With China being a society of very rigid hierarchy, it is not surprising to find this same system in most companies. Chinese companies have been richly influenced by hierarchy even though some of them are slowly veering off that path. Government-owned enterprises tend to run by a stronger hierarchical influence compared to the privately-owned ones, but many Chinese companies are still strongly influenced.
Young foreign employees from western companies are known to experience a lot of challenges while working in Chinese companies, especially whenever they try to voice their ideas at their workplaces. Most Chinese companies consider junior and especially foreign employees not equipped enough to express their views. So if you are planning to work for a Chinese company, you will need a lot of patience because the frustrations will be many initially, before you understand how the system works.
However, working in a Chinese company as a foreign employee is not all that bad. In fact, it is an excellent opportunity to experience a new culture which can be very interesting and will positively impact your life.
A few pointers to help you navigate through the strong hierarchy in Chinese companies are as follows:
1. Prepare For The Culture Shock
Culture shock is inevitable for many foreigners who have moved to China especially from western countries. Remember that differences between foreign and Chinese professional practices are very stark. You will make a few mistakes in the beginning because you will do what you think is best when it is wrong according to Chinese work etiquette. So preparing for this culture shock and learning as much as you can about the Chinese work etiquette will help a lot in getting you settled.
2. Do Exactly As You Are Told & Keep Learning
Being in a hierarchical workplace environment in a Chinese company as the foreign employee from a Western country, you will learn the importance of following the instructions from your superior.
If you want them to hear you out, listen to them first and carry out your duties to the best of your ability.
No matter how brilliant your ideas are, if you don’t do your duties humbly and make your superiors look good in the public eye, you will never gain their trust. Meanwhile, as you work diligently, learn about the company’s hierarchical structure and familiarize yourself with the roles of the different heads of departments. Fully understand how you fit in and what is expected from you.
3. Figure Out The Company’s Expectations For You
Study the major projects within the company and understand how you are supposed to carry them out. Note that in most Chinese companies; jobs are not clearly defined, and little or no training is available. Therefore, often it is up to the new employee to figure out for themselves what is expected of them, and usually, it is very challenging. You will need to identify the motivations and goals of your boss and your colleagues in the department you are working in. Always keep in mind that the goals of your immediate boss may not necessarily go neck to neck with goals of your company.
4. Understand The Face Culture
The “face culture” is rampant in Chinese society and very evident in the companies too. Often it will turn out be what defines the stark differences you will notice between the Chinese practices and your practices. Losing face, which is only feeling embarrassed in front of others is a big issue with the Chinese, especially in a professional setup.
For example, when talking to employees in the company who are lower in the organization hierarchy ranks, note when they quickly say “Ok” or “No Problem” to your instructions because such remarks can’t always mean that they have understood. Rather than “lose face” and admit that they don’t understand, they will pretend that they do and consult their Chinese colleagues to figure out what you were implying or requesting.
That might result in frustration for you because it means wasted time trying to correct something that shouldn’t have gone wrong in the first place. Always make sure your Chinese colleagues know exactly what you want and if they get something wrong, never blame them directly because they will “lose face.” Pointing out their mistakes especially in front of other people will damage your working relationship with them.
Instead of openly criticizing them, just point out how something has been done wrong and how it should be done right the next time. Do this privately with the person and never in front of the other employees. In the event you see a colleague laughing or smiling when you are criticizing them, don’t take it for disrespect but rather an embarrassment and that is simply their way of making the moment lighter.
5. Be Respective, Deferential and Non-Prescriptive When Presenting Ideas
You will obviously have brilliant ideas from time to time, but presenting your ideas as a foreigner in a Chinese company especially to your superiors can be a bit challenging. Of course, you have good intentions and want to promote the business’s goals, but it won’t be seen that way. This is why you will need to present your goals in a deferential, respective and non-prescriptive way. This is no time to be the arrogant foreigner with brains. When giving your ideas let it seem as if it was your boss’s idea by providing them with the opportunity to further influence your idea. You can do that by letting them participate in your narration of brilliant ideas. By doing this, you will recognize their authority, something that will be appreciated a lot.
6. Always Learn From Your Chinese Colleagues
Chances are most of your ideas will not be implemented within the Chinese workplace; your patience will be required and eventually when you have gained their trust, it would have paid off. If you love getting credit for your ideas simply don’t expect it in a Chinese workplace because all the credit goes to the boss. The moment you shared it with the boss, it became the boss’s idea. That can be hard for a foreigner from the free world to cope with, but it is a great lesson in patience which you will need a lot and in the end you will have saved the boss from “losing face” if the project fails.
7. Guanxi In The Workplace
This Guanxi is simply a system of certain relationships whereby one person performs a favor for another expecting the favor to be returned at another time in the future. It is considered bad manners not to pay back a favor, and it doesn’t matter if you are a foreigner or not. The Guanxi system is expected to be practiced by all. In the workplace, this Guanxi can be a bit frustrating for foreigners unfamiliar with it. It is not unusual to see persons within the company promoted beyond their qualifications just because they have established favorable relationships with their heads of department. In this case, there is nothing you can do but continue doing your best.
8. The Social Groups In The Workplace
You will notice very closely knit social groups in a Chinese workplace. Often it could be like-minded persons linking up together to boost their careers further in future. You will see employees being very close to a certain supervisor who eventually gets promoted, something that increases their chances of getting a promotion as well in the future. This kind of groups might or might not affect you as the foreign employee, but at times, you might find yourself being welcomed into such a group. They will always extend their welcome if they think you will be an asset to them. However, you have the choice to say politely no to their invitations which will not be offensive to them at all.
9. The Working Hours
In most Chinese companies people usually don’t work overtime unless the company policy or boss says so. After the end of a working day, you are always free to go home. However, in some instances, some Chinese companies have been known their employees from leaving early even if they have finished all their assignments for the day. You will also notice many Chinese employees taking a nap at noon during the lunch breaks. Offices with fixed schedules usually have this in common.
10. The After- Work Drinking Spree
After being in the Chinese company for a while, you will receive invites for drinks with your colleagues. Chinese people drink more than their western counterparts, and the drinking is focused on getting drunk. For many Chinese people, getting drunk and getting others drunk is a sign of showing that they are dealing and working with a trustworthy person who will make a great partner at work. You can always pretend that you are drunker than you are and if you don’t drink you can politely refuse to drink.
11. When Working Closely With A Chinese Boss
There might be instances where you will work closely with your Chinese boss. If you disagree on something, it would be best to help them save face by seeing them in private and explaining in a polite way. In China, the bosses of private companies, state-owned companies, and the small companies usually have more say on company issues than those in partnership businesses. You might find yourself working under a boss with no clue about how to run a company.
The boss might be in that position just because he or she has a good relationship with the overall boss and not because they are competent. If you ever find yourself in such a situation simply tolerate them and if you can help them become better to do so. Trying to get them kicked out will never work, but you can still communicate to your boss how difficult it is working with that boss and how they would be better off in a different department. You can’t get them fired, but you can get them out of your department to another one.
If nothing is done and the incompetent boss is still your boss, you will learn to live with it wisely. Never challenge the boss every time there is an issue because they will begin thinking you are questioning their ability to perform as a boss.
Finally on working closely with your boss; to work in peace never stamp down your boss ideas immediately especially in front of others. Avoid negative statements such as “it is not possible” and “No”, “Never work”. Always offer your explanation by shifting blame to other outside factors and not your boss even if they truly deserve to be blamed.
12. The Final Advice
Working in Chinese company is not all that bad, the above are simply the extreme case scenarios, and you might not encounter them especially if you happen to work in an upcoming modern Chinese company that has embraced the Western ways of doing business. You will be lucky if you find a boss who has been western-schooled. Even so with the changing office culture and attitude, the above scenarios have no doubt started decreasing. Chinese companies have begun appreciating foreign employees because they have realized how great an asset such employees are to the companies.
Most company owners would love to apply Western ways of doing business and what better way to do so that having some western employees in the companies. However, even though the Chinese are changing their company policies and embracing the western traits every day, it is advisable for any western professional intending to work for a Chinese company to adequately prepare for everything.
Before joining a Chinese company, it is wise to talk to people from your country who have been there and learn from their experiences. Get a few pointers from them and if you could talk to Chinese friends you will even be better prepared. In the end, follow the office rules and show respect to everyone that you work with. Loosen up, let your mind embrace and accept the Chinese culture and environment that you are in, and the chances of being more productive will be increased.