Chinese Leadership: 5 Critical Differences with the West - IEDP
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Chinese Leadership: 5 Critical Differences with the West

Ashridge Executive Education's China representative Barbara Wang explains how cultural understanding is vital for leadership in China

Monday 01 January 2018


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Globalisation is having a major impact on organizations, and leaders must adapt to survive in the new world order. How to develop leadership skills and work effectively in China are pressing issues for most multinationals.

To overcome cultural hurdles, Western leaders need to have an open mind and be willing to learn about the Chinese mind-set. Here are five top tips to developing effective relationships with the Chinese:

  1. First, understand the critically important concept of “face”. Face has a much deeper meaning in China than in the West. Many Chinese will go to great lengths either to save face or to save someone else’s face. Face is about dignity and respect, and a person’s social role. It’s not just about feelings, but a key part of what holds society together. An old saying is that a person would rather die than lose face. A person can lose face by declining a social or business function on a weak pretext, refusing a present, expressing emotions uncontrollably or being too independent.

  2. The notion of “guanxi” is a much more complex idea than the Western concept of networking. It is the platform for social and business activities in China, and consists of connections defined by reciprocity, trust and mutual obligations. Build up your guanxi and be aware of the dynamics of guanxi around you before you do anything. It’s an unwritten rule in China that if someone does not trust you, they are unlikely to do business with you.

  3. The Confucian concept of harmony is still important today. The Chinese sometimes perceive Western independence as a sign of showing off. An individual standing out from the crowd causes disharmony, and showing off is considered poor behaviour. In China, being the first to come up with an innovative idea in a group setting can have significant social implications. It could be seen as showing off, and possibly generate envy, too. This is a challenge for many Western managers who want employees to come up with new suggestions or product ideas in a group setting.

  4. The Chinese take longer to make decisions. Westerners believe in the value of making quick decisions and then taking action. The “time is money” concept when practised in China is likely to result in negative outcomes. In China, decision making is based on ensuring that the balance of all parties is taken into account. The Chinese want to be sure that all angles of an issue are reviewed first and all matters are thought through before coming to a conclusion. This process often involves going back to the beginning and starting the thinking and the discussion again. Also, since Chinese people do not like to tell you “no” in a direct manner, never assume a deal is struck until you hear this explicitly.

  5. Chinese communication styles are indirect. For the Chinese, communications are about building relationships, while in the West it about efficient exchange of information and getting things done as quickly as possible. Silence does not mean that your message is not getting through. The wise Confucian is expected to listen in silence. Leaders in China are expected to express themselves much less directly than those in the West. It’s not that the Chinese are unwilling to share information, but Westerners will have to prompt their Chinese counterparts if they want details. Alternatively, it may be best to approach someone on a one-to-one basis, in private.

These are just some of the cultural values and features of Chinese society that Westerners need to understand and put into practice if they are to have effective and successful relationships.

Barbara Wang is a Program Director and the China Representative for Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School.  She is also the Chief Consultant for the Western Management Institute of Beijing (WMIB) and has conducted training and coaching bilingually in English and Chinese for both multinational and Chinese companies in China such as ABB, Danfoss, Volvo, Sinopexc, China Post, Lenovo, Air Canada, Industrial Commercial Bank of China and the China-British Business Council.

Read the Ashridge Executive Education case study 'Developing international leaders at Sinopec' here.

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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