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How to Motivate Employees in China

how to motivate employees in china

Key Takeaways

1. To successfully motivate employees in China, relocating western executives must offer a delicate and informed balance of traditionalism and modernism in their approach.

2. To be a trusted and respected business operator in China, network building (Guanxi) and reputation management, (Mianzi), must be embedded in all social interactions. 

3. Career opportunities and, particularly, the promise of future senior leadership status, is the number one way to motivate employees in China.

4. Social recognition of achievements is crucial to engaging and motivating employees in China.

China has an intricate legal structure and a very delicate social culture. This means that hiring employees in China is a complex process for westerners: The country still adopts many traditional business practices and highly ritualized social interactions remain the norm. Mixed in with this, however, is a more forward-looking, well-travelled, and growing, middle class with more worldly aspirations, who share some western sentiments. As a result, to successfully motivate employees in China, relocating western executives must offer an informed balance of traditionalism and modernism in their approach.

In this article, we offer two key tips to motivate employees in China, based on traditional elements of Chinese business culture.

We then look at four tips for motivating Chinese employees based on more modern aspects of Chinese business culture. 

Motivate employees in China through Guanxi and Mianzi

To effectively motivate employees in China and engage clients, Guanxi and Mianzi must be reflected in all your social interactions. Being ignorant of these two concepts will negatively impact business relationships and have a demotivational effect on your workforce in China.

1. Relationship-building in China — Guanxi

Guanxi is loosely translated as ‘connections’ and signifies the importance of relationship-building in Chinese business culture. While the idea of relationship building is nothing new to western business practitioners, Chinese business relationships tend to be less contractual, (at least initially) and based more on trust. Guanxi provides adhesion. To motivate your employees in China you will need to gain their trust and respect as a capable local business practitioner by being proficient with Guanxi.

Developing Guanxi is not an overnight process: it requires a blending of five different social strategies:

  1. Showing you are informed about China’s background and current affairs
  2. Carefully orchestrated, status-appropriate business introductions through choice intermediaries
  3. Regular informal communication involving frequent visits/daily communication with clients
  4. Thoughtful gift-giving. Gifts that reflect your home culture are especially welcome
  5. Willingness to socialize (dinner, golf, karaoke etc.) to progress business relationships.

2. Respect employees in China through Mianzi — Saving Face 

The English Expression “to save face” is derived from the Chinese word for face, Mianzi, which relates to a person’s reputation or dignity in a social context. The idea of saving or losing face is an all too familiar concept in the west, however, it is a more deeply-seated and instrumental part of most social interactions in China, particularly in business. It is a historical legacy stemming from the fact that for centuries, business in China functioned within the Mianzi honor code where a ‘gentleman’s reputation provided him with credit for making business deals’. Mianzi is a delicate concept that westerners cannot be expected to grasp overnight. Mianzi is crucial to Guanxi, and your ability to give face (Geimianzi), and avoid contributing to a contact losing face (Diulian) is pivotal to relationship building in China.

Publicly extolling praise and thanks or presenting a gift are great ways to give face in China while turning down a gift or failing to show reciprocity, (for example receiving but not giving a gift in return), will result in your contact or client publicly losing face.

Engage employees in China with the right balance of traditionalism and modernism 

While important, Chinese business culture is not defined by traditionalism. Modernism has infiltrated China and its working culture. China has a well-specified, modern social security system at its foundation, and Chinese employees are often motivated in similar ways to employees from the west. We consider four modern motivation tools below. 

1. Motivate Chinese employees through career opportunities

A recent press release from AON shows that career opportunities are the number one way to motivate employees in China. Just like in the west, it is important that your organization gives staff the chance to develop their careers and move up the ladder with an effective career and management development framework.

2. Motivate employees in China through senior leadership opportunities and training

The number 2 engagement driver in China was senior leadership, which is distinct from the west. It is unusual to see specific references to senior leadership top the engagement charts back home. Sure, westerners want to rise up the ladder, but remuneration is usually the predominant engagement driver, not status. This is where Mianzi,(the Chinese drive for social status) influences the motivational factors in the Chinese workplace. Senior leadership positions offer a significant level of Mianzi and an organization that has plenty of opportunities to move to and train for senior leadership, will have a strong ability to give face, (Geimianzi), to its employees. Since Mianzi drives Guanxi, it is no surprise to see that the promise of acquiring senior leadership status is key to motivating employees in China.

3. Motivate employees in China through reward and recognition 

Third in the motivational charts in China, was reward and recognition. Just like the west, Chinese staff want to be paid fairly. Western employers will need to locally benchmark salaries carefully to ensure they are offering the appropriate financial incentive for the Chinese Employment Market, just like in the west. With saving face and avoiding losing face being so crucial it is no surprise to see that recognition is so crucial to employee culture in China too. A culturally sensitive reward and recognition policy is crucial to engaging employees in China, and ideally your recognition policy should:

  • Incorporate social recognition as this as this is the most effective way to give Geimanzi.
  • Whenever possible, avoid hollow praise. As part of China’s holistic culture, justify praise according to how the behavior embodies the company values and impacts the department and organization.
  • Deemphasize reciprocity. In Chinese culture, recognition may normally require reciprocity, which would be a misapplication of the policy. A recognition program does not require reciprocity from its recipients.

4. Incentivize employees in China with hybrid work 

Again, while we should be sensitive to China’s workplace traditions and rituals, we also need to recognize its inherent modernism too to fully motivate employees in China. For example, Chinese employees have come out of the pandemic with similar attitudes to the rest of the world around remote working. This recent research from Gensler shows that 9 out of 10 Chinese employees work in a hybrid working model and they want this to continue. So, to properly motivate employees in China you will need to offer some progressive form of hybrid working.

How Ali Baba motivates employees in China 

Listen to essential tips from Ali Baba CEO, Jac Ma, on motivating employees in China, and all over the world

Onboard motivated employees in China with Horizons 

Motivating employees in China requires western employers to exhibit a careful balance of traditionalism and locally benchmarked modernism. If you are planning on hiring employees in China do get in touch with Horizons who are experts in employee recruitment in China.

Frequently Asked Questions

A recent survey from AON consulting shows that career opportunities (with the promise of senior leadership status), are the number one way to motivate employees in China.

Since the promise of senior leadership status is such a big motivator in China then management and leadership development and training will be an extremely attractive offering to staff.

Praise and particularly social recognition of achievements is another highly effective way to motivate employees in China who possess an extremely powerful drive for social status.

Just like the west, Chinese workers want to continue hybrid working post-pandemic and so making remote working possible will help to motivate employees in China.