Bridging the Gap: A Local’s Guide to Chinese Office Culture part 1

Article by Martin Zhao

Recent years have witnessed a rise in the number of foreigners working and living in Xi’an; from senior management sent by their company headquarters to business owners and teachers. For foreigners working in these organizations, it can sometimes be difficult getting along with their Chinese coworkers and bosses. Questions regarding how to build relationship with local people and what to do in particular office situations are common, and negotiating the social minefield is essential for having a good experience while living here. As a Chinese person who has worked in a variety of places, from Chinese organizations to joint ventures to foreign-owned companies, and as a true Xianese, I hope that all foreigners living in Xi’an will have a good time during their time in Xi’an. Hopefully, this information will help you to do just that.

How do you build a strong working relationship with coworkers in a Chinese company?

Strong relationships, like relationships anywhere, are first built on the mutual trust and confidence. That is where honesty matters, but not being to direct about things. There are a few additional things that you can do in order to build those relationships:

• Try to be modest – Chinese people will naturally have a favorable impression to those who are modest. A Confucian saying goes “Modesty helps one to make progress; conceit makes one lag behind.” This is something that many Chinese are taught from childhood and that most believe to be true. Even if you are right in a given situation, it is best to remain modest, so others are more likely to accept your ideas.
• Be ready to help – Chinese society favors collectivism over of individualism, so helping out wherever possible will go a long way towards showing your value to the group. Avoiding tasks out of laziness or arrogance will often have negative consequences downstream. As another Chinese saying goes, “Receiving drips of water when in need, and I shall return the kindness with a spring”. Helpful actions now will have a better payoff later.
• Be observant – Paying attention to details of the people and place around you. Often if you directly ask someone what you can do, they will tell you not to worry about it. So, if you would like to help out, you might need to see what you can do and take the initiative on your own. If someone rejects your help initially, that does not mean that they do not want it. They may just be acting polite.
• Silence is golden – Often you will find in meeting and other situations that Chinese employees will not offer up ideas until directly called upon by the boss, and even then, may not say much. Why? Another Chinese saying goes “He that talks much errs much”. Offering up ideas that are half-baked are likely to lead to too much additional talking. Often times, the boss already has a preconceived notion of what they want done, and offering up contrary opinions can lead to conflict.
• Be sure before you commit – If you are not 100% sure you that you can do something, don’t make any promises that you can. Often, even mentioning an idea means taking responsibility for it. Once you promise something, you will be expected to follow through. Two Chinese sayings for this one; “What is said is done” and “A word spoken is an arrow let fly”. Failing to follow through will damage others’ opinion of you.
• Try to be flexible – Things change unexpectedly quite often. There are often unknown factors that may influence the task at hand, which may change often. It could be that your boss’ boss has altered the task, or there may be outside factors that they know about, but may not tell you about. There is little transparency in decision making and the employees are expected to follow along with the shifting targets. Complaining about them will be futile and irritating to others.
• Try to be open – Finding a topic or hobby that you and your Chinese coworkers or boss are both interested in can go a long way towards bridging the gap. Even if you do not share a common interest, being curious about their interests and hobbies may open doors you did not realize were there. Remember though that the way in which people may be interested in these hobbies can differ, so be prepared to set your preconceptions aside in order to experience it more fully.
• Engage in the culture – Chinese people are very proud of their culture, and love to talk about it and share it with others. A lot of bonding is done over Baijiu and Mahjong, and if you are able to engage in these situations, it will assist in improving your relationships. As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans.
• Keep an eye on face – Face, or mianzi in Chinese, is a difficult but important concept to understand, and it governs a great deal of the interpersonal relationships here. Face here can be understood as self-esteem, dignity, prestige, reputation, vanity, or some combination of all of them. For some people, face is more valuable than anything else. Actions that gain someone face will raise their standing, while actions that cause someone to lose face will lower their standing. Taking actions that will help someone gain face will endear you to them, while actions that make them lose face will damage the relationship. Which actions cause someone to gain or lose face? That’s where it gets complicated. If you follow the rules above when engaging with your coworkers and bosses, then you will most likely be ok. Being a foreigner, you get a bit more leeway, as you are not expected to know all the rules, but the closer you get, the more likely you are to see your relationships blossom.

Building a relationship with your Chinese boss.

Leadership in China is very hierarchical, with most – if not all – of the authority and decision making power concentrated on the boss. Most Chinese bosses expect respect and obedience from their employees without a need to justify their decision making to them. Questioning why or trying to make them justify their thinking directly will make them feel challenged or disrespected, even if you are just being honest.

Above all, they are concerned with saving face. If they lose face in front of their employees, whether in public or in private, they may feel that they will lose confidence or control over their staff. That is why sometimes Chinese bosses are reluctant to admit the mistakes or errors they made before their employees. It’s not that they are unaware that they have made an error, they just do not wish to talk about it. If you point it out directly, even in private, you will make them lose face.

In these circumstances, if you are able to help resolve the situation without mentioning it, then you will have gone a long way towards earning your boss’s trust. Though you will rarely be directly thanked for helping out – after all, that would be acknowledging that there was a problem – you might find that your workload is a bit lighter or that other opportunities will begin to come your way.

Relationships in China are often about the long term development over the short-term returns. Keep that in mind while trying to build those relationships. Doing the right thing once or twice may not be enough to build the relationship up, but if you are persistent, then your efforts will pay dividends.

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