Battle hymn of the tiger manager?

2011

Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is causing quite a fuss in the USA. In a country worried by an out of control 15 trillion dollar debt (quite a lot to China), rising unemployment (with lost jobs going to China), and a perpetual trade imbalance (caused by China), it's not surprising that a book that promises to explain Chinese superiority has become a talking point.

In her book, Chua, a Yale Law professor, argues that the secret to Chinese success is a traditional Chinese parenting style that demands more of children. Excellence in academic achievement is prized above all other activities. Mediocrity is rejected. Individual preferences are ignored.

Chua claims that obsessive commitment to "not raise a soft, entitled child" leads naturally to better results. This included public shaming, insults, long hours of extra study, screaming matches and long hours of additional study – sometimes late into the night or early hours of the morning.

Her theory is that greatness can be forced upon children. Her children – now 15 and 18 – are, according to her, the envy of all because of their musical, athletic, and academic accomplishments. In this way, they are 'prepared for the future' by giving them a work ethic, skills, and confidence. She insisted that they be the top of their classes for every subject, and so they were.

And the argument is easily extended into the reasons that China is growing so fast (around 10% per annum) compared to the 3% (or less) of its rivals in Japan, Europe and the USA. The reason, it is argued that China is so successful, is that its people work harder. And, it is hinted, its people work harder because their leaders demand more of them. A working week of sixty hours is "normal".

The traditional view of the Chinese management style is one informed by Confucian philosophy. Following this perspective, relationships in society are naturally unequal. It is only right (ethical) to respect those inequalities with strict obedience to hierarchical superiors. In return, managers are expected to 'know better' (as befits their superior position) and to ensure that their workers (family) are provided for.

It has been said that western concepts of empowerment and information sharing are viewed with horror by Chinese managers. These are bizarre western notions unsuited to Chinese society. Between tiger management and the communist party, there is no need for initiative. Workers are expected to dutifully follow the plans and instructions of their superiors.

It's not the first time that western management practices have been blamed for western competitive failures. The Japanese economic miracle unnerved a whole generation of American leaders. Best-selling books promised to teach the Art of Japan Management. Approaches like continuous Improvement, and total quality were adopted by western corporations. While In Pursuit of Excellence reassured millions of managers that US companies could still win.

Of course, many of the ideas that helped Japan grow so fast originated in the west. Dr Deming – considered by many the father of continuous improvement and total quality – tried and failed to sell his ideas to US manufacturing giants. Why should they change when they were so dominant? Only in Japan did he find an audience with the resources, competitive hunger (and collectivism) to bring his ideas to life. Three decades of astonishing growth ensued.

For multi-national companies, the supply of 'cheap' organised, uncomplaining, hard-working labour offered by China has proved irresistible. For thirty years, foreign firms have been attracted by the absence of protection, health care and social security. Internal competition for jobs has kept workers quiet for fear of being replaced by someone else younger or more obedient.

More recently, attempts have been made to promote a distinctly Chinese style of management as the reason that China will continue to out-grow the west. In China's Management Revolution, Charles-Edouard Bouée argues that the American management style is no longer seen as the ultimate approach. Instead, Chinese managers look after spirit (history and culture), land (people and resources), and energy, (such that the individual is never more important than the group).

These magical principles, Bouée argues, brings a corporation which is "dynamic, adapted, flexible, synthetic, mutual, consensual, spiritual, disciplined and natural'. He claims – with limited evidence - that these represent "the exact opposite" of the "uncompromising management style". The Chinese way does not put the profit before people, he states, and that is why it brings superior results.

His arguments are interesting because they contradict the very notion of the 'Tiger manager', who places achievement ahead of human needs. But it also seems to contradict the evidence that cheap, plentiful, labour is behind the reason that so many corporations relocate manufacturing to China.

The explanation seems to be that 'cheap, obedient, hard-working labour' is not the future of Chinese growth. The economic miracle has used up much of the excess labour in China's cities. Workers feel empowered (that bizarre western notion) to move to competing factories and to demand better wages and conditions. This has only just started but is a growing feature of Chinese business.

In response, corporations have focused on improving management practices to better motivate their workers and make more productive use of their time. These better management practices are not uniquely Chinese in character. They are the same better management practices that have been necessary in any high performing organisation anywhere in the world.

According to the London School of Economics, the top 15% best managed Chinese companies are now better managed than the average US, Japanese or European equivalent. The more competition there is the better management practices will become.

So it is not 'Tiger managers' that the west should fear. It is not uncompromising, excellence at all costs, obedient, hierarchy that should concern managers in Europe, Japan, or North America. It is the very possibility that China will be more open to the very best in global management innovation. It is the likelihood that new generations of self-managed, creative, engaged, expertly-led workers will become more productive than those suffering mediocre, uninspiring command and control, management.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Too true! I was around the first time when the Japanese seemed to appear with better quality, and faster innovation. It took decades before my managers (in car manufacturing) took the hint, in some ways they never did.

Kevin Williams