Dealing with employees in China

A high amount of personal interest in employees in China is not only a sign of a good leader, but it also brings about employees’ loyalty and willingness to perform. Find out in today’s blog post what you should keep in mind when dealing with Chinese employees.

In some Western countries, it’s customary to motivate employees to work harder with rewards and special compensation. In the People’s Republic of China, this individual incentive system isn’t held in very high regard. Chinese employees rather see rendered job performance as the work of the whole group. Rewarding individuals is consequently considered less sensible; it’s rather the group that should receive a bonus.

Another possibility is to make an entire team or department a model for all the others. Since the part of the role model is seen as a desirable ideal in China, this method has promising chances of success. On a related note, expressing praise for an individual employee in China can prove difficult. If only one employee is praised, his or her colleagues might think you’re indirectly criticizing them. You should therefore always take the performance of the entire group into consideration.

Communicating criticism

Chinese people’s ability to deal with conflict and criticism may be very different from what you’re used to. While you may discuss these things directly, feedback in China is often perceived on a personal level. Conflicts consequently seldom play out on just an objective level, but also on a personal level. Direct criticism and controversial discussions for the exchange and assessment of information are rather unpleasant for Chinese people.

Here are some tips on how you as a manager can best express criticism:

  • Criticism is expressed indirectly and consequently goes hand in hand with relativization.
  • The entirety of the conduct should be assessed, not just the single situation. Also look into possible surrounding circumstances and try to avoid one-sided recrimination.
  • Promote self-recognition of mistakes by giving indirect hints and offer potential apologetic explanations.
  • Don’t demand admission, as this can lead to serious loss of face.

Task delegation and cooperation

Independently executing tasks and solving problems is less of a norm in China. This is largely due to the longstanding separation of planning and executive jobs. More detailed, comprehensive and exact work instructions are needed from the supervisor’s side; these can then be implemented all the more efficiently by the Chinese employees.

In China, even academics entertain the idea that good performance is related to the exact implementation of work instructions. The downward delegation of tasks and responsibilities is thus not considered an effective means of employee motivation. On the other hand, strong control of work is essential, especially when it comes to meeting deadlines. In this respect, Chinese managers have a sort of debt to collect, so they always have to check on progress. Provided that nothing is inquired about, their employees will stop work when they can no longer make any progress.

Another important aspect of this is limited communication between individual departments and work groups, influenced by the Chinese system of “danwei” [translated as “work unit”]. In principle, Chinese people only interact within their circle of acquaintances. New relationships are only seldom established, and the sense of group belonging usually lasts a lifetime. This often leads to poor communication between individual groups, as they don’t maintain personal contact with each other.

This is only a small part of the broad topic of dealing with employees in China. For more detailed information, we’d recommend taking Eidam & Partner’s cross-cultural training on China.


About Andreas Riedel

I studied tourism management and European studies/cultural studies. In both subjects I took a close look at cross-cultural communication from different angels. I have been working as a key account manager at Eidam & Partner since 2013. We offer worldwide services related to cross-cultural communication, such as cross-cultural training, cross-cultural coaching, eLearning and preparation for international assignments for more than 80 target countries.
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