Leader-follower relationship in a Chinese context - Tips for Western expatriate managers

13.5.2016

Tekstin kirjoittaja: Dan Nie, tutkija, Jyväskylän yliopiston kauppakorkeakoulu

The importance of leadership has been increasingly recognized by business practitioners nowadays. Many organizations invest large sums every year in leadership development and other supporting relevant activities such as development of organizational culture and employee wellbeing. In China, the number of students in the Executive MBA program, which is an intense and fast-paced program to advance leadership competencies of business leaders has increased from 2,447 in 2002 to about 26,000 graduates in 2011.

Leadership is important when it creates preferable conditions that are conductive to team and organizations. However, it is noteworthy that leaders do not achieve results themselves; rather, they influence outcomes through other people their subordinates in particular. Therefore, the quality relationships between leaders and followers deserve our special attention, as it can affect both the overall functioning of an organization and employee personal wellbeing, so crucial to individuals’ and organizations’ productivity and effectiveness in working life.

Another dimension that is central in all aspects of organizational life is organizational culture. In different cultural contexts, leadership has different meanings. In particular, the increasing role and importance of knowledge-based organizations both in China and elsewhere suggests that particularly a leader’s role in leadership processes may not be as significant as thought earlier, since many employees nowadays have more knowledge and expertise as compared to their leaders. Consequently, the role of culture can be more important in shaping leadership than the other way round. Therefore, directly transporting the ideas of leadership as universal constructs on leadership and also as practiced often by many Western managers and organizations internationally may not produce an appropriate cultural fit. Mainland China represents a different cultural background and social values compared with Western countries such as the U.S.A. and other Western European and Nordic countries (Hofstede, 1980) where many studies of leadership and organizational behavior have been conducted. Therefore, Chinese social values should be discussed in a detailed way.

Chinese social values and guanxi

Many Asian countries, including China, have been identified as belonging to the same cultural cluster characterized specifically by high power distance and low individualism, whereas the West in general is characterized the opposite way. For example, Chinese employees usually expect a harmonious leader-member relationship, and supervisors are expected to be directive. Instead, in many Western societies employees usually favor more participative leadership behavior. The Chinese cultural context is embedded in the Confucian value system, which occupies a dominant position in the long history of China. The most far-reaching proposition made by Confucianism is the hierarchical nature of interpersonal relationships in social networks. Based on this Confucian understanding of social relationships employees (and people in general) in China tend to respect and obey people in higher positions of hierarchy and, thus, prefer authoritative leadership behavior to participative behavior. Chinese people are more likely to be highly sensitive to authority even nowadays. When it comes to the leader-member relationships, such social value still plays a role in people’s minds and behaviors.

Another important element in Chinese culture is guanxi; it is a significant aspect of Confucian thinking referring to the importance of groups for Chinese people. Guanxi can be defined as an interpersonal relationship between two parties, characterized by affection and mutual obligation. It is like a private channel through which people communicate and exchange. Emotion and feelings of concern are important factors in guanxi, and it can be regarded as a type of exchange currency which also influences the quality of leader-member relationships. A well-known saying “Whom you know is more important than what you know” highlights a core idea of guanxi. Personal guanxi includes a high level of trust and respect between people who also experience some kind of duties toward each other, while those who do not share common personal guanxi are usually excluded from the social network.

The feeling of concern is regarded as an important type of exchange currency in Chinese guanxi between leader and follower. However, this expectation contrasts with the Western leadership approach, which considers the parties’ contribution and competence, but not feelings, to serve as the critical components of a successful leader-member relationship. In other words, the emotional attachment between manager and employee is considered morally and socially appropriate according to guanxi. Therefore, the manager’s motivation and ability to show personal concern and care for employees is more crucial in leadership behavior in China compared to what the Western leadership theory suggests.

Another element in Chinese guanxi is related to the phenomenon of “face” and the sense of shame. The Western leadership theory does not pay attention to these Chinese peculiarities.  In general, “face” can be understood as one’s public image, referring to an idea that a person’s reputation in a social network is everything. When someone behaves inappropriately, it is not wise to admonish her/him in public. In other words, the person’s “face” needs to be maintained in public. Therefore, Chinese employees tend to make compromises and avoid open, face-to-face conflict. Westerners for their part usually prefer more direct confrontation and communication. If a Western person makes a Chinese person lose “face”, the shamed person cannot continue to communicate with dignity and the relationship fails.

In Chinese culture a sense of shame is one of the essential human emotions indicating that the Chinese emphasize the sense of shame as a key factor in interpersonal relationships. The expectation that one will always maintain face and avoid putting anyone in the position of feeling shame can be a challenge for Western expatriate managers; it is a cultural barrier that they have to try to overcome. A result of maintaining “face” is that the Chinese tend to use indirect and vague language to express their opinions; Westerners, in contrast, tend to stress logic by adopting a more direct and explicit way to ensure that the listener receives the exact message instead of relying on the listener’s ability to grasp the meaning. From the viewpoint of expatriate managers this means that to be able to build and maintain high-quality relationship with their Chinese subordinates they have to learn and use a more context-dependent and indirect communication style with their employees compared what they might use in Western contexts. Additionally, they need to be aware of and understand such communication behavior from their subordinates’ side.

Ethical considerations of guanxi

The ethical status of guanxi has caused much controversy in reality. For example, the term “backdoor guanxi” reflects the process of negotiating business solutions through one’s particularistic guanxi network, with the possibility of involving social harm (Bedford, 2011). Such types of guanxi in work settings may pose an ethical challenge in “proper” relationships between leaders and followers.

Using guanxi inappropriately may lead to corruption. When the emphasis of guanxi is only on material advantage, then it can be regarded as a form of bribery. In other words, in this case guanxi is used only for instrumental purposes and the exchange can be classified as bribery. The line between proper guanxi and bribery is often blurred; for example, compared with cash, Chinese people are more likely to bribe with gifts or other forms of material exchange than cash, which makes it difficult to identify the ethicality. So, when this kind of guanxi is expected and even used in the relationship between leader and follower, the ethical problem of bribery exists in the relationship.

Secondly, networks of guanxi are usually characterized by reciprocity, and advancing trust and increasing the value of the interaction are the main goals of networking. However, a certain way of guanxi may result in nepotistic relationships based mainly on positional power, rather than social principles. If guanxi is dominated only by the purpose of self-seeking, it will easily become a negative, nepotistic relationship compared to a situation where mutual benefits in relationships are sought. A person who has this nepotistic guanxi will gain benefits and secure their own interests more easily when compared with those who do not have such type of guanxi. Thus, the nepotistic guanxi in the work setting may lower the perceptions of the justice among the organization’s members because it is detrimental to the principle of impartial and fair systems in organizations.

In China, as a form of social capital guanxi stresses reciprocal interest and goals in relationships, such as leader-employee relationships. The expatriate Western manager has to understand the motivation, purpose, and likely outcome of his/her relationship with Chinese employees and know how to use guanxi properly and ethically. If the relationship is only based on opportunism producing beneficial outcomes for only the manager him-/herself, problems are likely to occur in leadership relations. The Western manager also needs to be able to make to a distinction between what is normal entertainment and what is bribery.

Dan Nie is a researcher in Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics.