ABC Company, an American corporation, had recently formed a joint venture with a Chinese company. They built teams that consisted of foreign managers and Chinese staff, who were responsible for developing and marketing new products.
However, within a few months, it became obvious that there were significant problems. The teams were not working well together, and were extremely inefficient. Their own internal audit indicated that the Chinese staff were feeling unmotivated, so the Americans decided to bring in one of their top team-builders and motivationalists. This was a guy who’d gained a sterling reputation for turning inefficient, unhappy teams into paragons of cooperation and efficiency. They were confident that he’d solve the problem.
Unfortunately, the anticipated result was not to be—quite the opposite, in fact. Morale plummeted even further, and Chinese staff was fleeing the company. At this point, I was called in to try to resolve the situation.
The American manager who’d been brought in to solve the situation was understandably defensive, and blamed the problem on Chinese staff that just didn’t care about the company, or were lazy, or stupid. I asked him to walk me through his management process, and he did. He was a very big proponent of the “management by walking around” fad, which means the manager spends a lot of time walking around the office, talking with the staff, keeping a close eye on what is going on, both to offer timely encouragement, and to spot difficulties before they arise.
For example, as he was walking around, if he spotted an employee who was doing a particularly good job, he’d stop to praise that employee, and let them know that their efforts were being recognized. In America, which is a more individualist culture, this style of management can, in fact, be quite effective. The person who is praised feels that their efforts are noticed and valued, and other team members are motivated to make similar efforts because they know that they will likewise be recognized and rewarded.
But that kind of transition is a gradual one, and takes time. This company was in a crisis, and needed a more immediate solution.
However, in a collectivist culture like China’s, the effect can be very much the opposite. The team shares all accomplishments, and failures, as a group. Here is what the actual result of the American’s efforts were:
- Other people on the team who saw one member being praised, while the others were not, responded by essentially saying, “Well, if he’s going to get all the praise, then he can do all the work.” They’d cut back on their own efforts, and likely also ostracize the team member who was praised.
- The team member who was praised would, in turn, feel singled out and isolated. Not wanting to be ostracized by the rest of his team, he’d cut back on his own efforts, so as not to stand out any more.
- Chinese staff also reported feeling much more afraid of making mistakes and failing, because of the apprehension that they’d be held personally responsible, rather than the team as a whole. So in any situation where they were uncertain or afraid of mistakes, they’d be immobilized by indecision and fear.
Long-term, the solution was to implement training programs for the Chinese staff, to help them better understand the expectations and environment in which they were now working. But that kind of transition is a gradual one, and takes time. This company was in a crisis, and needed a more immediate solution.
So we conducted training for the foreign managers, and taught them to be more ‘Chinese’ in their management styles. In particular, that both praise and criticism are given to the group as a whole, not to individuals. If someone did a really good job, don’t mention that in public, instead praise the whole team for their excellent work; then in private, if you want, you can express your appreciation to that particular employee. If someone made a big mistake, don’t criticize them in front of everyone else; criticize the whole team, and let them share the responsibility together. You can be certain that the team knows who was responsible for that failure, and will take action themselves to rectify it.
Within three months of instituting these changes, the situation had improved significantly. Teams were working much more efficiently, and results were much better. Employee satisfaction, both among foreign and Chinese staff, were much higher.
John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.