Well the winter games are now in the books, Ukraine has had a revolution and the results from our little examination of work habits in the US and PRC are ready; what a difference a week makes right?
Anyway, if you recall from last Thursday’s post (or just scroll down the page) we introduced acclaimed social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s theory on cultural dimensions and did a cursory examination of the differences between US and Chinese (PRC) cultural traits.
Today we examine what these differences mean for productivity and workflow at a company that operates in these two largest world economies. So, like skeleton racers in the winter Olympics, let’s just jump headfirst into our results.
Of Hofstede’s six dimensions, the PRC and the US differ most significantly in the value each culture places on the individual. Meaning that workers in the PRC place greater emphasis on group success rather than individual success.
That is not to say that individual achievement is not valued in the PRC, but rather the notion of success is more group centric than individually based. Thus, the conclusion here is that within a Chinese workplace there tends to be less desire for individual glory and a more group based idea of success.
Moreover, Business Insider recently published a short article that explored some of the cultural habits Chinese students educated in the United States have picked up. Of interest from this article is the section on assertiveness from the point of view of a now a 20 something professional originally from China:
“I work in an American firm with American bosses. I also work at a public affairs consultancy so it is a fast-paced industry/office-- so I may be biased. I've heard in state-owned enterprises people are still very conservative, group-thinkers, and slow. But my Chinese colleagues are not afraid of expressing themselves, they are more independent thinkers. Instead of shying away, they know the work place (and our generation) is more competitive and they need to be more aggressive and speak up. Note that 90% of my colleagues have overseas education experience or have worked in foreign companies before. So I consider it a western influence.”
The big takeaway here is obvious; in China the group is foremost whereas in the United States the individual is foremost.
Chinese and American cultures are diametrically opposed with regards to the cultural dimension of pragmatism. In a nutshell, in normative cultures (the US) time horizons are much shorter, rules are more likely to be universal, and transparent methods are valued.
In contrast, in pragmatic cultures (China) time horizons are much longer, rules are more relativistic and method transparency is not as important. With this hypothetical understanding, let’s briefly examine evidence of this cultural difference.
From the point of view of a French national who lived in China:
“In China, the time is infinite and uncontrollable. Chinese people are very patient; waiting is not a problem for them. They are rarely stressed; they are never in a hurry. French people have difficulties to understand that because they always go fast and they do not want to waste their time: Time is money! So, it has not always been so easy to work with Chinese people… I try to take time and stay peaceful, but sometimes I cannot control myself, and I would like to cry ‘hurry up, hurry up’.”
And from an American educated Chinese national talking about how China is changing:
“Emphasis [is now] on more on fair and transparent working environment. The promotion standards are more transparent these days. Care more for the long term career development. A relatively clear career path is usually laid out when firms try to recruit people.” These two assessments of Chinese culture versus Western/American culture there is a large disconnect.
While China is beginning to emulate American and Western work habits when it comes to transparency and time orientation, there still is a great difference. In essence, this dimension of culture and these pieces of personal evidence support the statement that, time required to complete a comparable project in China versus the U.S. tends be longer.
When it comes to indulgence, the US and China again differ significantly in culture at the national level. In the United States, gratification is a socially acceptable (if not encouraged) norm whereas in China delayed gratification is ingrained in the more ancient culture. This short article from The Register demonstrates this dimension in China from an economic and cultural point of view.
“Feng Tongqing, a labor professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations, gave the Daily that line and also believes that competition for the domestic market means Chinese entrepreneurs are pushing their staff to work more. The party organ also reports that some familiar-seeming cultural pressures are behind some of China's work habits, quoting a PR operative named Feng Nan as saying ‘Our supervisor admires the busy bees and is one himself, so how can I leave the office and go home if my supervisor is still at his desk?’"
Self evident in both this article and the cultural dimension difference between the US and China, it seems that the assertion that, workers in China tend to work longer but not necessarily smarter when compared to their American counterparts.
Power distance can be summarily characterized, as basically how willing a person is in a culture to accept discrepancies in power and how great is that power discrepancy. To employ the analogy of an organizational structure, Chinese culture more closely resembles a hierarchical organization while American culture more closely resembles a flat organization.
In concrete terms, you can think of Chinese culture as a mature corporation (like General Electric) with many tiers of power and American culture as a San Francisco startup where the CEO of the company sits across from the summer intern.
Succinctly described, by the aforementioned French national working in China:
“Chinese people attach a great importance to the hierarchy. When I make some audits, the staff’s store does tend to be afraid when they know that the report will be sent to their boss. They often try to solve the problems immediately in order that I do not mention the issue on my report”
Power distance helps explain in large part the sociological phenomenon of “Face”. While each culture that has the notion of face has a different take on it. In a nutshell this concept boils down to a person’s prestige, honor or reputation.
For instance, in Thai culture getting publicly angry with another person leads to a loss of face of the person that got angry because in Thai culture there is great emphasis on tranquility and harmony. Or in South Korea, not obeying the wishes or orders of a person older than you leads to a loss of face as South Korean culture places a great emphasis on seniority.
Ultimately, power distance is of import for our understanding of work habits as in general Chinese workers more often than American counterparts give unquestioning deference to superiors.
Moving to cultural similarities between the PRC and US, uncertainty avoidance can be understood as how much a culture tolerates ambiguity of details. In reality, the US (score of 37) and China (score of 21) are quite similar in how each culture deals with ambiguity. While Americans avoid uncertainty more than their Chinese counterparts, neither country avoids uncertainty to the degree at which Germany (score of 55), France (score of 75) and most markedly so Japan (score of 81) do.
Uncertainty avoidance can be thought of as how many details you write down when planning a project. For instance, if you’ve ever had a German, French or Japanese manager and you are from a low uncertainty avoidance culture, I guarantee that you can think of an instance when your manager insisted on knowing the seemingly minutest details of a project you were planning.
While at the times it may have seemed that your German, French or Japanese manager was trying to make your life miserable, this insistence on details is really just a cultural trait that is less observed in low uncertainty avoidance cultures.
You can probably guess how our French national felt about uncertainty avoidance whilst living in China, “Another thing which distinguishes French people and Chinese people in work, is the way of communicating.
In fact, French people are often direct when they communicate, that means they say the things as they are; they accept the critics, they like asserting their point view. In contrary, Chinese people adopt an indirect way of communicating; they protect their idea and let others decode the hidden meaning of their message. Therefore, they communicate slowly and they do tend to beat around the bush.
So, when I work with them, I need time and I need to ask them a lot of questions in order that they explain me the real situation and understand the why and how of things. At the beginning, it was a little bit frustrating and I took time to adapt myself because I am used to communicate by saying what I think swiftly”
Understanding this facet of cultural similarity helps explain why American and Chinese workers can both effectively frustrate managers from high uncertainty avoidance cultures. The big take away from this understanding is that American and Chinese workers both embrace uncertainty and thereby remain quite flexible but at times frustrating to deal with when planning workflow.
At long last we have reached the dimension of greatest similarity between the PRC and the US, Masculinity. Both American and Chinese cultures are masculine scoring 63 and 68 respectively. What this essentially means is that these two cultures value achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success over cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. In other words both American and Chinese workers are results driven. Or to put it another way, both American and Chinese workers value the outcome of work more than the process of work.
Understanding culture is foremost for understanding differences in work habits in different countries. By understanding how cultures are different, we can understand why workers in different countries work differently. The intent of this examination is not to proclaim a winner in work habits, but rather to simply understand why and how people work differently in the US and China (PRC). In this sense the examination is descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Ultimately, culture is ever fluid, always changing and completely relative to other cultures. If in the workplace as an employee or manager you can understand cross-cultural differences, then there is no doubt that you will take home the gold in the Olympic sport of global workflow management.