Westerners have a natural affinity for institutions. We cheer on our favorite sports teams, often to the extent of humanizing them. We personalize the joy of their victories and the agony of their defeats. We adorn ourselves and our homes and cars in their identity and we feel a natural affiliation with people who have adopted the same team as their own.
We respect our policemen, our firemen, and the young men and women who make up our armed forces. We join clubs and societies of people with similar institutional loyalties, such as alumni clubs, fan clubs, and retirement clubs. We even join clubs sponsored by commercial organizations. You can be a member of Club Penguin (Disney), the Lionel RailRoader Club, or Outdoor Nation, sponsored by the Outdoor Industry Association.
The reason (excuse the pun) Westerners can so easily personalize institutions, once again, goes back to Aristotle. Linear logic leads to hierarchical social structures and respect for institutions. Cause and effect is but the inner workings of order. And order gives structural form to everything, including institutions. And from structure it is but a short leap to the projection of our humanity and ourselves.
While Westerners living in free market democracies tend to think of their societies and their workplaces as egalitarian and meritocratic (that cause and effect thing again), therefore, most are actually quite hierarchical or institutional in terms of the social norms that influence inter-personal behavior.
Westerners, as a result, have a natural cultural respect for institutional authority. We are naturally deferential in our behavior toward a policeman, a judge, or a corporate CEO. Our behavior is influenced by the way people are dressed (We actually have a name for neckwear that is thought to denote power.) and the titles they carry.
The Chinese social structure (not to be confused with the political or organizational structure), by contrast, is personal and relational, not institutional and hierarchical. The Chinese divide the people they encounter in life into those they have a relationship with and those they don’t. To those they have a relationship with (e.g., family) their obligation can be without limit. To those they have no relationship with, on the other hand, there is no personal obligation.
Which is precisely why Chinese drivers will as readily honk the horn at a uniformed policeman as any other pedestrian innocently standing in the path of their vehicle. And why, to the chagrin of many foreigners visiting China for the first time, many Chinese do not queue up in public. It is not that they are rude. Rudeness implies a certain demeaning intent that is totally lacking when a Chinese person cuts in front of you at the checkout line. Their action is totally impersonal. They have no relationship with you. Therefore they have no obligation to you – nor you to them! Which is why you can physically prevent them from cutting in and there will be no hard feelings.
No Chinese, on the other hand, would ever let anyone that they have serious guan xi with go in need. Elderly parents often live with their grown children. And even a difficult brother-in-law, no matter how undeserving, will be given financial support should he fall on hard times. So while Westerners are frequently perplexed by the lack of deference the Chinese pay to the linear rules of Western public behavior (Queuing up, after all, is a thoroughly linear concept.), the Chinese are equally baffled by the fact that Westerners will so easily estrange friends and family in need.
The relational and personal nature of obligation in China, of course, has several implications for the multi-national workplace. One is that outside of well-established guan xi the focus on results trumps deference to hierarchy. While the Chinese will be unfailingly polite and cordial in their behavior toward foreign executives, for example, they may be disarmingly direct and outspoken relative to their Western counterparts when they believe those executives are making a mistake that will negatively affect the organization’s performance. (In this case it’s not personal; it’s business.)
For similar reasons, institutional loyalty is not a powerful motivator here. Relationships are strictly personal or impersonal. They are not, however, “un-personal.” People bond with other people, not with organizations or institutions.
This is important because many Western corporations rely heavily on institutional loyalty to motivate employees, reduce turnover, and promote their products. They go to great lengths to personalize the institution and create personal loyalty to its carefully crafted “personal” character and culture. They have Facebook pages so their loyalists can follow them and they twitter good news along with the rest of the netizen community.
Such efforts to personalize the institution will be largely unproductive here, however. While loyalty is a powerful motivator in China, it is almost always tied to personal relationships, not institutional affiliation. Institutions are simply too abstract for the relationship-minded Chinese. Such abstraction requires too great a leap of linear faith that the institution can, in fact, have a personal character and honor personal obligation.
It is generally more productive, therefore, to focus your corporate loyalty building efforts on the creation of stronger relationships among your employees than instilling loyalty toward the organization. Focus, in other words, more on building relationships and less on instilling institutional pride and affiliation.
Consider, for example, promoting activities that provide fertile-ground for relationship building. Organize badminton and football clubs; provide opportunities for employees to go on short holidays together; publish newsletters that share company news but focus on the non-corporate lives of your employees. Who had a baby? Who got married? Who took a trip to where?
Be aware, however, that there are levels of relationship and that each level is contained within well-defined boundaries. It is generally considered brash, if not rude, to ask a Chinese person you have just met personal questions about their marital status, children, etc. Ask instead about their hometown – your hometown is part of your eternal identity in China – or their education or past work experience.
Even long-term business relationships are not personal in the Western sense. One of my senior staff, who spoke fluent English, had traveled extensively abroad, and worked for several leading multi-national companies, privately asked me once why my very nice and well-meaning boss, an American who traveled to China with some frequency, inevitably asked him about the well-being of the Chinese executive’s daughter. He wasn’t so much offended as he was confused. “Why doesn’t he ask me about my work? Is he displeased with my performance?”
Yet another example of why it’s more important to understand the culture than to speak the language. Culture is the face of perspective and perspective is molded by worldview and reason.
In the end if you want to earn the respect and loyalty of your Chinese staff, spend less time trying to get to know them and more time helping them to grow. Be strong. And perform! The Chinese do not suffer fools, which I believe is as much a reflection of the country’s state of development as its culture. In my experience poor people throughout the world, no matter how good-natured they might be, have neither the time nor the stomach for foolishness.
And if you want to reduce turnover in your organization, forget about the pep rallies and other efforts designed to promote the humanity of the company culture. Your objective is not to convince them that yours is a great company. Your objective is to convince them that your company is a great place to work. There’s a huge difference between the two.
Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.