Chinese Workplace Culture: Key Differences with the West

A brief guide to help you avoid causing offence in the workplace and get on better with your Chinese colleagues.

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Continuing with my monthly column on the differences between western and Chinese culture, this time I take a look at Chinese workplace culture, management style, and business mindset….

Business Relationships

Having a good reputation and a network of people who trust in you and your work is essential if you wish to create good business relationships in China. Many deals and collaborations in the world of business here are struck based on referrals and strong recommendations between friends, so the more Chinese people you know (and work well with), the more likely they are to mention your name if a friend of theirs has a job or project that might be suited to you or might benefit from your involvement.

In contrast to many western business relationships, which often remain strictly professional, in China it is almost inevitable that your business relationship will also develop into a social relationship after a while. The more you share of your personal life and spend time with your business associates, the more they will view you as a friend and someone worthy of their trust.

If you are uncomfortable chatting about your personal life in the professional sphere a good alternative is to find a hobby or sport you and your business partner both like, and then invite them out on a weekend to enjoy it together. Pursuing a common hobby outside of business matters encourages more of a bond, and will also give you a more relaxed space in which to listen to your colleagues’ ideas.

2 Men Playing Golf in Shenzen, China

The Importance of Seniority and Giving Face (Gei Mianzi)

The concepts of seniority and superiority are extremely important in the workplace in China, especially if you are dealing with a State-owned school or organisation, or a government body. For example, when giving out business cards or information booklets always make sure to start with the most senior person before moving down the line, and always ensure that you give and reach for peoples’ business cards with both hands outstretched. Instead of addressing a senior member of staff as simply Mr or Mrs, make sure to find out their designated title within the company or school and address them as such, for example Principal or Chairman.

Showing respect to your seniors is viewed as especially significant in China (even if you may not agree with how they are running the show). “Giving face” (i.e. giving due respect) can be done in a variety of ways, for example giving your boss the best seat at the dinner table or designating seats for a meeting according to rank, being complimentary to your superiors, or also buying nice gifts for your managers on such occasions as is appropriate.

Collectivism Vs. Individualism

For a long time the Chinese society placed more emphasis on collectivism in the workplace than individuality. But now, in modern times, things are beginning to change. This is probably due to the fact that the Chinese market has opened up significantly in the past few decades. Many Chinese managers now have internalised more “western” workplace values, such as individualism and personal responsibility.

However, social obligations to the family unit and a higher authority are still deemed more important here than in western societies, and are viewed as more important than rules directed at protecting the individual. Because of this, being part of the team and creating harmony with your colleagues is very important if you want to succeed in a Chinese workplace. Whereas western workplace culture tends to put more emphasis on personal achievements, failures, and goals, in China your manager is more likely to judge you and your colleagues based on your performance and results as a group.

Dinners, Drinking, and Gifts

Most business discussions or job offers in China involve at least one trip to a restaurant, and eating together is an important way of cementing professional relationships. In some parts of China people will insist on fixed seating positions for the host, guest, and seniors, but in my personal experience it is often more relaxed in Wuhan. These dinners are often very impressive, and if you are lucky enough to be taken out for a meal by your Chinese business associates or colleagues they’ll likely order enough food to feed a kingdom! This is to demonstrate their hospitality, to extend welcome to their foreign guest, and to show willingness to build a good future relationship for both parties.

Drinking together also works as a bonding exercise, much like sharing a hobby. Especially with men, it is important to show that you can take your drink, and it is rude to refuse to drink with your hosts at a formal dinner. So make sure to drink to the toasts made, but watch out for the strong Chinese wine if you want to remain professional in front of your colleagues – however good a drinker you think you are I can guarantee your local colleagues will drink you under the table when it comes to Chinese liquor!

Giving small gifts or red packets (hongbao) is also important in the Chinese workplace. For example, on holidays like New Year and certain festivals your boss might give you a red packet bonus if your work was good, or may give you little thoughtful items like snacks or fruits. If a colleague does this it is important to return the favour, and I’ve found that many people are appreciative of receiving gifts from foreign countries, such as French wine or Swiss chocolates. In the west it is seen as polite to refuse a gift, especially of money, but in China you should never do this as your refusal will be seen as an insult to the gift-giver.

 

Perception of Time

In countries like America and Britain business is generally efficient and “to the point”. It takes place at a very quick pace, and associates, investors, and managers tend to get very nervous if things are not progressing or moving forward at a decent rate. However in China (as mentioned above) it is very important to create and build relationships with people before doing business. This can be very frustrating to a foreign-minded person as it prolongs the time spent in discussions and making business decisions, and therefore one must have patience before engaging in this type of work. In addition, Chinese people tend to focus more on long-term commitments and projects for which they expect long-term rewards, rather than the more American mentality of quick efficient projects for short-term rewards.

The conversational style in China is also more indirect, as no one wants to “lose face” in front of a meeting group by sounding unsure or making a bad deal for their company. The Chinese also prefer to negotiate for longer lengths of time to ensure they get the best deal, rather than shaking hands immediately so they can move forward and get on with business. In China there is no hurry to invest or partner-up, so you must be patient, certain, and determined in your negotiations.

Asking Questions

Though it is often good to ask questions (and effectively asking and listening can be integral to foreign-Chinese intercultural communication), it is possible to ask too many questions or to ask them in inappropriate circumstances. Although obviously you can go to your boss or colleagues with some queries, it is very easy to cause offence or put them on the defensive if you do this too often.

Questions that you may view as simple curiosity can come across as questioning someone’s expertise or accuracy, and especially if you question the decisions of your boss in front of others you can appear very rude. So, if there is something you think could be improved in your school or company, or you are unhappy and wish to question an action taken by your manager make sure to arrange a private talk to discuss the matter, rather than bringing it up in a group staff meeting. Though in your home country it may be acceptable to call out a bad decision made by your boss in front of others, here try to remain constantly aware of the idea of giving and losing face (as your boss/manager will be angry if you cause them to “lose face” in front of the other staff members).

Giving input and ideas is also very different in China compared to the west. In the west your boss is likely to formulate the overall goals for your team, and then accept input and ideas about how these could be achieved from the lower-level staff members. However, in China the managers or superiors tend to “lead from the top”, and pass down direct instructions about how everything should be done day to day. Again, if you speak with your boss privately they’ll likely listen to your ideas, but be aware of the hierarchy (and don’t suggest your ideas too publicly) as this may be misconstrued as you questioning their expertise.

How to Succeed

If you bear in mind these tips, and adapt your style of working to fit more with your Chinese colleagues, you’ll find much greater success with your career in China. Keep in mind the ideas about hierarchy and superiority so you don’t accidentally cause offence, and try to demonstrate that you can be a team-player.

In the beginning, it may be a good idea to hold back on your suggestions as to how things could be changed or run differently, at least until you understand the dynamics of the Chinese workplace, but as you learn more you can use your ambition and ideas to really help to improve your school or company. It’s important to understand and relate to the Chinese way of thinking, but also to retain your own thoughts and influences to try to create harmony between western and Chinese ways of working.

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Heather Rosalind Hurst
I studied English Literature and Film at university, and I love to write. I have lived in Wuhan for over three years now and I love heading out for good food and drinks with friends. I have taught at various schools, ranging from kindergarten to university, and I'm passionate about helping people develop their English skills.