Management Style Differences between China and the U.S

Author: Joy Huang

A question I often receive from considerate Chinese managers working with the U.S. is: "When is a good time to call Americans after work? Is 10PM too late?"

The inquirers most likely have run into obstacles before realizing that in the U.S. people don't want to be called around the clock for work. This is in contrast to China where economy is growing at a breakneck pace and long work hours are normal business. It also stems from the culture that work and life are not distinctly separated. A recent news highlighting the cultural clash that holds back Chinese companies in Brazil articulated this same issue. The attitude towards time management and work - life balance is obviously very different in China, the U.S. and Brazil.

This question is but a small piece of reflection of the bigger differences between our management styles. The typical Chinese management style can be summarized as "Parental" vs. the more "Democratic" style in the west.

  • In the west, the ideal boss is a "resourceful democrat". He sets the vision and strategy for the business but empowers subordinates to execute. He encourages two-way communication with his employees and allows bottom-up input in decision-making.
  • In China, the ideal boss is a "benevolent father". He is like a parent (a Chinese parent, by the way) who supervises his children on everything that need to be done. He believes in discipline and attention to details and manages his people at a micro level. He also spends lots of time caring for the personal welfare of his employees and regards it as part of his job.

There are obviously both pros and cons to each style. When you work with a Chinese company, it is helpful to know how their management style translates into daily business:

  • Pros: The Chinese style can be very efficient in carrying out critical missions and get quick results. The direction is set at the top, and the role of the employees is simply to execute. This saves time in negotiating and brain - storming.
  • Cons: The Chinese style generally discourages two - way communications and ownership at the lower level. Coupling this with the group - oriented Chinese culture where goals and rewards are managed as a group versus individuals, accountability can get fairly blurry. The parental style can also put a lot of stress on western employees who are not used to "micro - managing" and can harbor de-motivation. Western employees may feel that they are not fully trusted to manage their own work.

In order to create a productive partnership, both China and the U.S. must co-adapt to each other. For global organizations expanding to the other country, managing local talents often require creative solutions. What motivates Chinese employees is not always the same as what motivates U.S. employees. There are also generational differences, for example - something that the Chinese managers also struggle to cope with as the younger generation adopts more western values. For most Chinese companies that are in the U.S., the art of managing a multicultural employee base is still largely elusive. Trial and error will help, but realizing its importance and setting a strategy to purposefully managing it is the more sure way to yield results in successful global business.

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