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Reflection – Shan Zhao

by on October 20, 2007

Managing change in Chinese culture

The video case discussion is a very rich learning experience to me. I can really put myself into the story tellers’ shoes and think what I would do in their positions. I also learned a lot from my classmates’ creative ideas and comments. The most interesting case is the Japanese architecture project. In this case, the Japanese professionals showed suspect to the capability of an American minority project manager and uneasiness of given instructions by a lady. The title of the clip was “Managing Cultural Diversity”, but problem seemed more like an ethical issue to the American company. Whether or not to replace the undesirable team members is an ethical choice. The company should take the ethical stance firmly, and if possible, educate the Japanese that they need to change.

The case made me think of another interesting question: given the eastern and western cultural differences, would the American change management theories and methodologies work in Asian countries, or more specifically, in the transitioning China? I’d like to explore this topic in the rest of reflection. First, let’s look at some unique cultural facts of China.

The traditional Chinese family-ism pervades into organizations where employees’ activities and personal lives are closely connected to the organizations they work. Relationship (refer to in Chinese GuanXi) at business and personal level plays a significant role in business management. Often, the interpersonal connections overpower the formal structure of the organization. The close relationship is established on shared value and trust. People targeted for participation in the change project react to the source of the message promoting the change itself (“if anyone else asked me to do this, the answer would be ‘no’. But because the request comes from you who I know and trust, I am willing to give it a try”) (Miles and Large, 2006).

Confucian principles teach Chinese to highly respect the authorities and the elders. From childhood, people are taught to follow all the rules and regulations, and kids learn to obey at home and school. It’s not that these people are not intelligent. They use their intelligence to adjust to the world rather than to change the world (Bono, 2006). You also see less facial expressions, because control of emotions, self discipline and self control is emphasized.
The Chinese people are group oriented. People find their own identities with reference to others and adopt group goals and opinions in exchange for reciprocal care and protection. People are not encouraged to express their thoughts or confront argument publicly. They shy from expressing opinions that are different from authority and majority. Traditionally, group pressure is applied to ensure conformity through eliciting shame (losing face) (Schlevogt, 1999).
With the Chinese economic reformation and openness, the market driven management and individualism have been growing quickly in the younger generations. However, the Confucianism, family-ism, group orientation philosophy and many others make Chinese culture distinctive and powerful. So what do they mean to us, the change managers? How the change management strategies should be adapted to Chinese unique culture? Here are some suggestions:

Empowering the change by utilizing the formal and informal network. Research showed relationship driven change strategies was the second frequently used strategies in Chinese change management (Miles and Large, 2006). The use of relationship and personal connections to promote engagement in change was a serendipitously identified change management strategy recognized through research into change management practice in State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in a Chinese business (Miles et al, 2002).

The leader should build trustworthiness and strengthen the bond with the employees. This may not seem much different with the Western world. But in reality, only when an employee has enough trust to the leader, s/he would start to speak out and share ideas with the leader. Otherwise, it would be difficult to collect sincere feedbacks.

Provide a transparent and encouraging environment to encourage people express their ideas. Make extra effort in soliciting feedbacks from employees. Reward for group performance, but don’t forget to reward the employees who jump on board and make contributions. There is an old Chinese saying: Rewards allure men to brave danger. Although monetary rewards are always welcomed, recognition in the group is often a desired reward.

Last but not the least, be observant. A great percentage of thoughts and feelings are not expressed explicitly, e.g. the discomfort to the lady in the Japanese project case. The leader needs to observe carefully employees’ behavior without judgment.

Bono, E. d. Business Possibilities: Don’t discount possibilities lightly in your business strategy, Edward de Bono and Robert Heller’s Thinking Managers, July, 2006,, accessed 10/18/2007
Fan Xing. The Chinese cultural system: implications for cross-cultural management. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 1995, Winter, p. 14-20.
Hirt, M. and Orr, G. Helping China’s companies master global M&A. The Mckinsey Quarterly. August, 2006. accessed 10/18/2007
Imai, G., Gestures: Body Language and Nonverbal Communication., accessed 10/17/2007
Miles, M. and Large, D. Change Management in China – An application of Meta-Strategies Practice, 2006, IEEE International Conference on Management of Innovation and Technology, p126-130
Miles, M., A. Thangaraj, Wang, D., and Ma, H. 2002. Classic Theories – Contemporary Applications: a comparative study of the implementation of innovation in Canadian and Chinese Public Sector environments. Innovation Journal. 7 (3) p1-23
Schlevogt, K. 1999. Web-based Chinese management (WCM) – Toward a new management paradigm for the next millennium? Thunderbird International Business Review. 41(6) p 655-692

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