Culturally attuned leadership: the case of China

With the rise of Western businesses operating in China, and with increasing numbers of Chinese businesses operating in other parts of the globe, the focus on effective cross-cultural leadership has never been more important. Dr Sue Shortland explains.


This article is taken from the Summer 2024 issue of

Think Global People magazine

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The recent publication of a new book entitled, ‘Expatriate Managers and Cross-Cultural Leadership in China: Research and practice in leading and managing Chinese employees’, by Dr Chin-Ju Tsai is a most welcome addition to understanding how to lead effectively in this particular cultural environment.As more organisations decide to operate within China, so the findings of this research are likely to have wide application. The title won this year’s Relocate and Think Global People Award for the Best Research Contribution – Book. It clearly highlights the value and importance of embracing flexibility in cross-cultural leadership practices. As its author Dr Tsai explains, “by showcasing the experiences of successful expatriate managers in China, the book underscores the positive impact of adaptive leadership approaches on employee satisfaction and leader effectiveness”.Dr Tsai’s research is based on 391 expatriate senior managers and over 350 Chinese employees. It explains the influence of Chinese cultural values on employee work attitudes and behaviours, the challenges faced by expatriate managers, and effective strategies for leading and managing Chinese employees.

Chinese employee expectations

The findings indicate that Chinese employees demonstrate high levels of respect for hierarchy and authority and a lower propensity to engage in initiatives with proactive behaviour. Chinese workers expect to be given detailed instructions to carry out a task and be monitored to a greater extent than Western managers might expect.Language used takes an indirect communication style, with Chinese workers being unwilling to express their views in public settings. They also place high emphasis on “face”, namely maintaining and respecting esteem, honour and reputation. Chinese workers demonstrate a strong focus on job titles, pay and benefits. The findings also indicate Chinese employees’ preference for lower levels of accountability and that their loyalty is directed more towards individuals whom they have built strong relationships with rather than within the organisation more generally.To some extent these findings reflect what we already might expect from cultural theory. Theory predicts that the Chinese value high levels of hierarchy, respect power and status, value relationship building and prefer collective rather than individualistic behaviour. Chinese communication styles are known to be indirect rather than individuals expressing their views directly and potentially causing offence by doing so.Yet the book’s findings take our understanding beyond the predictions of cultural theory to suggest means by which senior managers operating in China can achieve greater effectiveness in their leadership styles.Dr Tsai suggests key implications include the importance of understanding social relations, exchange rules, cultural norms and Chinese employees’ expectations, as being crucial for effective leadership. Cultural intelligence and cross-cultural leadership adjustment are vital for expatriate managers’ success. Leadership styles should be aligned with local preferences and norms, instead of expatriates imposing their home-country approach. Expatriate managers must meet Chinese cultural expectations and adapt to local norms if they are to improve employee satisfaction and leadership effectiveness. Cultural intelligence and adaptive leadership strategies are thus critical for expatriate managers operating in China.

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The case of Hong Kong

A further issue to consider is how cultural values change over time. This can be illustrated by the change in leadership and management styles that we are seeing in Hong Kong. Previously a territory under British rule, its handover to China in 1997 has led to a move away from more Western approaches and towards a Chinese-style of business operations.The older generations who formed the backbone of the labour force are reaching retirement age. The new generations of younger people who are entering the labour market have been brought up under the Chinese regime. As such, their expectations of employment and ways of doing business are gaining closer affinity with leadership approaches in China as cultural norms are shifting towards Chinese value sets. This means that Western businesses operating in Hong Kong are more likely to need to take on board and adapt to Chinese cultural values than may have been necessary in the past.

Global expansion of Chinese business

There is no disputing the fact that China is an indomitable force in global business. Chinese operations are extending across the globe. For example, there is a growing presence of Chinese businesses in Africa.An area for consideration is how Western expatriate managers can operate effectively alongside their Chinese counterparts (possibly in a joint venture or partnership-style operation) and work also with local African colleagues who will demonstrate different cultural value sets.

Convergence or crossvergence?

The research on leadership effectiveness in China indicates that Western managers need to align their styles with local preferences, suggesting a convergent approach. Yet, research specifically on HRM practices in West Africa has shown that convergence of cultural values between Western businesses’ leadership and management teams and local African workforces is not taking place to the extent that might be expected.Local people expect to be managed in a style that matches their value sets and cultural heritage, but also have been shown to embrace some Western approaches. To be successful in Africa, research has indicated a crossvergent leadership style that combines Western means of doing business with local African customs and practices to create a unique value system that can work effectively.Where business operations in Africa involve a Chinese presence alongside local African nationals and Western management, it is likely that a combination of adoption of Chinese and African practices will be needed alongside Western means of doing business. How effective leadership styles can best be developed and applied when three (or more) cultures are involved is an interesting area that potentially justifies further research.Given the increasing presence of Chinese operations in Africa, and the interest in gaining greater footholds into developing economies by Western companies, research into the relative merits of convergent and crossvergent leadership approaches is an area that demands further academic and practitioner research attention. Relocate Global and Think Global People is committed to supporting research development and disseminating information that helps to improve practice.

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