some of the cultural reasons behind why Chinese staff are often reluctant to speak up about work issues and offers some techniques to counteract it.

If you have ever worked with the Chinese, you’ll find that they are generally a much quieter bunch than any Aussies you might have worked with. Not that they merely don’t show an interest in joining you for a drink after work, but when you have them in a staff meeting, you’ll find they sit there quietly, like terracotta statues.

One of the big complaints is that Chinese staff don’t seem to share what they are really thinking unless asked very directly. What’s more, you need to ask directly in the right place at the right time – both of which are highly subjective and ever changing.

If you’ve ever had a chance to sit in on a typical Chinese classroom, or Chinese company meeting, you’ll begin to understand why this occurs. In a typical Chinese organization or classroom setting, students and staff are expected to sit quietly, as opposed to a Western-style of learning, where participation is encouraged.

Your Chinese staff have grown up in a social environment where it is normal to listen to and obey elders (parents and older siblings), those in a more senior position of authority (managers, teachers), and once upon a time, husbands.

Even today, many Chinese are hesitant to disagree, or voice opposition and alternatives. Voicing a disagreement publicly may be seen as disrespectful to the person that has been working hard on the project. In the eyes of the Chinese staff, a person may not deserve a medal for their performance, but they do deserve respect for the hard work they’ve put in. When it comes to a new idea, Chinese staff may wonder if it is outside of their job description. Perhaps they don’t want to make their manager look stupid by offering an improvement on his/her territory, or maybe they don’t want to be seen as a show-off in front of both their peers and superiors.

In the West, debating is encouraged, both in the educational system and in the workforce. In China, however, the last recorded social environment that encouraged “a hundred schools of thought to bloom” ended approximately 200 years before the birth of Christ when Emperor Qin began a campaign to burn books and bury alive scholars that did not adhere strictly to “Qin thought”.

A more recent example, in the living memory of many, was in the 1950s and ‘60s, during Chairman Mao’s campaign to “encourage” the free airing of views. Mao first encouraged everyone to speak out then proceeded to “rid” China of those with right-wing views. Almost one million people were sent to prison and labour camps, from which approximately 100,000 never returned. No official figures have ever been released, although many Chinese families today still have vivid memories of their friends and relatives that were affected.

It is easy for an outsider to say that this all belongs in the past, but every now and then, incidents happen that remind all Chinese, or foreigners living in China, that free speech is not always a prudent option. From the Xidan Democracy wall of the ‘70s, to the late ‘80s, to today, a number of people are still detained every year for what they have said or written. It might be easy to assume you are just talking about simple work issues in a meeting, but the workplace is a small reflection of what is outside the office window. There are ongoing concerns about relationships and the spoken words that shape them, and how they may impact promotions or demotions, regional transfers, and future employment. Moreover, it is not sufficient to keep your boss happy, but you need to be tolerated and accepted by your colleagues as well.

Delving into the myriad of explanations and the 2000-year-old cultural memory of a nation is a formidable task. But here are a few practical tips for encouraging an open dialogue with your Chinese colleagues:

  • When interviewing staff ask candidates to give you anecdotes from their past, examples of times they have challenged others or dealt with a challenge from a colleague;
  • Engage in more casual small talk, rather than seeking feedback only in a formal staff meeting;
  • Try to find opportunities in which you as the manager can demonstrate that you like to learn and then deal with the truth, even if it means having to admit your own misjudgement;
  • Do your homework and try to understand the personalities of your staff, at least those with management responsibilities. You need to be confident that managers below you aren’t creating a sub-culture that differs from your overall vision;
  • Once an idea or issue has been voiced, you need to respond and manage the expectations of those that voiced the issue. Unless you provide a response and feedback, you won’t get feedback again;
  • Encourage direct communication beyond organizational protocol – CC’d emails or engaging in dialogue with staff that don’t report to you directly;
  • Set up a routine for everyone to speak out a little in a meeting.