Lessons from China


As Chinese businessmen and women eagerly consume everything that they can learn about American business practices, the Western world should think about what it can learn from China – particularly its more engaged approach to management.

In the past two decades China has transformed itself into a major economic power. This dramatic rise has in part been attributed to the sheer enormity of China's natural and human resources and the policies directed at growth that were instituted by the Chinese government in the 1980s.

However there is more to the rise of China as a key player in the world economy. The personal energy of its people and their commitment to workplace and organizational goals are also important contributing factors. For those of us in the West, there are important lessons that we can learn from the Chinese approach to work.

The different way in which Americans versus Chinese approach work was highlighted during a recent training program that I conducted for a group of 36 executives from China. Comparing how the Chinese group performed during exercises relative to their American counterparts revealed fascinating differences and provided valuable insights into China's rapid growth.

The most marked difference was in the level of management engagement. A key exercise that I did involved having two teams compete to see which could build a tinker toy structure faster.

Each group chose a leader who had the discretion to organize and run the team in any manner that he chose as long as two rules were followed.

One, only people acting as builders could touch the parts and put the structure together. Two, only the leader and members of his management team could look at the diagram containing building specifications.

What was striking in watching the Chinese groups perform the exercise was the speed at which they completed the task and the level of engagement of the leader and his management team.

In the winning team, there was an almost seamless link between the leader, managers and builders

The person in charge stood right next to the builders observing closely what they were doing and decided together on the adjustments needed to improve builders' speed and accuracy. In the winning team, there was an almost seamless link between the leader, managers and builders.

In contrast when American groups do this exercise, the leader and managers frequently physically separate themselves from the builders. The lowest-level manager then interfaces with the builders and gives them instructions while the team leader sits and surveys the process from a distance.

This difference says to me that Western companies need to extend their current concern with employee engagement to the executive suite.

Very often, top executives are simply not engaged in the details of what is happening within their companies. As the Enron debacle illustrated this lack of engagement can lead to disastrous results.

When questions arose at Enron about possible fraud, Ken Lay, Enron's CEO, didn't personally investigate. He instead delegated the investigation to lower-level executives and outside groups while he focused on reassuring investors that all was well.

Contrast this with Jack Welch who was always intensely engaged in what was happening at General Electric. He had a hands-on approach to management and stayed abreast of the numbers. As a VP he would fly out to plants for face to face meetings with his managers in which he questioned them for hours on every facet of plant operation.

As Chinese businessmen and women eagerly consume everything that they can learn about American business practices, we in the Western world should think about what we can learn from them – particularly their more engaged approach to management may be a better model for competing in the twenty-first century.

The world is now so complex that an individual executive cannot possibly consider all the factors that bear on important decisions. By being more engaged in work processes, executives are more likely to become aware of the hidden problems that can derail their carefully laid plans.

Moreover, by reducing the psychological distance between themselves and those below them, they open themselves to valuable feedback channels. At Enron lower-level executives raised serious questions about its accounting practices months before the crisis broke but these were never heard at the top until it was too late.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.

Older Comments

You need to spend time actually working in China to understand the apparent behaviours you've 'observed'. Yes, they are easily 'engaged' in games ... they love them. Real work and decision-making is an entirely different matter.

The assumption in your opening was correct, however. The overwhelming reason that China rises is it's abundance of resources (particularly human) which are deployed in the most god-awful unproductive manner.

We do have something to learn from the Chinese ... just not your 'lesson'.

Your mistake is understandable given the volume of spurious claims about China's business environment and practices based on crudely applied, simple formulae and the conventional wisdoms extrapolated therefrom and all dutifully propogated by over-excited businesspeople and sageful professors with no business experience.

Oh, and as for eagerly consuming American business pratices: also correct. We call it 'Western brain, Eastern bones'. Don't count on any of the learning being applied - and neither should it be in many cases. China's is a different environment and inappropriate for application of many of our beloved principles. JJ Professor and Consultant Key university in China for ten years

James China