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Are Chinese or European managers better at leading in crisis?

“Who is better prepared for today’s volatile and uncertain environment: European or Chinese managers?” a participant asked at this week’s free webinar on crisis-time intercultural leadership. You can call it ‘VUCA’ if you like management jingles, as the post-pandemic business environment checks all the boxes: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The question is important because China and the West (both broad terms with various definitions) seem to compete about everything these days, including who will recover from various parallel crises first.

To decide who is better equipped for uncertain and risky times, at the webinar we first discussed the advantages and disadvantages of various leadership styles. Fast, decisive, competitive and flexible leaders are less likely to panic and can jump into action more confidently, but can also make more mistakes and often neglect the crucial task of engaging, motivating and inspiring their teams. On the other end of the spectrum, leaders with a strong sense of empathy are much better at building trust and consensus from the start, but struggle with hard decisions and the speed required in critical times. Careful planners can soberly analyse the situation and available options, but can get stuck in the safety zone and fall victim to ‘analysis paralysis’. When we compare leadership profiles with each other and local cultures at workshops, I usually rely on the four basic leadership styles based on the DISC system: Dominance, Inspiration, Service and Competence. This simple system has been around for centuries in different forms and can help us understand both individuals (the DISC assessment) and societies (Erin Meyer’s Culture Map). A simple DISC analysis confirms that leaders who rely primarily on Dominance and Inspiration act fast, flexibly and confidently, but struggle later when a team or organisation must implement their decisions. Service and Competence style leaders freeze at first but once they have the necessary support and reliable data, they gradually start making good decisions under pressure. Societies have leadership styles just like individuals, but comparisons must include a few important nuances. At first sight, managers from Europe look better-suited for unexpected situations: most European countries are in the upper, proactive half of DISC-based culture maps, while China is in the lower half with other responsive, risk-avoiding cultures. This level of analysis would be enough for an MBA term paper, but real-life leadership requires more careful comparisons. Nobody does business with ‘Europe’ or ‘China’, because each country (which we call ‘macro-cultures’) hosts numerous cultures and ‘micro-cultures’ that can be one another’s opposites. I thought all Filipinos were fun people until I worked with local corporate tax investigators in Manila. Both Europe and China show great diversity below the big-picture surface, and in business, their representation is unequal. Asians doing business in Europe are likelier to interact with the continent’s relatively inflexible cultures like Germany or the Netherlands than the casual fun ones. That is simply because of their economic weight: Germany’s land area is three-quarters the size of Spain’s but has three times its GDP. The largest European firms also tend to represent traditional values either because of their origins (London, Paris, Cologne) or their century-long history. The bottom line is that to outsiders, managers and executives from Europe usually seem more conventional and cautious than a country-level culture map would suggest.

Global DISC China

China is the opposite. It is placed in the lower half of DISC-based culture charts for its ancient values. Traditional Chinese culture is often labelled obedient, harmonious and collectivist, although few people can define these terms when they use them. And yes, on a national level, China struggles with change: look at its five-year plan system, or the way it tries to run a modern economy on Marxist-Leninist principles while pining back to Confucian traditions. But studies show that nine out of ten foreign businesspeople never experience ‘China’: they deal with a handful of megacities including Beijing, Shanghai and the Canton-Shenzhen conurbation. And those places have their tough, impatient and competitive subcultures that defy traditional values: pockets of DISC ‘Red’ in a vast ‘Green’ land. Rich urban Chinese families send their kids to Western universities to become winners, not obedient followers.

The practical outcome is that while mainstream European culture is more adaptable to crisis than mainstream China, in high-pressure situations a manager from Shanghai often eats a German counterpart for breakfast, and then asks what’s for dessert. Watch my video on Chinese-European management teams, where I share specific examples, and if you have your own favourite story, share it as a comment. More importantly, if you prepare Western managers for working in China, or with China from abroad, help them anticipate the destruction of their cultural stereotypes. Most Chinese team members, superiors, clients, suppliers and government regulators they will meet, even virtually, are not the docile Confucians who made a century of East-West competition so easy for Europe. This time, China has its own world-class decision-makers even if the nation’s statistical majority may stumble behind. That also implies that modern China has more in common with the West than ever before: let's hope that can make future cooperation easier. Does this help? Sign up for my monthly updates and free webinars.

Gabor Holch keynote speaker China leadership


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