Expats in China: Views from the Chinese Workplace

Posted on December 15, 2010

Expats in China: Views from the Chinese Workplace

Views from the Chinese Workplace - Shanghai Skyline

I guess he is in some sort of trouble,” said a Chinese employee of a multinational company. He was talking about the expatriate supervisor who was leaving his post. In his view, the expat has gone from a stumbling start to his assignment to become very successful by the end of his second year in China. “Everyone here likes him, but all of a sudden he has to go. What did he do, and what did we do wrong to make the headquarters dissatisfied? Many of my colleagues are talking about it.

This is one possible outcome when the meaning of an international assignment is not communicated well to the locals. Instead of asking directly, the Chinese start to interpret the situation through their own lenses. To them, it is incongruent that just as an individual has gained trust and seems to be performing effectively, the assignment comes to a close. Why would an important management role be so short-term? When the idea is posed to them that the expat departure could simply be due to the expiration of the contract, they may respond with surprise and confused disbelief, “But he was doing so well?!?

Expatriation and developing local talent have become two key elements of global talent strategy for most global companies operating in China. Expatriates in China are observed by the locals almost as if they live in a fishbowl, and there are many views of the expat’s position, knowledge, expertise, and the style of work and life that they bring.

The Individualist: “I Did It My Way”

One of the major challenges Chinese employees working for multinational companies experience is that expats are often seen as being very task, project, and short-term based, and there are typically a lot of changes associated with their presence. As one Chinese employee states, for example,

“After one and a half years of working with my boss, I am finally able to understand him and his way of doing things. Our team is functioning pretty well, but now he has to leave, and we need to start from scratch.”

This is not an isolated voice. Others have expressed the same frustration, often due to their sense of belonging to a certain fixed group and a natural inclination to build relationships over a longer period of time. In a country with thousands of years of recorded history, and with family and business networks that have been cultivated over generations, relationship-building is a very serious activity that involves ongoing mutual benefits, obligations, and emotional ties that often extend far beyond the task at hand.

Expats in China, Shanghai

Another factor that can impede the success of an assignment at the outset is that often there is little continuity between the work of the new expatriate in China and that which was done by his or her predecessor or by others in the organization before that new expat arrived. When the latest expat manager who arrives on the scene declares, “I am looking forward to the changes ahead of us. We are going to make this happen as a team,” this is not necessarily heavenly music to their Chinese colleagues’ ears. The puzzle for an expatriate is how to position oneself as a long-term player within a larger team, organizational, and social context while carrying out an assignment role that is temporary by definition. The adage, “go slow in order to go fast,” can be useful advice for new expats living in China who feel pressed to get immediately to the work at hand and execute against their objectives.

“Bulldog with a Tie…”

“…this is how Chinese see me,” commented an ex-New York banker, who is currently training Chinese on how to sell to international clients. This is probably not far from the truth of exactly how Chinese view him, considering his directness and confrontational style.

Some foreigners in China are very direct in their communication style and tend to be the guardians of the company’s global policies, procedures, and processes. When they strongly believe that what they are doing is correct and in alignment with the global system as defined by headquarters, it can be very difficult for some of them to hear the opinions on the ground and fully understand the local situation.

The China HR Director of a multinational company, a Chinese local, commented that he is having a very difficult time bridging the communication between expatriates from various countries and local team members.

“This French engineering team leader simply does not listen to explanations or reasons from anyone. Every time someone gives him a reason that is not the same as his, he argues back fiercely. After a few rounds of arguments, our Chinese engineers normally back down to avoid further confrontation with him. That seems to reinforce his belief that he is right which further frustrates the Chinese team members and prevents them from giving any other opinions.”

These comments are indicative of the rub that can occur and often does, between direct and indirect styles of communication. The Chinese are frequently more indirect than their Western counterparts and, therefore, are not likely to express their disagreement or to engage in a head-on debate, especially when more senior members of the team are present. When expat managers use a direct, sometimes combative, approach when working in China – even if this is an aspect of the corporate culture and standard management practices in other parts of the world – they are likely to be met with withdrawal by their Chinese co-workers. The result is that many thoughts, insights, and ideas from their Chinese colleagues are left unexpressed, with missed opportunities for mutual enlightenment and relationship-building.

Alan Chamberlin, an expat manager for Adidas in Shanghai, remarked,

“I had to adjust my style of directness after being in China for a while. Listening skills are very important.”

He is currently enjoying a low 2% employee turnover rate at his site, a rate many could only dream of.

“They call me the best boss ever”, he notes with a justifiable sense of pride. Along with adapting his communication style, he has used his position to achieve a deep level of employee engagement, with a bottom-up approach, listening to the local employees’ thoughts and concerns and allowing them to have real influence over the changes around them.

Castle on a Cloud

Language barriers and lifestyle differences often keep expatriates and their families from fully integrating into the Chinese surroundings. This can give Chinese the idea that expats do not have their feet on the ground and, therefore, do not know what is actually going on. Again, given that Chinese are generally relationship oriented, they do not feel that “a manager on the cloud” necessarily belongs to the group. Instead, they feel distanced from him.

“I tend to go directly to the production floor to talk to the engineers there”, said Onkar Kulkarni, an Indian engineering team leader working for John Deere in China.

“I sometimes go without the translators. We will use engineering language; we will use drawings. When we feel we understand each other, we find common ground.”

Onkar goes on small trips with his Chinese colleagues and attends their family occasions. Some Chinese help him with daily necessities as it is difficult to find the right food in China as an Indian vegetarian.

He works closely with the Chinese engineers. If he sees a good idea, he will go talk to the engineer’s supervisor to make sure they give it a try, even though it might not be the usual process.

“Now, even engineers who don’t speak much English and do not belong to my team come to me if they have problems or new ideas.”

In Summary

While there are many stories of disconnects between expat managers in China and the locals with whom they are working, there are also many success stories. To bridge the gaps, it takes effort from both sides.

China is opening its doors to more multinational corporations, a trend with no sign of slowing down. Through more frequent and in-depth interaction, Chinese will increase their understanding of expats and the nature of their assignments, adjust their expectations, and learn how to work more effectively with these foreign managers. At the same time, expatriate managers need to be aware of local perceptions and what actions will help them to connect with their colleagues and to better accomplish shared goals.

Organizations can create a greater likelihood of success by taking steps to improve interactions at the local level. Such steps might include providing background information, training, and coaching on communication styles and working norms to both expatriates and local employees. Meanwhile, they can also set up each new assignment in a way that fosters greater continuity from one manager’s tenure to the next.

Aperian Global offers training for both expatriates and their receiving managers to address the challenges that can arise throughout the international assignment life cycle. See our Global Mobility Solutions for more information.

We also offer solutions for local Chinese employees who may be adapting to working with a new expatriate employee(s). Check out our Working Effectively with the U.S. learning program or our Working With Westerners self-guided course.

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