The China Workplace – The Other Hierarchy

While the Chinese frequently show disinterest in process, they are generally deferential to social structure.  There is universal respect for the elderly; there is general deference to people in a position of power; and teachers are to be heard, not challenged.

When entering a room or a building the most senior person generally goes first.  After several years of trying I finally gave up on trying to hold the door for anyone in my company.  I finally accepted that I was creating more anxiety – and delay – than good will.

This can, of course, lead to problems in the workplace.  While some Chinese can be both blunt and harsh in their criticism at work, most Chinese will not tell the emperor that he wears no clothes.  And generating constructive debate between departments or levels in the organization is a big challenge.

Of course this often results in sub-optimal solutions to problems and false consensus.  A plan that you think enjoys universal support may not, greatly reducing the chance that it is effectively executed.

The most damaging effect of this social predisposition in the workplace, however, comes from the way work gets allocated within a department.  In general work gets allocated to individuals based on the nature of the work, not its importance or impact.  In effect, social deference is internalized, thus inhibiting the willingness of managers and professionals alike from performing work that they perceive to be beneath their professional status.

A simple example.

As a foreign resident of China I must have a work permit and residence permit to work and live here.  And it must be renewed annually.

On the surface it appears to be a purely clerical exercise.  The HR Manager, as a result, typically assigned the task to one of the more junior people in the department.  And that individual was consistently dutiful in filling out the right forms and getting them filed on time.

The regulations, however, are in constant flux and it helps to make things go more smoothly if you have some experience working with the government bureaus involved and can anticipate their perspective or have nurtured a network of relationships you can turn to for clarification or help.  (The U.S. and China operate on a system of political reciprocity.  Whenever one country makes a change in how they treat diplomats or citizens of the other, the impacted country will immediately react in kind.)

There is, however, a lot of turnover in this type of position.  The incumbent, therefore, as hard-working and diligent as he or she may be, typically has little or no working experience and has been on the job for only a few months at most when it comes time to renew my work permit and visa.

And what happens if the work permit and visa doesn’t get issued on time?  The company is without its general manager.    Visas are serious business in China.  No visa?  You’re on the next flight out.  Not life-threatening, for sure, and perhaps even invigorating for the company, depending on who you talk to, but a disruption nonetheless.  (Thankfully that hasn’t happened to date but I did ask that the work be reassigned just to be sure.)

Another example with a more direct and material impact on the business:

Our parent company has an IT tool developed to help us manage the new product development process.  It is, in part, a control system, but it is also designed to promote collaboration and enhance communication across functions and geographies.  I can go online, for example, to see a list of all of the products being developed around the world for production in my plant.  I can ascertain the status of the project, note issues that have come up thus far in the process, and ask questions.

It is a tool designed for the people in the many functions who are directly involved in the NPD process.  And in every other region in the world it is these people who use this tool in much the same way you might use an Outlook calendar, a task manager, or even a calculator.

Except in China, where the responsibility for working with this tool has been assigned to one of the most junior individuals in the commercial department.  Her superiors, of course, are the ones who make the decisions and who need the information the system is designed to provide, but it is she that acts as the human interface.

The net result, of course, is that the system doesn’t work very well in China.  To the managers who the system was designed to benefit it is a roadblock, not a tool of enablement.  And, in fact, it is an impediment.  Because the clerk who inputs the information must constantly go back to the manager who actually has the information to know what to put in and to answer questions from collaborating colleagues in other regions.

And since the managers have someone to manage the system for them they haven’t taken the time to understand how it really works so they are often dumbfounded as to why a new SCC code hasn’t been assigned or where on God’s green earth the tooling authorization for the newest widget might be.  In short, a tool has become a hurdle in large part because of how the work necessary to use the tool has been assigned.

One last example:

We recently had to calculate the annual rebates earned by our customers in our biggest trade channel.  The task is largely limited to crunching numbers since the program itself is well documented and authorized.  Still, the amount of money involved is definitely material to the company.

Nonetheless, given the nature of the task it was assigned to the newest individual in the entire commercial department – a young woman just out of university who has been with us for only a few months.  She’s a hard worker with a laser-sharp mind and excellent skills in maneuvering around an Excel spreadsheet, but inexperienced nonetheless.  (The work was ultimately double-checked and, to her credit, she did a great job.)

This method of assigning work to align with the perceived hierarchy of job status, however, is much more than an issue of materiality and risk.  This practice of delegating all work perceived to be menial or clerical in nature, I believe, gets to the issue of insight.  And since insight is the key to finding creative solutions to vexing problems, it directly influences the quality of work, not of the clerks who do the work, but the mangers they do it for.

Whenever you are massaging large amounts of data or performing what appear to be mundane tasks you invariably begin to sense hidden trends or vague generalizations that you’re just not going to pick up from the consolidated and packaged results.  Actuaries, the gurus of number-crunching, will often note, “It feels like…” or “It would seem…” when presenting the clinically packaged output of their seemingly black and white efforts.

Real knowledge, in other words, often emanates from the process of analysis as much as the end product of the analysis itself.  In performing the analysis your brain is processing far more information than it can glean from the results alone.  Patterns emerge; subtle findings solidify.

Analytical summation, if you will, is the workplace equivalent of precognitive conclusion.  We see what we expect to see.  And, analytically speaking, that predisposition is reinforced when what we see is neatly packaged in summarized tables and graphs.

If you don’t actually perform the analysis it may appear to be easy to reach conclusions but you may not know which questions to ask.  It is the analytical journey itself that often leads to the most insightful queries.

This inherent desire to delegate those tasks perceived to be clerical, moreover, leads to organizational inflation (i.e. cost).  You not only need the additional clerks, but a manager’s work load is greatly inflated by the need to communicate his or her desires, oversee the analytical process, and review the results; not to mention the time it takes to manage the staff, which may or may not be necessary in the first place.

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, this tendency impedes organization development and professional maturation.  Young professionals can assume they won’t be doing much of anything ‘professional’ for the first few years of their career.  They will be crunching numbers or performing tasks that their managers don’t want to do on their own.  And while this invariably gives them great insight into the business, it probably stunts their growth as communicators and managers.  They gain little experience in managing projects, collaborating with others, or negotiating optimal outcomes.

To be clear, I am not advocating that managers should not delegate or that there should not be positions within an organization that are more clerical than managerial in nature.  I do, however, distinguish between clerical work that is process-oriented in nature and clerical work that is more analytical in nature.  It is the latter that is the focus of my comments here.

And, of course, like everything in life and work, it all comes down to achieving the proper balance.  You clearly don’t want managers spending their days crunching numbers or performing robotic tasks.  By the same token, however, you want them to have enough real insight about the business to be able to pursue continuous improvement and define and implement effective solutions to problems.

It is, admittedly, one of the many disconnects to be found between Chinese culture and the Chinese workplace.  This, after all, is a culture that turns on balance.  The balance of yin and yang is at the heart of everything from Chinese medicine to Chinese cuisine.

So, why the incongruity?  Part of if has to do simply with the level of economic development.  Corporate America didn’t look all that different when I started my career, although it’s admittedly more extreme here.  (We were called ‘go-fers’ in those days.)

But part of it, admittedly, is still a mystery to me.  But there I went, and here I am, and now you know.

A society's social structure is inevitably internalized in the workplace.
A society’s social structure is inevitably internalized in the workplace.