Respect is a Two Way Street

Published on 2012-01-20

Source: niXerKG @ Flickr
THIS MONTH I WROTE AN ARTICLE for NetworkHR magazine aimed at encouraging Westerner’s to learn more about Chinese culture. The benefits for Western managers in being more ‘culture savvy’ are clear. It is difficult to run a team if you fail to understand how they think and the different cultural motivators that drive their behaviour.
During my research for this article, I came across an alarming number of examples where not only were Western bosses not getting to grips with Chinese culture, but had also seemingly forgotten the values which had served them so well before they arrived in China. The main moral value which in some cases has fallen by the wayside is respect, more specifically respect for colleagues lower down the company hierarchy.
Confucian values, which permeate Chinese culture at every level, mean that Western managers enjoy a freely given level of respect far in excess of those levels they can expect in the West where as a rule ‘respect must be earned’. In China, the desire to please superiors can in some cases border on the subservient. This is in stark contrast to a more surly but common Northern European or American attitude of ‘you may be senior to me, but that doesn’t mean you are better than me.’ It is worth remembering though that just because a subordinate agrees immediately to a request that could be seen as falling outside their job description, it does not actually mean they are delighted to be doing it.
Now before you Western readers start throwing pens at the screen and vehemently denying that you would ever behave in such a way, read the following example and see if it rings any bells.

I was recently chatting to a very senior, male, European manager who was complaining about his female PA (Personal Assistant). I know this girl personally and so he wanted me to talk to her.
“She seems to be totally demotivated!” he said. “I keep telling her that she has the ability to do so much more than this PA job. She is a highly skilled, very intelligent girl and I don’t see why she has ‘lost her drive’.”

I agreed to talk to the girl on my way into work the next day. When I arrived at 8.30 am she was hunched over her computer, busily clicking away with the mouse. Impressed that she was already hard at work whilst most of her colleagues were still making the morning’s first cup of coffee, and more importantly before her boss had arrived, I asked what she was doing. She looked up at me with a wry smile and tilted the laptop screen so that I could see.
“My boss called last night with a list of things his wife needs to buy on Taobao. I am searching for her now as her son needs new shirts.”

What a great motivator that would be for students studying Business Administration and English at University: If you study hard, become fluent in English, perfect your organisational skills and patiently work your way up the secretarial ladder in an MNC, one day……. if you are lucky…. you may get to spend your mornings shopping online for your boss’s spouse.
In my opinion, this example constitutes a clear lack of respect for a subordinate. For those of you who do not think this is so bad, I should also add that this girl has been asked to go on holiday with the boss’s family as he felt ‘she would be better at looking after his children than he was.’ I would love to see the clause in her contract that states, “will be responsible for booking meetings, arranging business travel, confirming meeting dates and………. acting as a bi-lingual Ayi.”
Is it a wonder that this girl was feeling demotivated? Actions speak louder than words. It is useless to try to motivate your staff by telling them how good they are when, at the same time, your actions show your true levels of respect.
I am not saying that having your staff help you out with issues beyond their job description is something you should never do. I am though saying that you should be aware that such help is a favour and should be recognised as such. Work is work and favours are favours. We should make every possible effort not to blur the line.
A few years ago I lost my phone. By the time I realised this, I was about to walk into a meeting. I asked my assistant if she could run out and get a replacement for me. She very kindly did so and the next day I gave her some vouchers I had won in a golf competition for dinner for two at a five star Beijing Hotel. Shopping for new phones because I was too forgetful to check my taxi before getting out of it, clearly fell into the ‘favour section’. I was grateful for her help and she was pleased that she could then take her husband out for a nice dinner at the weekend. At no point was she under the impression that in addition to being my assistant, she was also my personal shopper.
I could go on and on. There is the story about the PA who on the first of the month had the delightful job of transferring money from her married boss’s secret bank account to that of his Mongolian mistress. Another story has the GM of a logistics company getting his staff to decorate his new house one weekend. However, I think you get the picture.
One of my Weibo friends posted a picture the other day of a notice on the door of one of Deloitte’s offices in China. A manager had written “we start at 8.30 am not 9 or 10 am. Next to this notice, a member of staff had posted another message in reply, saying “Yes, and we finish at 5.30 pm, not 8 pm. not 9 pm and not in the middle of the night”. This is a clear demonstration that if your demands become too harsh, the staff will rebel.
A little respect goes a long way. Your staff have worked extremely hard in a ridiculously competitive market to get to where they are. They are all university graduates. As often as not, they speak English with you as you do not speak Chinese. They are raising a family and caring for ageing parents on a budget that would not come close to covering your rent payment. A thank you note and a box of chocolates, or a suggestion they leave early on Friday as reward for going beyond their job requirements to help you, costs little but displays recognition and respect.
Again, many of you will be shocked to hear of such managerial poor judgement, but have you ever;

– Had your company driver pick you up outside a bar at 2 am?
– Asked a member of staff to assist with childcare or your domestic requirements?
– Relied on a staff member to facilitate or arrange events in your social/ private life?

These are just three questions I thought of off the top of my head. There are many others I am sure. If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above then fear not, it is not too late. We are approaching the Year of the Dragon. It is the perfect opportunity to turn over a new leaf and make a vow to change your ways.
Make the Year of the Dragon, the year of mutual respect. Show your staff that you value them and can empathise with the pressures they face both in and out of work. Do this and watch as their respect changes from ‘respect for the position’ to ‘respect for the person’.