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Promoting Your Ideas at Work Part 3 – Jumping Bureaucracy in a Chinese Company

My last post discussed promoting your ideas in a Chinese company through “inception”, where you make your boss think they thought up your idea.

But what about when that doesn’t work? You talk with your boss on many occasions, maybe even over a period of six months or more, but they don’t take up your idea.

When Going Up the Chain of Command Doesn’t Work…

First figure out why your idea didn’t get implemented:

  • Have you failed to gain the trust and respect of your boss?
  • Did you misjudge who the decision-maker or responsible party would be for implementing your idea within the hierarchy?
  • Did you misunderstand the practical details of the project or initiative you were trying to influence?
  • Did you misjudge the goals and motivations of your boss or company?
  • Did you present your idea in an overly aggressive or immodest way?

It’s not always easy to figure out what exactly went wrong. There are many reasons why your attempt at “inception” might fail, and they aren’t all related to intercultural communication. The company simply may not have the money or staff to implement your idea, but they don’t come out directly and say it.

Once you identify why your idea didn’t get implemented, you could amend the idea and/or your approach and attempt “inception” again. But sometimes that still won’t work.

Maybe you have a particularly difficult boss. One friend of mine working in a private Chinese company complains that his boss only wants to hear himself talk. When others speak in meetings, or even one-on-one, it is clear from his fidgeting that he is not listening. Getting stuck with a boss like this could happen in any cultural context.

Or you might have a boss with little influence within the hierarchy. This problem is particularly common within very large Chinese companies or state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that may have a complicated and rigid hierarchy. If you work low down on the totem pole or in a hierarchically weak department within your company, your idea may have to be passed up through many layers before it arrives on the desk of someone who actually has the authority to approve and implement it. Like a game of telephone, along the way your idea may get distorted and watered down until it is no longer recognizable. Or it might get rejected by a manager several levels up that you’ve never met and that isn’t close to the issue at hand.

…You Could Try Jumping Over the Bureaucracy from the Outside

“Inception” is not the only way to promote your ideas within a Chinese company. If going up the chain of command from the inside doesn’t work, sometimes approaching the problem from the outside can seem like an attractive option.

One American mid-level manager that I interviewed who works at a large private Chinese company came across a project in the US that she thought would be ideal for her company to invest in. She could have sent the project to her immediate boss for review; however, taking the initiative (in this case, to pursue investment opportunities) without direct instruction from the boss isn’t always encouraged in Chinese companies. Furthermore, if she had gone up the chain of command, the project would have been associated in her boss’s mind with her as a subordinate mid-level manager, and may not have received the urgent, dedicated attention that she felt the project deserved.

Instead, she arranged through contacts in the US to have the governor of the state where the investment opportunity was located to write a letter introducing the project to the CEO of the Chinese company and requesting a meeting to discuss it. As a result, the project became associated with a high-value member of the CEO’s guanxi network, enabling the project to more quickly cut through bureaucratic review. Instead of the American manager having to struggle to promote the project herself from within the middle of the company bureaucracy, she was now in the more comfortable position of responding to a directive from above to follow up on the project and report directly back to the CEO.

But Be Careful of Backfiring

Jumping hierarchy in a Chinese company, however, – or any company, for that matter – may not always be appropriate.

First of all, hierarchies are often in place for a reason – to coordinate the activities of the company in a coherent way. If subordinates constantly jump the hierarchy and make decisions on their own without consulting their supervisor, management of the company could become chaotic. In addition, managers up the hierarchical ladder (theoretically) have more experience and expertise than those below, enabling them to make more informed decisions for the company. Likewise, the higher up the hierarchy a manager is, (theoretically) the greater access they have to information and the more nuanced understanding they have of the goals and needs of the company. Obviously this isn’t always the case, as every company has its incompetent managers and its information-sharing bottlenecks. However, if you aren’t very high up in the hierarchy you very likely don’t have all the information you need to make a fully informed decision on matters of great importance to the company. This is particularly true for foreigners within Chinese companies and SOEs, where language, trust, cultural, and political barriers make it even more difficult to obtain fully accurate information. (I’ll discuss the topic of information sharing more in later posts. Also see my last post on navigating hierarchy in a Chinese company.)

Secondly, if your managers find out that you jumped them in the hierarchy, you could anger them or even lose your job. One Chinese friend with significant experience in the US unintentionally jumped her Chinese boss in the hierarchy of the American company in China where she worked by reporting on a seemingly unimportant matter to another manager not in her direct line of command. When her boss found out that she had reported to this other manager, her boss was not pleased.

Jumping the hierarchy could upset your boss for a variety of reasons. Most simply, as mentioned above, because taking action without consulting your boss could make their job of coordinating the activities of their department more difficult. Another reason is face: if an employee goes around its manager to get something done, the manager may worry that others will think the manager doesn’t have control over their subordinates. Or worse from the manager’s point of view, that the subordinate is more capable than the manager. In the specific example above, the reason for the manager’s displeasure might also have been related to the dynamics of information sharing. In China in particular, information is power, and sharing information that your boss might want to control could be perceived as diminishing the power of your boss.

A third reason why jumping the hierarchy could be risky is that your Chinese colleagues might view your use of high-level external channels in the US or elsewhere as a way of showing off – behavior that is highly unattractive in traditional Chinese culture where the group is more important than the individual. This will depend on the company’s particular workplace culture and your specific job, however, as some foreigners are specifically hired by Chinese companies for the purpose of making use of their connections back in the US.

Being a “Good Employee” Versus a “Smart Colleague”

When asked for feedback on an earlier version of this post, a Chinese friend with years of experience as a manager in multinational companies in China said the following: For young foreign professionals to survive in the Chinese corporate culture, they should focus “on implementing what [their] boss asks [them] to do, ask very few questions, until [they] really have [their] boss’ trust. Still, it is more important to be a ‘good employee’ than a ‘smart colleague’. I would assume that there are exceptions in companies such as Alibaba or very small foreign consultancies, but my experiences have been this way with big companies, including the China operations of multinational companies.”

This view is pervasive in Chinese corporate culture – and it exists in US corporate culture as well. Such an approach generally discourages jumping the hierarchy and limits other options for promoting your ideas in the workplace. However, many ambitious, energetic, young professionals chafe under this restrictive environment and yearn to “make a difference” by contributing their ideas at work.

In some cases, very driven, outspoken young professionals intent on seeing their ideas implemented will never fit in with traditional Chinese corporate culture. This is true for many Americans as well as some Chinese young professionals, particularly “little emperors” and “sea turtles”. Such young professionals are better off working in smaller, innovative companies such as in the IT industry, where hierarchy is less rigid and creativity is more welcomed.

To Jump or Not to Jump

For those who decide to remain in the traditional Chinese corporate environment, jumping the hierarchy and communicating your idea directly to your company’s top decision-maker through creative use of reputable external channels could be one option for promoting your ideas – particularly if those external channels give face and enhance your CEO’s guanxi network. However, you must decide on a case-by-case basis if jumping the hierarchy is worth the risks involved. You must ask yourself:

  • Do I have all the necessary information and experience to make an informed decision and carry out this action?
  • How would jumping the hierarchy impact my manager, coworkers, and company overall?
  • How would jumping the hierarchy impact how my managers and coworkers view me?
  • What are my short- and long-term priorities at my company, and would jumping the hierarchy benefit my short-term priorities (to promote my idea) at the detriment of my long-term priorities (building trust with colleagues and advancing within the company hierarchy)?

Even if you decide jumping the hierarchy is a viable option, not all Americans working in Chinese companies have contacts they can leverage with access to high-level external channels. If you find yourself unable or unwilling to jump the hierarchy, there are other options available for promoting your ideas in a Chinese workplace.

Now that we’ve covered promoting your ideas at work from the outside and top down, stay tuned for future posts in which we’ll look at how to promote your ideas from the bottom up – with your colleagues of equal hierarchical rank.

If you have worked in a Chinese private company or state-owned enterprise and would be willing to share your intercultural communication experiences (either on- or off-the-record), please email Elizabeth at Elizabeth@Atlas-China.com to set up an interview. It’s stories and experiences from readers like you that enable this blog series to continually provide practical advice to help bridge the gap of understanding between Americans and Chinese.

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