WHY AREN’T JUNIOR STAFF IN CHINA making more decisions for themselves?
In the January 2016 issue of McKinsey Insight, there was a discussion with the CEO of Roche, Severin Schwan, about a number of topics around innovation. One question was specifically about decision making and Mr. Schwan’s answer will resonate with many senior leaders, “It’s important, therefore, to have a culture that attracts the sort of people prepared to act in the face of ambiguity rather than to delegate upward and wait for confirmation from the top…In my experience, the quality of a decision gets worse the higher up it is delegated. Every time you delegate upward, even if that turns out to be the right decision, you risk losing time and seeing competitors overtake you.”
In China, this acting “in the face of ambiguity” doesn’t happen often enough. Decisions are frequently pushed up to senior managers or delayed until the employee can get a group consensus. Why is this? [quote float=”right”]Decisions are frequently pushed up to senior managers or delayed until the employee can get a group consensus.[/quote]
To answer that, let’s look briefly at work done by both Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars, well known thought leaders in cross-cultural communication and leadership. Both conducted research across cultures with thousands of people, mainly in MNCs, and discovered what both would call ‘dimensions of culture’. The one dimension most salient to this article is what Hofstede called ‘Individualism vs. Collectivism’ and Trompenaars called ‘Individualism vs. Communitarianism’. In essence cultures that are more communitarian value the group more than the individual. This means they are less likely to take initiative without the group’s blessing.
Combine this cultural insight with the pervasive Confucian ideal of respecting authority figures and an educational system focused on learning by rote versus problem solving, and one can start to understand why junior employees in China are less likely to make decisions on their own.
That being said, Trompenaars found in his research that cultures change, often very quickly. Mexico was found to be more communitarian in early research, but later research revealed Mexicans to have moved across the scale more towards individualism. Some speculate that this was perhaps caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s. There are clearly signs that China is beginning to shift towards individualism, due to more Western influences since the 1980s, though it is still not the dominant norm. [quote float=”left”]There are clearly signs that China is beginning to shift towards individualism, due to more Western influences since the 1980s, though it is still not the dominant norm.[/quote]
I doubt that Schwan is alone in his desire for a more decisive staff, but in China, with the idea that communitarian cultures feel that involving others, especially senior people in a decision is absolutely critical, we need to help staff feel confident in stepping outside their cultural comfort zone. Here’s a few methods:
1. Embrace the Culture
Understand that communitarian cultures feel more comfortable when making decisions as a group or pushing decisions up the reporting line. Make sure that managers are reachable and able to offer guidance or coaching on decisions that need to be made, and also providing constructive feedback on the outcomes of those decisions.
2. Provide Guidelines and Frameworks
One of the four components of a strong team is ‘defined roles’. Looking at the types of problems your team needs to solve and the types of decisions they need to make and then choosing the proper framework for them to use such as PEST, SWOT, Fishbone, Matrix or any other, to ensure that employees feel they’ve considered all angles of an issue and made a logical and justifiable decision. Also providing specific guidelines and policies so that employees know the company’s expectations and lines they shouldn’t cross when making decisions.
3. Train People in Problem Solving and Decision Making
Training will help both the company and the employee feel more confident with autonomous decision making. [quote float=”right”]Training will help both the company and the employee feel more confident with autonomous decision making.[/quote] Using the frameworks above will help, but adding training in problem solving and decision making will help them start to stretch their skills and be more effective, with decision making, in the future. Also consider training senior managers in delegation, coaching, and feedback to make sure they provide valuable feedback and personal decision making insights to their staff.
4. Look at Your Company Culture
Your company’s culture must reward autonomous decision makers, as Roche does. Staff that make well reasoned decisions should be rewarded and encouraged. More importantly when the decision turns out to be the wrong one, we must support and coach the employee so they understand the cause of the mistake, but are encouraged to try again. Holding up a few strong examples of employee decision making success via your organisation’s intranet or newsletter will help encourage others to make better and more timely decisions.
There are a lot of obstacles to overcome when helping junior employees become better decision makers. Being aware of the obstacles, within your organisation, and then creating a strategy that helps you to overcome them, as well as developing a corporate culture that admires and rewards autonomous decision making is a great step forward.
Want to know more about managing your team in China? Contact ClarkMorgan to learn about our China-centric training programs.