Ever since C3 Consulting started 15 years ago, we’ve been doing Chinese cultural training for people with a non-Chinese background who collaborate with Chinese colleagues, employees and business partners.
In these training programmes we’re often asked:
So, what do the Chinese say about their work culture? What is their cultural self-understanding?
Fortunately, we know quite a lot about that. Because in all those years, we’ve also done cultural training for hundreds of people with a Chinese background who work internationally.
And because we believe that all cultural understanding begins with self-understanding, we always ask the Chinese training participants to reflect on their own cultural background by answering questions such as:
What do we know about the Chinese way of working, which is important for our international colleagues to know, that they probably don’t know?
In this article, we’ll share the input we’ve received over the years, where we put the spotlight on Chinese cultural self-understanding.
You might be thinking: Are you really saying that you can talk about the cultural self-understanding of 1.4 billion Chinese people???
And the answer is: No, of course not.
This article is based on reflections about Chinese workplace culture that Chinese leaders and employees have shared with us at our cultural training sessions and workshops over the past 15 years.
And all these Chinese leaders and employees belong to the following group:
Even within this delimited group of Chinese leaders and employees, there are plenty of different perspectives and nuances. And things change fast in China – including cultural patterns.
If you grew up in China in the 1990s, it’s a completely different society to that of the 1970s. So, an important part of Chinese self-understanding is which generation you belong to e.g., qilinghou (people born in the 1970s), balinghou (people born in the 1980s) or jiulinghou (people born in the 1990s). Therefore, you’ll also come across some quotes in the article about generational differences.
Do you have Chinese colleagues, employees or business partners? Read on and become wiser about Chinese workplace culture – as seen from the inside.
Do you have a Chinese background? Keep reading to see if you agree with the description of Chinese cultural self-understanding!
"The Chinese way of communicating is often quite indirect, especially in a work context. Sometimes we say one thing, but let it be implied that we mean something else. We can also say ‘yes’ without completely meaning it because that’s the politest thing to do. And sometimes we express what we really mean through silence – that is, by not saying anything. It's not black and white."
"We’re very aware of what our colleagues and bosses really mean when they say something. It’s natural for us to make an effort to figure out what the real meaning is."
"When we need to provide input or talk things through with a manager, we prefer to do it one-to-one. Then we can speak more freely. And we typically never want to show that we disagree with our boss if there are others present. This also applies sometimes if we ourselves are managers and hold a meeting with a larger leadership group. If we disagree with something, we prefer to follow up directly with the individual person after the meeting."
"When we hold meetings with our international colleagues, we Chinese are often the quiet ones in the group. We’re a bit more shy and modest compared to e.g., our Danish colleagues. And that's absolutely fine. For us, it’s the most respectful approach. Sometimes we find that our international colleagues can seem a little overbearing and aggressive when they say things very directly.”
"For those of us born in the 1990s (Chinese: jiulinghou), it looks different. We can recognize it due to the fact that the older generations avoid saying things so directly. But this isn’t the case for us young people – we can say what we mean.”
"Chinese organizations are usually pretty hierarchical, and that's okay. We need hierarchy because it creates structure and clear expectations. It makes it easier to navigate the workplace. We need to know who’s in charge of whom and who’s responsible. Then you know what’s expected of you and how to behave when you’re at a certain level."
"In a Chinese workplace, it’s typically the managers who make the decisions. You’ll be told by your manager what to do and you’ll also receive detailed information on how to do it. The manager follows the process along the way, and you put them on copy to keep him/her updated."
"Sometimes we experience that when managers from e.g., Denmark come to China, they leave a lot of decisions up to the employees instead of making the decisions themselves. To us it seems a bit strange that a manager would want to give away their power. Aren’t they afraid of their employees outshining them so they end up losing their position? And it can also be confusing for employees, because how do we know what to do if the managers don’t set the direction?”
"Be aware that those from the 1970s (Chinese: qilinghou) have a completely different mindset to those of us who were born in the 1980s (Chinese: balinghou). People from the 1970s are more traditional and more concerned about following all the rules. But those of us from the younger generations can challenge the hierarchy.”
"Competition plays a big part in Chinese society. We compete in school, and there’s fierce competition to get into the highest-ranking colleges and universities. And competition also plays a role in the workplace. If you have unique knowledge, then you might not want to give that knowledge to a colleague – as you risk relinquishing power yourself."
"Chinese employees typically like work to be personally assigned to specific members of the team, so that each employee is given a number of tasks in a project by the manager. And then these are the tasks you focus on. If new tasks emerge in the project, then it wouldn’t be natural for you to start solving them by yourself, unless your manager tells you to do so.”
"When working with Danes, we’ve experienced a completely different way of doing things: The focus is much more on the result, and you don’t really cover the process, the details, or who should solve which tasks.
For Chinese employees, such an unclear division of responsibilities in a team seems inefficient. It would feel unnatural if one of your colleagues spontaneously starts solving one of your tasks. And if that happens, you’d typically spend time checking up on your colleague's work, as the quality of it would have a direct impact on your own work."
"Guanxi is the network of personal relationships that you build and use throughout life – including worklife – and where you help each other. There’s a difference in terms of how big a part guanxi plays in people’s lives in China. It depends which generation you belong to. But some of us work very strategically with guanxi. When we begin studying, we already start to consider: Which people might be good to get to know later on?"
"It’s important for a lot of Chinese employees that there’s a good team spirit in the workplace. And we expect our workplace to spend time and resources on building that team spirit and arranging events for employees such as Friday Fun Days, Social Sundays and Family Days."
"We value having good personal relationships with our colleagues. That we know each other well and where we come from, and that we know something about each other's family. We like to do things together as colleagues, such as going out to eat or singing karaoke.”
"We’ve found that we’re more spontaneous than many of our international colleagues. You can easily ask a Chinese colleague if we should just go out and eat together that same night. But if you have a Dane as a colleague, for example, even a cup of coffee needs to be planned several weeks in advance!”
"The typical Chinese approach to things is very flexible. We can make some plans, but we’re always prepared to change them if the situation changes. And it often does in China. So, we solve problems along the way, and it’s natural for us to react quickly and intuitively when something new happens."
"Sometimes we find that our international colleagues make plans with a very long lead time – possibly up to several years. So, for example: We would like to launch this new product, but first we need to have some round table discussions, write some reports and make some plans. But it simply doesn’t make sense for us to do it that way. Things run at an extremely fast pace in China, and we have to react faster.”
"We live a lot in the present and expect as consumers that everything should be easy, convenient and fast. Sometimes we hear from our Danish managers that it’s important to put the customer at the center. Therefore, from a Chinese perspective, it seems a bit strange that in Denmark things close over weekend and that people take four weeks of summer vacation, where it’s impossible to get hold of anyone!”
Although we’ve tried to include different perspectives and nuances in this article, there will most likely be people with a Chinese background who would describe Chinese workplace culture differently.
Do you have a Chinese background – and do you agree with the description of the Chinese workplace culture?
Do you have Chinese colleagues, employees or business partners – and are there things in this article that resonate with your own experience?
We really want to hear your comments! Send an email to Annette Dahl, CEO and Chief Trainer at C3 Consulting, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this article, we’ve focused on Chinese self-understanding.
If you need advice and tools to strengthen your collaboration with Chinese colleagues, employees or business partners, see our articles here:
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