A major Chinese corporation is seeking to make a major change to their corporate culture, recognizing that their international expansion requires them to shift away from the more traditional Chinese style of management. However, as a variety of consulting companies pitch their ideas about how to accomplish this, both senior and middle-level management proves remarkably resistant to all suggested changes. It seems a curious dichotomy—recognizing the need for change, yet apparently resisting all practical efforts at change.
In last month’s column, we discussed one of the reasons why Chinese staff may prove resistant to change, and this month we’re going to continue on that theme, from another perspective.
A fairly common cause of resistance to change lays in the Chinese concepts of leadership and face. In Chinese culture, to be a leader means that you must know more than your subordinates. If they know more than you, or demonstrate greater competence than you, it means a loss of face. This is one of the reasons why Chinese employees tend to be so wary of speaking up to disagree with their boss, or suggest other ideas. To do so could cause their boss to lose face.
But one of the results of this perception is that when you try to institute change, it may represent a threat to any Chinese in your company who’s in a position of leadership—executives, mid-level managers, team-leaders, etc. They know and are comfortable with the way things are being done right now, but changes mean that they may end up looking incompetent, or making mistakes, or having employees who understand the new system better than they do.
This is one of the reasons why Chinese employees tend to be so wary of speaking up to disagree with their boss, or suggest other ideas.
Being aware of this potential problem, there are ways to deal with it. Many Western companies tend to introduce change as a group thing, making everyone aware of it at the same time; and if there’s any training or education necessary in making those changes, they tend to train everyone together. But for Chinese who are in positions of leadership, this puts them in a position where their subordinates may well understand or adjust more quickly than they do, which will mean a huge loss of face. They will therefore tend to be very resistant.
How to deal with this? By doing it in stages, in a manner that allows them to maintain an appearance of control. If you are announcing change, don’t announce it to everyone at once. Announce it to the most senior people involved. And don’t just announce it as a fait accompli. Give them specific reasons. Explain why you are doing it, and how they fit in. Give them time to adjust to the idea and be willing to answer their questions.
Then let them announce these changes to their subordinates, and likewise answer their questions and explain the reasons for the changes. In this manner, they feel much more secure, and less afraid of losing face.
Likewise, if you are introducing training programs, do not start by doing the training with everyone together. Start with the people at the top. Train them, make sure they understand everything. Award special certificates and awards (“Certificate of Executive Training”) that their subordinates will not get. When they have mastered the training, let them train their subordinates.
This won’t solve every problem, and there will certainly be some people who, no matter what you do, will not accept change. But this particular method should be effective in bringing most of your team on board, and get much greater buy-in. If your initial gut reaction is that this takes too much time, or is too inefficient or difficult, believe me, it’ll cost much less time, and be far more efficient, than trying to do it in a manner that will cause your management team to feel threatened and resistant to change out of fear of potential loss of face.
Going back to the company at the beginning of this article, a simple change in how the necessary changes were presented and structured resulted in acceptance by their leadership team, and effective implementation. For many Chinese, it’s not an issue that they don’t want to change; it’s an issue of how change is presented to them.
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.