China's Workplace Challenge

For the first time last year, Gallup posed the same questions we routinely use to gauge the health of American workplaces to a random sample of employees in China. The results, which we've discussed over the past few weeks, have been intriguing. Let's recap a few of the key findings:

  • Compared with the U.S. working population, China's workforce appears disaffected, with a relatively low percentage of "engaged" employees and a high percentage of "not engaged" employees. That has implications beyond the workplace, as engagement is highly correlated in China with personal life satisfaction.

  • The odds of being disaffected appear to increase with age, as the "not engaged" group grows with each successive age category. But even in the youngest group, engagement is relatively rare, prompting questions about whether China can produce the generation of strong, motivated business leaders it needs to maintain its current growth.

  • The proportions of Chinese employees who are engaged with their jobs are most prevalent among: those who work for smaller companies, those who have taken part in some form of continuing education in the past year, and those who say "study hard and make a name for yourself" describes their life philosophy.

  • Chinese workers are likely to say they understand what's expected of them at work. A majority overall also say their job allows them to do what they do best. Chinese managers -- like those anywhere else in the world -- need to clearly communicate expected outcomes for employees, while giving them freedom and creativity to achieve those outcomes.

  • Only a third of Chinese employees report receiving recognition or praise for their work in the last week. If managers aren't accustomed to paying attention to the unique contributions of individual workers, then this may hurt morale and productivity in Chinese workplaces.

  • Chinese companies may have a cultural advantage in the fact that employees are likely to say they have best friends at work. But far fewer employees say their coworkers are committed to doing quality work. Managers need to find ways to tie workplace friendships more closely to the goals of the organization.

The Changing Workplace

This study has revealed that overall job satisfaction is generally high among Chinese employees. However, leadership and management can't coast on employees' seeming contentment; the employment infrastructure is shifting in virtually every respect.

Within the past two decades, a significant share of the world's manufacturing output has been outsourced to China, because of the low cost of labor that resulted from unlimited "hands." Through most of the 20th century, workers were taught to conform, and were in turn ensured security. But increased demand from foreign and local private organizations has forced the structure to place more value upon productivity, use of technology, and strong independent leadership. 

The collectivist nature of 20th-century Chinese enterprises meant that work was highly integrated with employees' personal lives. This could prove to be a key strength in transforming this economy as a world leader. But it will require talented workgroup-level managers to use employees' loyalty and strong workplace relationships to foster growth and productivity.

The adoption of a belief that the local real-time managers can either significantly drive up, or drive down quality and output raises the question, "Where will these people come from?" Herein lies the headache for foreign and local organizations in China. Traditional state-owned agencies and companies only promoted individuals to management if they were communist party members and recommended by a high-ranking communist official. Training and development of managers was rare, as the entire role of management was to ensure conformance.

The result is that the training necessary to meet the onslaught of demand for a new kind of manager has been lacking. Thus, foreign and private organizations are now seeking management talent outside of China -- and among the throngs of rural Chinese eager to find better lives in the cities -- to select people who can then be educated and developed by that organization. Those organizations (foreign and local private) that find the right "developmental model" will be the new leaders in terms of ability to attract and retain productive managers and thus employees. 

Chinese Workplaces of the Future

What will that developmental model look like? It will almost surely include these basic characteristics of great workplaces worldwide:    

  1. Outcome measures that are clearly defined at all levels -- for employees, managers, and leaders.
  2. Multiple avenues for recognizing excellence in those achieving high levels.
  3. An understanding that productive culture and team building occurs at the local level, and is driven largely by local managers. 
  4. The recognition that, though pay will attract talented employees, it's valuing productive outcomes and helping people develop, learn, and grow that will keep them.
  5. The awareness, relatively rare in China up to now, that human capital lies less in people's "hands" and more in their heads and hearts -- their intelligence, ideas, and instincts. 
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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