China Power

Why Chinese Make Bad Managers

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China Power

Why Chinese Make Bad Managers

Why China’s success at school test-taking often doesn’t translate into a flair for people management.

In his New York magazine article ‘Paper Tigers,’ the Korean-American writer Wesley Yang argues that the Asian parenting model and cultural values mean that Asians will excel in schools, and only in schools: ‘According to a recent study, Asian-­Americans represent roughly 5 percent of the population but only 0.3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and around 2 percent of college presidents.’

While many Asian-Americans attribute this ‘bamboo ceiling’ to racism, Yang argues that the same cultural attitudes and values (the unquestioning work ethic, the narrow-minded focus, and the overwhelming conservatism) that permit Asian-Americans to excel in tests also trap them into ‘middle class servility.’ 

Yang’s article is a battle hymn for young Asian males to smash out of the bamboo ceiling by ‘(putting) themselves into the spotlight and (making) some noise.’

But is more Asian alpha males really the answer?

In China, everyone agrees there’s a bamboo ceiling in place in multinationals, and no one’s happy about it. Importing an expatriate management staff to China increases overheads for multinationals while constraining their in-country growth. A bi-cultural work environment where expatriates are at the top also creates internal discord, language problems, and cultural misunderstanding. But despite costly and patient attempts to train and develop local management, multinationals still import expatriate managers. So why do Chinese apparently make such terrible managers?

In the land that invented the bureaucracy, management theory and practices have existed for millennia, codified in classic texts such as The Art of War and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. That Chinese would equate management with warfare helps explain why they’re so singularly bad at it. Mao Zedong’s idealism may be long dead and buried, but his politics is alive and flourishing in Chinese offices. 

To ease their own violent paranoia, Chinese managers instil and augment violent paranoia in their staff. To maintain absolute control, they will practice divide-and-conquer by constantly changing favourites, spreading innuendoes and rumours and lies, and acting arbitrarily and violently to induce terror. They won’t compose memos or read financial statements, but they’ll probably have watched ‘The Godfather’ dozens of times, and have memorized The Art of War. China’s management problem isn’t that there aren’t enough alpha males—it’s that there are too many.   

As a Chinese manager of a bilingual and bicultural work environment, my priority is to maintain a cohesive community, and to accomplish this I’ve learned that the two most important skills needed are empathy and self-understanding. 

Being a good manager means ensuring that everyone works towards the same goals. Being a good communicator (articulating values and goals in a concise and clear manner) is important, but being a good listener (taking a personal interest in each employee’s emotional well-being) is even more so.

Just sitting there, and nodding your head as the teacher, the student, or the parent rants and raves isn’t enough—it’s necessary to get inside his head, locate the source of his concerns and discontents, and articulate back to him the logic of his grievances. In other words, to be effective, managers need empathy, something that is refined through a lifetime of interacting with different people in challenging situations, and something that’s lost after a few years of cramming for tests.

Much more difficult than empathy is self-understanding. I’ve discovered that to manage others I need to manage myself, to restrain my ego and emotions, to understand my limitations and control my expectations, and to defer to process and committee: Narcissism, megalomania, and distrust are internal rumblings that can violently shake a workplace, if they’re not tamed by self-control. And self-control is a by-product of self-understanding, which itself is a result of a lifetime of making mistakes, coming to terms with failure, and starting over—practices that are neither valued nor encouraged in the test-taking, risk-averse, and face-obsessed culture that is China.