To China…With Love

I have recently returned from Shanghai where I was leading a client leadership development program for a group of their global executive leaders. It was my first trip to China, and yes, what they say about this economic powerhouse in the Far East is true.  It is modern, sophisticated and open for business with its unique mix of a centralized Communist government and its own brand of open market Western capitalism. 

I was staying at a major hotel in the center of town and being the western foreigner that I am, I was very observant of my physical surroundings including the manner in which the Chinese hotel staff worked.   The first thing I noticed was the sheer abundance of staff, and in roles you wouldn’t see in most other hotels around the world.  There were staff to simply stand by the bank of six elevators to inform you of the next available one; someone was at every possible door to open it for you; someone who would pour your coffee from the urn during refreshment breaks, and that’s after someone else had directed you to the urn itself!  It took some time to get used to this activity and level of service.  I am not sure if this was a way to make sure everyone had a job, or a way to accelerate the development of as many Chinese people as possible in the ways of the western service industry.

However, the most noteworthy observation was the very strict unspoken hierarchy they adhered to even within small groups of staff in the restaurant or serving the refreshment breaks.  If any us engaged the staff in conversation, asked a question, or make a request, the ‘manager’ in charge stepped in to handle it –sometimes stepping right in front of the employee. It was behaviour that, from a western perspective, I thought rude.  Of course the question got answered, and the request responded to promptly with a smile, however, I couldn’t help but think how demeaning this might have been for the employee. Or was I just projecting my western view of leadership etiquette in judging the situation?  The employees seemed very accepting and nonplussed about this, so obviously this is a culturally accepted norm – the boss is king. I have heard from various clients who deal with Chinese companies that this is the Chinese way of management i.e. the boss makes all the decisions.  However, I wonder how sustainable this “boss is king” approach to management will be given the extensive exchange China is having with western capitalism  where more empowering leadership is the norm coupled with the increasingly liberated expression of aspiring young plugged in globally Chinese workers in or about to enter the work force.

After completing my business commitments I took some time to be a tourist and visited the Confucius Temple where all of this wise man’s sayings are engraved in Chinese characters and hung on the walls of the main building. I suspect that if he was alive in Shanghai today he might have even said that “those who are oppressed will make their voices heard”.  Anyway it will be interesting to watch how this management style continues to play out in the year ahead. In the meantime enjoy your dim sum and green tea.

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