China's Disaffected Workforce

Could employee malaise slow the country's economic boom?

If Western businesses have experienced dramatic changes over the last quarter-century as a result of the IT revolution, those changes are nothing compared with the transformation the Chinese business climate may undergo in the next 25 years. With the Asian behemoth's economy growing at a rate of almost 10% annually, its business and manufacturing sectors have scrambled to keep up. Chinese business leaders and diplomats are searching far and wide for new trading partners and sources of raw materials.

China's business infrastructure will need to progress rapidly to accommodate the country's emerging status as a major player in the global economy, and so will prevailing norms regarding employees' roles. The new Gallup Poll of China asked Chinese employees a set of questions designed to test their engagement level -- the same questions Gallup regularly asks of American workers -- and found a disaffected Chinese workforce ill-suited for sustained, long-term growth. This article is the first in a series examining Chinese workers' responses to Gallup's Q12 employee survey.

The Chinese Working Environment

The psychology of work in China tends to be different from that in the United States because of the collectivist mindset so prevalent over much of the last century. Though the private sector is growing rapidly, state-owned enterprises still represent at least half of Chinese commerce -- and in those organizations, loyalty tends to be valued over innovation or even productivity. In some ways, Chinese attitudes are reminiscent of the American business paradigm of the 1950s, which operated according to strict hierarchical structure and discouraged nonconformity.

There's great irony here. The goal of the communist ethos is to elevate society by treating all people the same regardless of their backgrounds. But that ostensibly noble aim can become a huge disservice in businesses and other organizations, as it translates into the view that employees are interchangeable, that the ideas and initiative of talented individuals should be downplayed. Until fairly recently, Chinese employees' living arrangements even reflected the stress placed on conformity. At many state-owned enterprises, employees lived in the same housing developments. Being an employee literally meant having a lifestyle largely identical to your coworkers'.

Chinese Employee Engagement

Are these historical characteristics of the Chinese workplace reflected in Chinese engagement scores? Possibly. Among Chinese urban-dwelling employees, the "not engaged" group is relatively large (68%), a common reality in many Asian countries where Gallup has measured engagement. Only 12% are engaged and 20% are actively disengaged.

It seems plausible that the absence of personal ownership fosters a lack of positive feeling toward work. The emphasis on group performance may make many employees feel as if they are just performing tasks, rather than seeing how their particular work is contributing to something larger. 

Looking beyond the "not engaged" group, the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is also high in China relative to the United States. This is a key figure for the growth prospects of any organization -- or economy -- because actively disengaged employees tend to undo the good work of the engaged.

But in China, employee engagement may have repercussions far beyond productivity. Aside from the finding that many employees are emotionally disconnected from their jobs, there is at least as close a relationship in China between respondents' level of engagement at work and their overall satisfaction with their lives as there is in the United States. So quality of life in the workplace is likely to spill over into other areas.

Further, the correlation between level of work engagement and satisfaction with family life is one of the strongest differentiators in the data. And personal satisfaction with health varies significantly by employees' engagement levels. All these connections demonstrate that engagement at work is a broad social issue -- one with profound implications for societal values and even public health.

Bottom Line

Life satisfaction is relatively high among employees in Chinese cities -- overall three-quarters are very or somewhat satisfied. But as the graph demonstrates, that positivity is skewed toward employees who see the contributions they are making, feel a sense of gratification in their work, and feel a personal commitment to their jobs. As more Chinese find greater fulfillment in the private sector, the prevailing definition of a "good" job may change as profoundly as the economic transformation already underway. If they wish to compete with private enterprises and multi-nationals for talented employees, Chinese state-owned companies must find ways to improve workers' sense that their job is a calling, something that offers them personal gratification and development opportunities.

Engagement in the Workplace: 12 Measures That Matter

To identify the elements of worker engagement, Gallup conducted hundreds of focus groups and many thousands of worker interviews in all kinds of organizations, at all levels, in most industries, and in many countries. Researchers then pinpointed 12 key employee expectations that form the foundation of strong feelings of engagement -- the Gallup Q12.

The Gallup Q12 Items

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

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Curt W. Coffman is coauthor of Gallup’s best-selling book on great managers, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (Simon and Schuster, 1999). Coffman’s latest book is Follow This Path (Warner Books, 2002).
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