Xu Huang & Michael Harris Bond, Handbook of Chinese Organizational Behavior: Integrating Theory, Research and Practice

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at diversophy.com   Amazon review

Much about much work yet to be done

On first perusal, one is tempted to quote the Roman sage, Mons gemuit et parturit rediculus mus, (the mountain labored and gave birth to a funny little mouse). While there is a mountain of research in the field of organizational behaviour to be examined, the book provides constant reminders of how tiny and elusive is the amount of first-hand and enlightening research we actually have about Chinese culture(s) and organizational behaviour.

We are paying the price of Orientalism, the cost of not knowing, of having failed to listen and learn because of biased conscious and unconscious judgments of the “inscrutable” East. Confucius could not have said it better: “Learning without thinking leads to confusion; thinking without learning ends in peril.” The front cover of the book bears this very text in Chinese. Certainly in today’s global economic and political frameworks, nothing could be more important than understanding China, and than China understanding itself as well. I picked up this book with the trepidation that it might be over my head, too alien from my experience. Rather, I found that much was familiar theory and research doing its best to launch our fragile capsule of understanding into new space.

The book serves us by collecting and examining an enormous amount of organizational studies that address management, leadership, organizational development and psychology. It gives us the current state of these theories and research on them and tells us the degree to which they have or have not been applied to what is going on in these areas in contemporary China.

Frequently it raises the question of whether, or to what degree, standard Western models in these disciplines are applicable to the examination of the Chinese situation. In the intercultural field, requests for indigenous models can fall on deaf ears because often they are not seen as profitable sources of analysis and action for Western enterprise. Even to be published and attract attention, Chinese scholars still largely have to play by and publish by Western rules - or perish. What perish are often the indigenous perspectives that we are missing as outsiders.

What does the book provide us with beyond generally updating us on the various disciplines that address the subject and attempting to see China via their framework? The introduction, labelled Part I, highlights the dilemma of relying on and supplementing the Western theoretical base vs. developing more indigenous theories. It also alerts us to the emerging liaison between culture and genetics where comparisons indicate that differences in mental construction affecting thinking behaviours and patterns are at play related to our differing neuro-cultural legacies.

Part II contains four essays about the theoretical challenges of such research and how to contextualize it for ourselves. Even accounting for the significant amount of adaptation that a new Chinese generation has brought from studies in the West and have found imposed by global entrepreneurship, we know full well that interpretation of new attitudes and practices remains influenced by deeper cultural roots.

Those who see themselves as forward thinking cannot be understood without these roots, even when they seems to be consciously trying to reject the past. We are called to listen differently to what we have hitherto labelled with our own terminology as collectivism, paternalism, benevolence, etc. Interculturalists are coming around to placing greater value on context in their application of theory. Here such exploration seems essential. Overviews of China both use and attempt to get beyond the boilerplate of Hofstede and the Globe Study, previously assumed to offer a universal framework.

The gem of the book, in my estimation is the essay in Part II by Joerg Wutke, “A practitioner’s perspective on organizational behaviour in China.” It gives the writer’s firsthand perspectives on living and working in China. I would suggest readers begin with this chapter before launching into the rest. Joerg provides a good historical background and then tracks contemporary developments through his own experiences. He patiently explains emerging trends and particularly how Chinese systems and politics affect China and its business partners.

Cultural factors in decision-making are critical. Following this detailed examination, Wutke furnishes an insightful and somewhat contrarian observation about stereotypes. While we are most concerned with avoiding the dangers of stereotyping, our Chinese counterparts find it useful to make sure that we operate according to the reliable stereotypes they have been furnished about us. “Going native” if, in fact, we could master it, is not likely to be an advantage or even a viable option.

Part III wades through the plethora of organizational behavioural research in its current state and assesses its applicability and what can be gleaned from its limited number of applications to China. It provides less than we might hope for, but on the other hand a realistic framework for going on very cautiously to identify and study what we must learn.

Among these, a look at Emotional Intelligence—inconclusive in its applicability. Then, a look at who does the dirty work in this culture? It depends on how you define dirty work, and then how, culturally speaking, people cope with it. A look at Panbi, social comparison behaviour in China, which can be crippling in its effects. Examining Panbi stirs up questions about how we think of the relative values of empathy and competition in our own cultures. In my experience, Panbi appears often enough in academe, among Chinese students abroad. Unfortunately, we have difficulty recognizing it, let alone knowing what to do about it.

A later chapter on theory of cooperation and competition suggests that a group-oriented culture, whether ethnic or organizational, may generate more confidence in the group’s collaborative abilities. Likewise, essays look at how personal, social and hierarchical relationships structure creativity in the Chinese workplace, and how what we know about abusive supervision may or may not apply to situations there. Theories of transformational and other theories of leadership abound in current managerial literature - to the point of being buzz words. It appears that the best we can say about their application in China is that some of these leadership approaches may be fit for certain types of employees working in close proximity with their leaders.

The chapter on “Building teams in Chinese organizations” is particularly well written. Again, attention must be paid to context, which can be highly variable on many levels. Both leaders and team members need the skills to understand and penetrate each other’s mental models, as well as to understand the impact of information and its distribution within the team. It is too easy to apply stereotypes to Chinese behaviour, particularly around collectivism. As one author suggests, “relationalism” might be a more insightful label, more open to both context and insights, than “collectivism”.

A chapter on “ostracism” explores the “fitting in” endorsed by the “Middle Way” and compares the various ways of fitting in and being eccentric in both Western and Chinese environments. On one hand, when addressing diversity, we talk a lot about inclusion, but this is often more social protest than an operative agenda offering the know-how to connect people. We need to look more carefully at what makes people “in” and “out” as well as makes groups to be in-groups and out-groups. Looking at Chinese behaviors in this context may encourage us to see our own efforts in a new light.

Further chapters explore trust, conflict management, psychological contracts, job insecurity, work values and ethics. All of these lead to the inevitable exploration of guanxi, and relational power as well as paternal leadership. Two last chapters address the more often discussed concepts of harmony and relationships in both personal and social life. The function of renqing in managing and negotiating face is closely examined. As we are looking at culture-specific concepts that tend to be more familiar to us, they can more easily be illustrated by behaviors that show up in a society where conflicts of interest and struggles for resources are normal human strivings as elsewhere. Clearly, in China they will continue to be managed with both traditional Confucian and Daoist paradigms as well as affected by emerging globalizing practices on how conflict is expressed and managed.

At the end of the book, as at the beginning, we are faced with questions both about the applicability of our models and research traditions for understanding Chinese society and organizations, as well as with the challenge of exploring indigenous models and concepts. These latter are of interest, not only for what they may tell us Chinese cultural construction, but also to ask whether these indigenous models are applicable elsewhere. Will they offer insights about non-Chinese cultures or add to our perspectives on human universals?

The title of the closing chapter, Part 5, in a sense, says it all, “There is nothing more American than research on Chinese organizational behavior: Into a more culturally sensitive future.” The book essentially reviews how far we can get with current cultural savvy, bounded by Western biases in theory and practice. Inevitably this leads to as many disclaimers and indicators for further research as it does as claims of partial insight. It leaves indigenous concepts struggling to breathe in the heavy atmosphere created by US-focused approaches. How universal are so-called universal theories of human behaviour? Some seem substantiated by research on Chinese samples; others seem called into question. Context again is king. Mastering the multiple contexts, social, geographical, generational and structural remains a Camelot on the distant horizon more than a home we are familiar with.

The authors conclude by suggesting five steps that can provide reliable ways of starting to move beyond this impasse. They well summarize the book’s labours: 1) Contextualizing Theories and Constructs; 2) Moving beyond Cultural Dimensions; 3) Engaging in more Systemic Cross-cultural Research; 4) Examining within-culture Variation; 5) Employing new Methods. The chapter ends with the Nike admonition, “Just do it!”

Extensive bibliography supports each chapter, and there is a useful index.

Somehow the image that I was left with at the end of this 500-page excursion was that of astronauts planting a flag on the moon. We used all our technology to get there in the sense of exploring the possible models we have for organizational behavior and psychology. We are wandering around protected but clumsy in our Western mentality space suits, walking on luna incognita with only the few landscape maps that previous intercultural astronomers, peering into the distance, have provided. We are all too aware that our exploration has only begun. We are uneasy, knowing that our sense of this landscape will be changing, as we begin to examine first hand what we find, and learn to explore the deep craters lying before us. We both welcome and fear surprises.

Fortunately, over 1.3 billion people this populate this lunarscape. They can teach us about themselves if we learn to ask listen in new ways. Bravo to the ground staff for the enormous amount of preparatory work and guidance they have provided in this volume, enabling and encouraging us to launch out on new explorations. Such work will inevitably bring the benefits of knowing ourselves better as well. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

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