At least once a day at the office I hear someone yelling in Chinese at someone else, typically a manager directing their anger at a subordinate. It’s a jarring experience for a manager who is used to conducting such conversations in private, behind closed doors, and seems particularly out of synch with the widely-held stereotype of the Asian who avoids conflict and seeks to help others save face. It happens so frequently that no one seems to take much notice. I don’t understand Chinese well enough to know what exactly is being said, but it’s clear that there’s strong displeasure about some aspect of the subordinate’s performance. If the intent is to cause shame and humiliation, then the manager certainly succeeds. However, if the intent is to cause some improvement in performance — as I suspect it is — then it seems like a less-likely outcome.

Certainly managers must call out poor performance and give feedback. My point is that yelling at the subordinate — or “scolding” as I’ve heard it called in China — doesn’t lead to improvement, and in fact may actually prevent real improvement. Unless the subordinate is a masochist, they will do whatever it takes to avoid future scolding episodes, which could lead to hiding information or refusing to accept responsibility.

I understand there are cultural differences, but at a fundamental level I don’t believe there is any difference in how to motivate and inspire better performance, or correct poor performance. My strategy is the same:

(1) Does this person understand what is expected of them? In many cases there is confusion about what is expected, or how to manage what may seem like conflicting priorities. Scolding is not going to lead to better understanding.

(2) Do they have the capability, tools, and training to do the job? Additional training may help, but at some point every manager finds themselves asking whether this is the right person in the wrong role. Scolding is the equivalent of the old saying that it’s a poor workman who blames their tools.

(3) Do they have the motivation to do the job? This one is harder to discern, particularly when there’s a language and/or cultural barrier. Many subordinates are only working for the annual bonus, but many others are looking for professional advancement. Avoidance of responsibility may also be a motivation for some, but no amount of scolding is going to help there. The manager can’t ignore subordinates who are not motivated. It sets a bad example for others. These people have to be moved out of their jobs.

Scolding a subordinate may help the manager feel better; a way of venting anger and disappointment, but it’s not the right way to improve performance. I don’t accept the argument that “this is what these people are used to, they won’t respect you otherwise.”

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I suspect that the majority of the foreign-born ex-pats in China have an implied assignment that may not be formally written in their job description: training and developing the skills of the local staff. I consider this to be part of the job description for any manager or leader regardless of location, passing on accumulated knowledge and experience to less-senior co-workers. This is especially important in China where relatively few people are familiar with the practical application of textbook business and engineering principles in a real-world environment that typically includes savvy, multinational customers and partners.

The company obviously benefits when ex-pats embrace this part of the job, and I contend that ex-pats also benefit from this experience, regardless of whether or not they intend to spend the rest of their career in China. This ability to teach and thereby increase the performance of the organization clearly increases the value of the leader-teacher to the organization, and I don’t think you can find a more eager group of “students” anywhere else in the world. I’ve enjoyed the opportunities to teach classes and provide ongoing one-on-one coaching in China, and I believe this has been a professionally valuable experience as well.

Lately I’ve been troubled by the apparent reluctance of some members of our department in China to tell the truth when they’re asked a question. This usually occurs when the truth will somehow implicate someone — often, but not necessarily, the person answering the question — as the person responsible for some failure or disappointing result. I’m also realizing that I can’t always trust the data that’s reported to me, even when it comes from an otherwise trustworthy member of my team. I believe in data as a basis for decision making, but if the data is unreliable, then decisions based on that data may actually lead to bad outcomes. I’m not a sadist trying to trap someone in a lie; I am trying to ensure that I’m getting accurate information.

I’m not a mind reader, especially not in China, but I suspect two alternatives when the truth isn’t being told: (1) the answer that they think I want to hear, and (2) the answer that will get them in the least amount of trouble. Ironically, in both cases the “right” answer is still the truth. I think the attitude of the listener (in this case, me) has a lot to do with improving the accuracy of the reporting. I have to be consistent in my insistence that what I want to hear is what is really happening, and that there will be no negative consequences for the messenger bringing bad news — but there will be negative consequences for hiding bad news. I can’t manage without accurate reporting, and I don’t think the team can be effective if they’re trying to figure out which version of the truth I should hear.

Lately I’ve been noticing analogs of the principles of science and engineering in my work as a manager; I suppose this confirms something about the neural connections that are unconsciously created in our brains. Managing in China means putting extra effort into communication in order to compensate for the language barrier. There are frequent and seemingly inevitable misunderstandings or “frictional losses” due to inaccurate translations. I can’t assume that what I’ve said is comprehensible, and I can’t assume that what I’ve heard (or read) is what was meant, and therefore I have to spend a lot of time repeating myself, confirming understanding, and clarifying the message.

Written or verbal communication is always an approximation because it requires a transformation of thoughts into words and then relies on the comprehension of the receiver. However when you have to perform an additional transformation to convert words from one language to another (and possibly back again), there are “information losses” at the interfaces.

This was a bigger problem when I first started in China, and I’d like to believe that over time I’ve learned how to be a more efficient transmitter. I limit my vocabulary and re-use the same words. I avoid American idioms. I’ve learned from my reading of Chinese parables and fables that story-telling can be an effective way to reinforce ideas. These strategies and the familiarity that comes with time have helped my team get my general meaning even if they don’t always understand every word. It still takes additional work to overcome the friction, but I think I’ve improved the conversion efficiency.

Last month I organized and presented a 3-day “Introduction to Quality” class for the team in China, basically an abbreviated version of a green belt training seminar that I took many years ago. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and I think sharing some of my accumulated experience is one of the ways that I add value to the organization. The material was pretty basic: a review of the most-common tools and techniques used by quality organizations, including histograms, Pareto charts, control charts, and process capability studies. For an experienced quality organization this would have been a waste of time, but unfortunately this organization isn’t experienced. Over the last few months I’ve been surprised and somewhat alarmed at the lack of understanding of these tools, specifically the understanding that guides the quality professional to apply the right tool at the right time.

I’m pretty sure everyone in the class had seen these analytical techniques before, and I think most had some experience using them, although possibly only in a classroom environment. They understood how to create the graphs and charts, but I don’t think very many of them understood when it’s appropriate to use each of the techniques. I wanted to review this material with them because I was tired of seeing reports filled with data without any analysis or any effort to draw conclusions from the data. Any low-level operator can report the data; what I need from this team is the ability to use that data to determine the right course of action without relying on higher-level managers to figure it out for themselves.

For example, when the inspection team is measuring a critical dimension on an audit sample from a lot of incoming parts, I don’t want to see a table of numbers. At minimum I want to see a histogram showing the upper- and lower-spec limits, and what I really want is a process capability metric (Cpk). I don’t want to see a run chart of measurements over time, I want to see a control chart with some indication of whether the process is stable or not.

That’s adding value, and it’s what I expect from the engineers in the team, but I think it requires a deeper understanding of the why, including our business objectives and customer requirements.

I don’t know where that training was missed, or if it was ever part of the engineering or quality training these folks received at any point in their lives, but to me this is one more example of knowledge without judgment. I don’t think it’s too late, and I want to continue to encourage the team to think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, instead of blindly following instructions without understanding.

I’ve been having trouble teaching the team how to brainstorm. I don’t think this is a problem that is unique to China, but it’s definitely proven to be an environment where people rarely speak up and propose solutions. Despite my encouragement and positive reinforcement, I think there’s still a very strong reluctance to speak up unless there’s an “obviously right answer.” My concern is that the team is not getting the benefit of the accumulated experiences and knowledge of all its members.

I know I can’t change people who have shy or inhibited personalities, but I can provide a more inviting and safe environment for brainstorming.

I think there are at least two reasons that inhibit people when brainstorming: being wrong or sounding foolish in front of your manager, and being wrong or sounding foolish in front of your peers.

I can address the first problem by patiently coaxing people to share their ideas — while fighting the temptation to fill the silence with my own ideas — and being careful to focus on the good points instead of criticizing the bad points.

The second problem is harder because I obviously can’t control the response from others. I can model the behavior I’d like to see, but for some people brainstorming might turn out to be a better exercise as a private conversation instead of a public meeting. That would be unfortunate because I believe there’s value in the open exchange of ideas, but that only works if people are actually talking out loud.

One of the things I’ve had to get used to in China is being stared at. It’s not as bad in the bigger cities on the coast, although I’ve been stopped to have my picture taken at the Great Wall near Beijing and the Bund river walk in Shanghai and public parks in Shenzhen. I’m tall, white, and I have grey hair, and there’s no way I can not stand out in public. I go out for a walk every day at lunch time and I’ve had to grow accustomed to people pointing and giggling at me with my sunglasses and earbuds. I’m not an exhibitionist, and I guess I’m glad that I can’t understand whatever it is that people are saying about me in Mandarin as I pass by.

As a Western manager in China I am always on stage. Everything that I say, every decision and action, is noted. A manager in any environment receives automatic attention because of their positional authority, but there’s a heightened awareness when you’re a foreigner in a senior position. I believe this creates a special obligation to maintain a professional attitude and presence at all times. I have to remind myself that whether I like it or not, I am providing a model of behavior, and this behavior may be in contrast to what my local Chinese subordinates and peers are accustomed to. I am learning how to manage in a way that is familiar to the local staff and culturally sensitive, but it is inevitable that my own personal style will also strongly influence my daily “performance” as a manager. Expectations for the ex-pats are high, and when I am working with my team in China I try to remember to live up to those expectations.

I’ll close with a funny story. I was recently asked to stand up in front of an auditorium filled with thousands of workers from our division and give a short thank-you speech after a “Quality Awareness Month.” My Mandarin is terrible, but I wanted to try to speak the slogan that we used during the month. As I was riding to the event with the other managers in our division, I practiced saying the slogan aloud, trying to adjust my pronunciation from the feedback I was getting. Finally one of my colleagues said, “Tim, if you speak English maybe five percent of the people in the auditorium will understand you. If you speak Mandarin, maybe three percent will understand you. Why don’t you stick with English?” He was right, but I’m glad I tried.

Here’s an interesting email exchange that I had this week with one of my managers in China. After reviewing a monthly status report from this manager I sent a detailed reply that included this:

Me: “Somebody is putting a lot of work into these graphs and reports, but right now it looks like a lot of work that adds very little understanding. What does this report mean to you? How are you using this information to manage your team? What do you think the highlights are? I can’t tell from this if you had a good month or a bad month. What are you doing as a manager to improve the performance of the team?”

The manager replied: “To tell you the truth, I do not rely on the monthly report to manage my team. The team and I are a unity. I am integrated with it deeply. Each function of the team was established by me. Each engineer was selected carefully by me. I guide them to think in a positive way at any moment in daily life. I regulate their work by standardized work flow. I care about their maturity and future as myself (sic). As long as I manage people well, the detailed actions will be done by our engineers.”

My reply: “Regarding your comments about the monthly report and its value, if the report is not useful to you in managing the team, then either we need to change the report or change your management.

“I understand your management style, which is to manage the people, but to manage the people we must make sure their performance is measured AND that the performance measures are aligned with business objectives. This is the purpose of department KPIs (key performance indicators). If the KPIs are clearly aligned with business objectives, then the manager’s role is to make sure that each person understands their contribution to KPIs and then monitor their performance.

“If we are measuring the wrong things, then the team will perform poorly because they are focusing on the wrong priorities. The risk is the same if we do not measure at all.”

I believe that part of the job of any manager is to teach self-reliance, helping subordinates to develop the skills and confidence to make decisions on their own. Self-reliance is critical to the success of any organization because it enables managers and their superiors to focus on planning and other long-range strategic responsibilities instead of spending all their time managing the details of the day-to-day work. It’s also a characteristic that must be developed in subordinates if the organization intends to develop talent and promote from within for future leadership.

This is all especially important and especially challenging for teams in China. Chinese managers and leaders who have language fluency and cultural awareness can be much more effective than foreign ex-pats when working with local staff. I’m fortunate that I can speak English to my management team, and everyone has been patient and understanding with my efforts to talk with the next-level contributors. Nevertheless, no matter how much time I spend in China my ability to lead the local staff will be limited to simple slogans and requests for information. This means I need a trustworthy team of direct reports who can accept delegation and get things done.

Another reason that’s worth mentioning is cost. It is possible to find experienced ex-pats willing to live and work in China, but of course their compensation and living expenses will will be much higher than local hires, assuming that people with equivalent skills can be found.

Unfortunately during my short time in China I’ve been disappointed by what seems to be a widespread reluctance to step up and seize responsibility among the local managers, despite my daily encouragement. I think this is one more example of the “fear of making a mistake” that stifles initiative and self-confidence. This is not a uniquely Chinese problem, but I’ve certainly seen many examples of this behavior among my co-workers in Shenzhen. Instead of self-reliance, this avoidance of responsibility means less activity at lower levels and more centralized decision-making at the top of the organization, even for the most trivial issues. This is not an efficient way to run a business, it creates a bottleneck for decisions, and robs the team of insights and brainpower.

I’m going to continue turning the rocks over, looking for leadership potential and teaching self-reliance.

 

In China I often face the question of whether my management style applies globally and how much it needs to be localized. I’d like to believe there are some “universal truths” about human nature that can guide managers in any environment. Nevertheless, my style was formed over years of managing in the U.S., and although these were multicultural organizations that placed a high value on diversity, I sometimes wonder if I should be managing differently in China.

One example is in the area of employee retention, a timely issue during the weeks surrounding Chinese New Year. For most workers in China a significant percentage of the annual compensation is the year-end bonus, typically paid just before the CNY holiday. People are reluctant to switch jobs before the bonus is paid out, but many of those people don’t return after the holiday. Turnover is a fact of life in every business all over the world, but it can be particularly damaging when it’s concentrated over a short period of time.

A popular strategy for dealing with turnover around CNY is to pay the year-end bonus in two installments, thereby encouraging employees to stick around a bit longer. This changes the nature of the bonus to a retention incentive, something very familiar to companies that use delayed compensation programs.

Certainly there are many people who will stay just to collect the second installment, but if that’s the extent of their commitment are those really the kind of people you want to retain?

At one of my previous employers we went through a period where salaries were frozen and no bonuses were paid. I worried that many people in my team would leave, but ultimately I realized that there were some things I could do that would help retain the kind of people I wanted to retain. I organized low-cost social events and teambuilding activities to encourage a sense of community, believing that collaborative employees would be reluctant to leave their colleagues behind simply for more money. For some people I was able to offer greater responsibility and opportunities for professional growth through expanded work assignments. We did lose some people, but the team that remained was stronger and better-equipped.

I don’t think it’s any different in China. I can try to bribe people to stay a bit longer after CNY, but I’d rather offer them a chance to develop new skills that will help them in their future career, whether here or elsewhere. Eventually everybody moves on. I don’t think the goal should be to try to retain everyone. Retention strategies can be used improve the organization as a whole, even in China.