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How Well Do China’s Managers Perform?

February 4, 2010

Chinese UPDATED JANUARY 24, 2013

An earlier post I wrote Innovation Through Leadership was a call to action in response to mounting global competition and the need for what a number of people have called a new “moon shot,” which would serve as a catalyst to new technologies and innovation.

To continue the conversation on globalization and the impact it’s having on North America, I’m sharing the results of an interesting international survey that focused on management skills. Read on.

The management literature is packed full of stories, anecdotes, surveys, etc. on what’s going on in North America (read U.S.A). It’s easy to become consumed with this information. Seldom do we get the opportunity to read about what’s happening elsewhere in the world on management and leadership issues. Well, thanks to a 2008 survey conducted by The Institute of Leadership & Management (ILS) in the U.K. we get the chance to delve into how the United States stacks up against other countries when it comes to managing.

The ILA’s survey was conducted in May 2008, comprising the U.S., U.K., China and France. The survey was carried out by telephone, using the native language of the respondents. The results are nothing short of fascinating. Read on.

The survey found that China is forming its own “distinctive and highly effective management culture–sophisticated, very commercial, innovative and ambitious.” Yet, U.S., French and U.K. managers “…don’t necessarily practice what they preach.” They talk about the importance of the customer, results, working relationships and communication. However, this appears to be more talk than action. Of particular interest is that Chinese managers tend to be more modest about their performance, noting areas for improvement. They’re also well-educated and very ambitious; they’re not content with average performance, as opposed to with Western managers. U.K. managers were the least motivated to improve their knowledge and performance.

In contrast to Western conformance to cultural models and how management should be practiced, Chinese managers are embracing a new way of managing, similar to how the Japanese developed their own form of management several decades ago. So let’s look at some of the more specific findings.

Perceptions are always fascinating to explore, and this survey illustrates a number of mismatches between how managers saw themselves and how others perceived them.

Managers from the U.S., France and the U.K. held the perception that Chinese managers are hierarchical and authoritarian in their management approaches, pushing their employees to work harder to meet production schedules. Furthermore, they were seen as not being innovative or as following the rules.

When looking at themselves, Chinese managers admitted their weaknesses. However, they believed that a good manager has three essential traits: knowledge, wisdom and the ability to learn; assuming responsibility; and team skills. They saw themselves as being very concerned with following rules, very good at motivating employees, and focused on getting work done. Being authoritarian and lacking innovation was not seen as big an issue as the perception of Western managers. They also saw themselves as having a focus on the customer, maintaining workplace safety, and being honest and ethical. Their education is higher than Western managers, at least at the Bachelor level.

When asked what makes a good manager, the French noted communication and taking action, while the British emphasized relationships, safety and customers. None of the three Western countries ranked knowledge and wisdom highly.

The aggregated results of the survey are very interesting. For example, the top ten characteristics of good managers are oriented towards the three Western countries, based on the responses from managers.

The highest ranked characteristic was Determination to get things done, and done correctly. This stood out clearly above the other nine (in descending order):

9. Good communication skills
8. Knowledge, ability to learn and wisdom
7. Responsibility to make things happen
6. Positive and supportive relationships with people
5. Management skills, leadership and control
4. Customer-focused
3. Knows the business
2. Team skills
1. Good organizing skills

When separating out the results by each of the four countries, Chinese managers placed knowledge and the ability to learn at the top; U.K. and U.S. managers ranked communication as number one. The French viewed determination to get things done as the most important, and ranked knowledge in fifth place. American managers, however, didn’t rank knowledge and learning in their top five.

The survey contains a number of additional cross tabulations, but what comes out at the end is the need to understand much better how people in other countries manage and lead. Working on the basis of either outdated or entirely false assumptions and mis-perceptions is a dangerous game, especially when the stakes are high in a competitive global economy.

To be blunt, a hubristic attitude by Western managers towards Chinese managers – and other managers in emerging economies – is both foolish and myopic. That Chinese managers ranked knowledge and the ability to learn as number one should be a wake-up call to the West. If we do indeed live in a knowledge economy, then it would be logical to believe that this should be an integral part of a manager’s being.


The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.

– David Bohm


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2013 7:04 pm

    There’s a balance with a task-focused approach (getting things done) and the longer-term, strategic horizon. North American business people (namely males) think in terms of months. The Chinese and Japanese, and I’d guess the South Koreans, think in terms of decades.

    • January 24, 2013 7:11 pm

      It will be interesting to see where the Chinese results are in another generation, compared to the North American results.

      • January 24, 2013 7:42 pm

        To borrow from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent new book “Antifragile” (author of The Black Swan), the Chinese (and South Koreans, etc.) are Antifragilistas, whereas we Canadians and Americans are Fragilistas.

  2. January 24, 2013 6:49 pm

    I found this survey on Chinese management styles very interesting. I think I have to agree with the ability to get things done as being number one. All the rest is important, but if you have all the rest and can’t get things done, it is of no use.

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