As the Dragon Leads…

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I began my “romance” with China in the early 1990s. I was a member of the negotiating team my European employer put together for a joint venture with a Chinese enterprise located in Shanghai. Since then, I have trained hundreds of Chinese managers and hi-potential graduates from state-owned companies as well as multinationals in leadership.

What strikes me as rather unique in terms of Chinese talent is how competitive everyone is: individuals do all that they can to stand out from the “crowd”. Few shy away from stating openly their career aspirations. This contrasts interestingly with the common belief that socialistic societies are largely collective in most things people do.

With increasing opportunities in the country though, Chinese managers are displaying individualistic behaviour, pursuing their own careers and dreams with much fervour, almost as if to catch up on lost time.

Measuring such behaviour along the dichotomy of quantity versus quality, one can quite easily conclude that the former takes the front seat at this point.

It’s therefore not surprising when my clients operating in China come to me for team-development solutions. The notion of sustaining the organisation’s competitiveness through developing others is still quite foreign to most Chinese managers. Coaching the young, once a fundamental Confucian value, appears to have been relegated to a lower priority. Such a tendency puzzles the many Japanese companies located in China, for example. While the Japanese are conditioned from young as members of various groups and trained to accord due consideration to others depending on the situation, the Chinese, at least those living in the cities, have replaced collectivism with individualism. Material comfort has also overtaken the pursuit of spirituality.

This in part is due to the one-child policy the Chinese government adopted several decades ago. It has worked miracles in terms of controlling population. At the same time, it breeds generations of young people who are used to being served promptly whatever they want. Failure is therefore not an easy option for these dragon sons and daughters; they try their best to “win” at work. I suspect that admitting mistakes will be equally hard. From a learning perspective though, failures early in one’s career and the admission that one can do better is perceived by many in the West as beneficial. These “lessons” are supposed to stick with the person for a lifetime and the individual will grow faster than those who did not tumble and fall a little early in life.

Just a month ago, I was in Hong Kong, training a group of managers from Hong Kong and China. In a simulation where participants were divided into small groups responsible for manufacturing a specific part of the paper plane, someone approached a fellow participant a step ahead in the manufacturing process, wanting to learn more about his tasks, but he was quickly “shooed” away. In the end, the participants didn’t do so well as a team, manufacturing few planes that were sub-standard. The Chinese are fast learners, especially in the areas of languages and technology. However, the mentality of perfecting what one is doing and expecting others to fend for themselves is not uncommon in China. Those multinationals which take steps early to help Chinese managers learn how to work together for the ultimate satisfaction of their customers will have a competitive advantage in the market.

The strong inclination towards scholastic knowledge and formal education remains in today’s China; so does the long-term perspective about relationships, which is “high context” behaviour in Edward Hall’s terminology.

One might ask – if the Chinese are indeed high-context, how do we explain the job-hopping behaviour that we have seen in the market? Is this not an indication of short-term focus? One plausible explanation is that changing job is perceived as a step closer to a longer term career goal.

So…are we saying that cultural characteristics like “reactive” and “collective” are being replaced in modern China? Will we one day wake up to a genre of Chinese leaders who resemble more their American counterparts? Well, one thing for sure is that culture is not static, it evolves, though often at a glacial pace. Much depends on the country’s national leadership, economic policies and rate of growth, I suppose…

As the world awaits the making of an economic giant, the dragon sons and daughters march on!

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