Employee engagement in China, then and now

Today, a guest post. Paul Howes over at Purple Emperor Consulting writes on similar issues that we do here, but does it with a different style. So I asked him to do a guest post in the area of engagement and what he offered is below. Take a look at his website here.

Things have come quite a way in the Chinese employment market since Deng Xiaoping said that “to get rich is glorious”. The iron rice-bowl has cracked, even shattered. Many years ago, I asked employees in the State-Owned sector what they did well. Most replies were along the lines of, “We bear hardships together.” Not the most inspiring achievement, but a reality for those who expressed it.

Starting our company in HongKong, then the easiest way to start in China, More than one people told us that in motivating Chinese people, “Cash is King.” If you were facing high levels of employer turnover, and almost all foreign employers were, you must pay more, they said. That struck us as simplistic. As my colleagues and I examined intrinsic motivation of people further so that we could better help our foreign clients we confirmed our initial reaction.

Our conclusions were that people want to earn good money, of course, but more important in their minds were things like:

  • being able to learn and develop – personal flexibility is always valued and the more skills people have the more flexible they are
  • having a satisfying relationship with their boss – much can be said here, but simply, people want to feel valued on a personal basis and in return they give their loyalty and commitment
  • the brand of their employer, which can give people “face” and comfort relatives back home who may well have made sacrifices to help the child’s education

On the surface these aren’t so different from many standard engagement drivers one sees elsewhere.
What distinguishes Chinese employees is the strength of these reactions relative to pay and other factors.

It was these finding that caused us to proclaim that “Soft is hard” and break with ‘established wisdom’ about how to manage people effectively. I still remember both the anger of most of the AmCham audience when I finished speaking and the smiles among the mainland Chinese people – they were what convinced us we were on the right track.

Almost twenty-years on, what has changed? Not much, in many respects, it seems. Yes, many more employees have much more choice about where they work compared to then. Yes, people earn sums they could not then have imagined.

But, the underlying culture hasn’t changed much. It was gratifying to hear Steve Crandall of Technomic Asia, referred to in an early post on this blog, talk about the very same factors I mentioned above. High turnover remains endemic (though not ubiquitous) and employee engagement remains low relative to elsewhere.

Why? I suspect two primary problems, both concerned with leadership:
– Most foreign leaders turn over on a regular basis and have to re-learn how to do business locally.
Why don’t we prepare people better?
– The majority of Chinese bosses do not have the skills to manage the greater complexity that comes with a more educated workforce.
And let’s be honest, those in the State sector are still appointed for reasons other than their ability to lead.

Of course, there are others too, like the dark side (“Thick Face, Black Heart”), the difficulty involved in firing poor managers, and all the other reasons that cause poor engagement around the world.  The supreme irony is that with the government trying to keep the lid on inflation, there will actually be an increasing number of cases where people genuinely are underpaid!

Any thoughts to add?

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Posted in: China, Culture Development, Leadership, Motivating Workers

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