BJCG Article: Managing People the Chinese Way?

The management styles present in traditionally Chinese companies are a far cry from the management theory taught at top Western business school, but is it totally obsolete?

Cecilia Fan argues that there may be some aspects of Chinese people management worth keeping in modern enterprises.

As Chinese organizations continue to embrace western HR policies, there are some aspects of traditional Chinese management systems worth keeping.

For those of us who have had experience with Chinese enterprises, it is not hard to identify the plethora of flaws in the “Chinese notion” of people management which compete with hierarchy, bureaucracy, office politics, underemployment, the culture of unquestioned obedience, self-centeredness and the inward looking attitude of senior managers. However, nowadays, there’s a multitude of MBA courses, HR training sessions, corporate coaches and mentor programs, all using trained professionals and case studies to promote Western management philosophies in Chinese workplaces.

The younger generation of Chinese, who were born and raised in China, welcome and even worship these ideals, as they seem to offer more certainty, clarity, structure and respect for individuality. It offers an attractiveness that traditional Chinese SOE workforces can’t offer: clear job responsibilities, a performance-based reward system, matrix reporting systems and privacy codes to cut down unnecessary and intrusive discussions about personal income and personal life in the office.

So is there anything worth taking from the old Chinese system? While it may be less structured, the Chinese system has in the past, offered a lot of flexibility to adjust to individual employers’ needs. There may be communist roots, but because the Chinese system has less separation between work and life, people who work together tend to have extremely strong ties – many people are life-long friends through their work. Bosses are not only expected to manage their workforce, but in many aspects, also to take care of the families and social lives of their employees, past and present – particularly those that have the right kind of ‘zige’. Zige (credentials and qualifications) is a combination of experience, ranking, achievements, popularity, and also sometimes includes well-recognized qualifications. Once you have zige, you can question higher authorities and you may be able to make changes beyond your own job description, gain more autonomy and be more influential regardless of your position. Zige encourages individuals to work for the organization, as well as for the people within the organization.

My elderly mother worked in a large state-owned enterprise for her entire life. She retired nearly two decades ago, at a mid-management level, and now lives alone (more than 1,000km away from me) in a compound with many of her former colleagues and their children. She also has the option to use her former employer’s resources as do many other retirees who used to work for this organization.

One night, my mother had a fall and broke her ankle. Her work unit immediately sent a car and driver to pick her up, took her to the work unit’s hospital and called the bone specialist out of bed to fix her ankle. Despite all the downsides of the Chinese work culture, despite my mother’s zige, I was still amazed by what her SOE did for her.

On the same night, I also had news from another friend with perhaps even more zige than my mother, but who worked at a foreign multi-national company. My friend had been working there for years as a general manager, and his employer had been named one of the best employers in the world on more than one occasion. Sadly, he was recently told by his company’s HR department that his contract would not be renewed – just two weeks before it expired. Given that the contract was “not extended” rather than terminated meant his employer had no further obligation toward my friend and his family. After all his years of service it was also undeserving to be given this news from the cold voice of the company’s HR department.

While many corporations are busy sending their employees through expensive training systems, to create better candidates for jobs up and down the corporate ladder, the western HR system does not tend to hold the vision to support staff beyond the office, and in other areas of their lives.

Under the so-called “advanced” western HR management, sales staff still find loopholes to get larger commissions either above or beneath the table, performance measurements can be used as a tool to achieve short-term gain but long-term harm, equity at the workplace can also result in endless discussions with never-executed execution plans and 360 degree surveys can merely become paper shuffling, without any revelations of the true voices behind them.

Chinese or western, it’s a topic that has been and will be debated by academics, professionals and practitioners for years to come. However, if a dated, inefficient state-owned enterprise can still deliver something that many multinationals cannot, then perhaps we need to drop the theoretical framework and focus on substantial matters to explore the balance between the fitness of individuals to a corporate machine, and the needs of those individuals outside the workplace.