Kevan Hall, CEO of Global Integration shares his recent experience in China.
I spent an enjoyable week recently in Shanghai running a workshop on matrix management. Sponsored by the HR excellence centre (HREC) the workshop brought together senior Chinese HR people who either headed the function for overseas multinationals or for Chinese-based multinationals.
The issues they reported were very familiar ones in developing a successful matrix organisation; implementing the transformation, building the necessary skills and embedding changes in the way people work together to get the benefits of the matrix.
Whilst the challenges were similar to those we find around the world, there were some particular Chinese cultural angles we need to understand in solving them.
One was the traditionally hierarchical relationship between Chinese managers and their people. This can be a challenge for matrix management as people with two bosses may find it very difficult to push back and balance the needs of two people who are senior to them.
Second was the relationship oriented style of leadership which tends to lead to strong relationships with local colleagues. People were less used to working with people remotely where they didn’t have much depth of relationship. Simply adding a second reporting line to a stranger in another country didn’t really balance of legacy power of local reporting lines and relationships.
Chinese managers typically put a lot of effort into building relationships and networks but this is harder to translate to a geographically dispersed network; it is also harder to build trust with people who come from different cultural backgrounds particularly if we only work together through technology. This relationship orientation also poses a challenge to overseas managers coming to work with Chinese colleagues. It may take more time to become effective.
In order to integrate Chinese operations into a successful matrix we would recommend that multinationals put in place structures and allow far more time for networking and relationship building with their Chinese colleagues and team members than they may be used to at home.
If we want Chinese employees to be able to manage upwards then we also need to give clear message about empowerment and have local managers support this in their behaviours and role modelling. If not people will tend to revert to culturally comfortable deference to hierarchy.
For Chinese multinationals exporting their leadership style they will find significant differences in attitudes to hierarchy and relationship building when working in the “West”. Subordinate behaviour can often seem rude and unnecessarily challenging and managers can be offended or shocked. It will be important for them to build cultural understanding and a tool kit of skills for understanding their own cultural assumptions and dealing with those of others.