Communicating with Chinese Co-workers: The Importance of Guanxi (Relationships) and Mianzi (Face)

Work culture in Asia is continuously shifting as a new generation of digital natives come of age. In China, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of the reform and opening-up policy that catapulted China to the world’s second largest economy. Today, the children raised in the era of reform and opening-up will soon comprise the majority of the Chinese workforce and it is therefore imperative that we seek to understand their work culture for more effective workplace communication.

Changes in how young employees understand the meaning of work against the backdrop of the shift from state assignment of work units under a communist planned economy to free choice in job selection, correlating ideals of efficiency and self-responsibility deserves research and exploration (Long, Buzzanell, & Kuang, 2016). Prior to the 1990 collapse of the Eastern European communist regime, people were assigned to work units based on profession, education levels, and place of permanent residence. While the freedom to choose one’s work unit is undeniably a mark of social progress, it likewise perpetuates guanxi-based norms, the traditional Chinese practice of gaining hierarchical favor through relationships and connections. Non-transparent recruitment and promotion systems and reliance upon relationships with superiors or stakeholders is not only indicative of guanxi-based norms, but remains an important consideration for employees when entering an organization or getting a promotion.

This situation can make young workers skeptical of meritocracy in organizations. As an informant posits, “I’m not afraid of competing with talented people, but I’m afraid of competing with talented people who also have good guanxi with leaders.” And, despite the apparent autonomy in job selection, young workers (who are often the only child in the family under China’s one-child policy) are constrained by mianzi (face) to place social reputation and bringing honor to their family over their own interests when making career choices.

Guanxi and mianzi are also two very important cultural factors to consider when it comes to conflict management norms and Chinese employees’ coping strategies. Research indicates that while direct, constructive confrontation is a prevailing norm in many U.S. multinational corporations, Chinese employees prefer relationship-focused, indirect conflict management styles (Deng & Xu, 2014).

Though some Chinese employees appreciated U.S. conflict management style, many others felt it contradicts the important Chinese values of guanxi and mianzi which necessitate an indirect, and face-saving approach. The impact of directness on hierarchical structure does not go unnoticed, as U.S.-based conflict management approaches compromise the backroom-dealing laden, hierarchical superior-subordinate relationships that typify Chinese corporate culture.

On balance, proper appreciation of, and deference to guanxi and mianzi in Chinese corporate culture serves to not only foster relationship building but assuage negative emotions and attitudes that may arise from misalignment with cultural norms and communication expectancy.


Tien Ee Dominic Yeo, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Organizational Communication at Department of Communication Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University.

 

References

Long, Z., Buzzanell, P. M., & Kuang, K. (2016). Positioning work amid discontinuities and continuities: Chinese Post80s workers’ dialogical constructions of meanings of work. Management Communication Quarterly, 30(4), 532-556.

Deng, Y., & Xu, K. (2014). Chinese employees negotiating differing conflict management expectations in a US-based multinational corporation subsidiary in southwest China. Management Communication Quarterly, 28(4), 609-624.

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