William Dodson, writer for the This Is China Weblog, recently wrote an article about the structure of Chinese families, and how that has a spillover effect into the office setting. he explains that foreign managers and CEO's must adjust to this.
A key understanding for Western companies building a business in China is that the Chinese model for all their interactions in life is the family. Relationships are built in concentric circles that begin and end with the family: childhood friends, classmates, co-workers. Those are the circles that define and circumscribe a Chinese life.
In Chinese language elders not an official part of the family are called auntie (aiyi) or uncle (shushu); more senior co-workers may be called elder brother (ge ge) or elder sister (jie jie); while conversely more junior co-workers may be called younger brother (di di) or younger sister (mei mei). The Chinese shorten the appellations first with the family name of their relation and then the title; hence, some Chinese friends call me Wei Ge: Big Brother Wei, because my Chinese family name is Wei (drawn from the sinification of the Western name William – Wei Lian).
The Chinese business model then at its most constructive is a kind of patriarchy or matriarchy in some cases. The wise leader always lends a sense of weight, context, direction and security to the work environment so employees can get on with the work at hand. The Chinese leader creates a caring environment, in which each employee knows his or her place in the organization and has the feeling the work he does counts toward the benefit of the organization as a whole.
The American model, on the other hand, is trust-based; American leaders in an organization imagine that if they direct an individual or group to perform activities the staff will come back to the leader to discuss openly with the leader any issues that require the leader’s input for resolution.
Chinese expect a leader to follow-through with the direction the leader has provided. If the leader does not periodically if not frequently make contact with staff about staff’s progress on an issue, then staff will pre-suppose the activity was not important. The leader’s most effective tool in guiding and managing staff is to create an environment of caring: for the organization’s goals, for the employees, for the employees’ activities.
This means that any Chinese leader – and especially a Western one – has to literally work over-time to create an environment that Chinese workers – especially those in their twenties and very early thirties – feel safe and have the sense their work has meaning.
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