After 5 years working full time in China (and a lot of trial-and-error), I start to understand how to manage Chinese staff for best results.
I think one can distinguish three levels, from micro-management (everybody hates it) all the way to self-management and true empowerment.
First level: micromanagement and constant checking
This is where most companies are stuck. Western managers say that Chinese employees “don’t take initiatives”, “take too long to manage”, “escape responsibilities”, etc.
Here is a good example of this level at work (from Working With China: To-Do List Minded, a blog post by my friend Jacob):
Normal work routine consists of going from task to task and knocking each item off the to-do list. It’s the attitude of someone saying, “I got that done boss, what’s next”. Everything an employee handles has to be administered by someone else; usually someone in management or an owner. They will do what’s been given and then once said task is rushed through, they look to the higher-up for the next thing.
Chinese students do what their professors tell them to do. When they start working for in a company, they bring this passive attitude along with them. They are nearly unproductive for the first 6 months — which is why fresh graduates have such a hard time finding a job here.
(The same thing happens with most Chinese suppliers, by the way. They wait for the buyer to communicate all the details of the product. If you let them guess something, you will often regret it, since they might guess it wrong… or in a way that saves them time/money.)
Second level: management by exception
You start writing an operation manual and training your staff to follow it. Your organization is on its way to the “adult” phase, as Michael Gerber would say. Congratulations!
A few tips:
- Sustain this initiative over time. Your written procedures must be simple (draw flow charts or make checklists whenever possible) and adapted to today’s situation.
- Give LOTS of feedback. Catch every departure from procedures while it is minor. Remind people about procedures, rather than placing blame.
- Don’t show your staff that labor is an expandable commodity. Avoid firing people, and reward those who work smart. This way, they will feel comfortable investing themselves for your company’s development.
At this level, managing employees becomes less and less time-consuming for the top manager, who only intervenes for extraordinary cases.
(If you are lucky, the same happens with your long-term suppliers. They know your specifications, they have past examples of what you accepted, and they generally respect them. But still, they will seldom give you intelligent feedback and proactive suggestions.)
Third level: self-management
Reaching this level is only possible after you sustained the second level for some time — once the staff KNOWS they won’t get fired for taking initiatives.
A few tips:
- Make sure your staff understands the general logic to follow for each process inside your business.
- Even better, write down a few master principles (for each process) and rank them by order of priority. “First, do not upset the customer. Second, look for a solution that is fair to all parties involved. Third, don’t hesitate to discuss it with colleagues/managers. Fourth…”
- Give each worker (after she has reached the second level and is mature enough) the freedom to define her own routine.
Once you are the third level, managers can concentrate on improving the way of working, rather than getting everybody to move in the same direction. Questions become less about “what should I do?” and more about “how about doing this way?”.
What do you think? Anybody can share experiences?