Confucian Ideals Constraining in the Workplace
   2013-05-21 10:30:21      Web Editor: Yang Yang

As companies become increasingly internationalized, managers and leaders within business are learning that traditional managerial approaches may be stifling with regards to internal communication, participation and idea generation.

'Leadership' has become something of a buzz word recently within political circles, with much talk being focused upon the creation of leaders within the workplace and throughout society. Executive coaching is a profession which has thrived in developed countries for the past several decades, particularly in the United States. In contrast, China's corporate world is still in its very early stages despite the phenomenal growth that it has experienced as well as the fact that major international corporations have set up offices on the Chinese mainland.

As China's corporate culture continues to develop, and as Chinese companies look to expand and seek international markets, conflict is bound to arise within the workplace especially when traditional Confucian ideals clash with management styles employed in the west. For this reason, the services of foreign corporate trainers are becoming increasingly sought after across China. CHINATALKS spoke to one such trainer and executive coach, Teresa Norton, who employs a unique approach when it comes to tackling issues that arise within the Chinese workplace.

Norton, who has a background in professional theater, has been applying her directing and acting skills to the business arena for the past 15 years within Asia. In terms of explaining how one goes about applying theater to business, Norton admitted that there are a number of superficial connections that can be made between the two, such as "leading talent", "performing a role for the company", and "being judged on your performance." However, Norton also stresses that business leaders can learn a number of practical things from the world of theater.

Theoretically speaking, according to Norton, "The job of a theater director is to get talent good in action performing well with others. The job of a leader is to gather talent together, and get them good in action performing well with others towards a shared goal." Practically speaking then, Norton tries to help her clients learn how to deliver messages in a way that is very different from what Chinese employers and employees may be used to.

In order to explain how the Chinese workplace differs from those that exist in countries such as the UK, Australia or the US, Norton uses a classroom analogy to highlight how individuals develop within different countries. In the US for example, a teacher will ask a question and choose students until the correct answer is reached. "Knowing the answer is not the most important thing," notes Norton, an American herself, "Participating for Americans is the most important thing; getting in there and being part of the game." In contrast, Chinese classrooms function in a very different way, whereby those that don't know the answer to a question will remain silent and refrain from making eye contact with the teacher, meaning that it is unlikely that they will be called upon to provide an answer. This behavior is also exhibited in many workplaces across China according to Norton.

Norton told CHINATALKS, "It's not a matter of a right or wrong way of participating in the workplace. It's a matter of participating differently." She added, "If you're a Chinese leader and you have a multinational team, or you're working in a western managed environment, and you're being called upon to draw information out from the team that you lead, you're going to have to adjust your style from a very directorial, patriarchal style to one that's more inclusive and flat." Obviously, trying to alter the corporate culture in China, which is linked closely to Confucian ideals, is no easy task as reverence for so-called leaders often stifles and prevents innovation and participation.

Reverence for leaders and respect for those in positions of authority poses problems for both sides as teams fail to contribute fully for fear of upsetting the harmony of an office. Meanwhile, leaders fail to grasp how their behavior has an impact upon whether employees contribute ideas or not; again due to employees' lacking of any sense of safety. Excuses such as,กก"I don't give my ideas to my boss because I'm not sure what he'll do with them; what if he takes my idea and it turns out badly", or "I'm afraid my ideas might not be in line with what my boss is thinking," are commonplace amongst Chinese employees. Clearly, aside from trying to improve the boldness and confidence amongst Chinese employees, employers and leaders must be aware that it is their responsibility to encourage participation without the possibility of repercussions.

As Norton explains herself, "There isn't a right or a wrong way to lead, but I think that many opportunities are missed if we use the same dictatorial, 'role the idea down and have it acted out', approach. I think the new way in the world of leading, not just in China but everywhere, is to pull the best out of talent. We need to get the ideas coming up; not forced down. And in order to bring the ideas up we need to create a safe "rehearsal space", or what business people call meeting space; a space where ideas can be freely exchanged and built upon."

Fortunately, those that seek out help from executive trainers and corporate coaches are often very receptive to the ideas and messages that are being given. Norton confirmed this when she told CHINATALKS, "I'm excited to say that there is an extremely high level of willingness to try something new. 90 percent of my clients are Chinese and there is a much higher level of curiosity and willingness to try a new behavior, experiment with a theater activity that will open some new doors to the way that we think." Despite the fact that there are many capable leaders within the Chinese workplace; adaptability, sensitivity and flexibility may be lacking. However, with the aid of corporate training, managerial approaches can be altered which may increase the level of employee participation and innovation.


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