Managing Generation Weibo

Motivating self-important, geocentric, ultra-nationalists… who aren’t American

Chinese employees at American or multinational corporations used to be easy to manage. Westerners had the cash, the plan – and the prestige. Remember prestige? What a difference a Crash makes. Americans and Chinese were once united by our differences –they lacked the things we already had, and that made us seem smart. Since we also thought we were smart, everyone got along. Now the Chinese are becoming as self-satisfied and narrow-minded as Americans – and it is driving us further and further apart.

Jersey Shore
The new West Lake crowd?

Last week a NY Times guest op ed by Yu Hua speculated that the US was learning the wrong things from China. He quoted Chinese netizens who mused that Tim Cook’s apology  and Stephen Schwarzman’s scholarship demonstrate that China has surpassed the US once and for all. The take-away from the story (and accompanying headline) is that Chen Q Public is ready to declare his pop-cultural independence. As any American who has ever watched Fox News, MSNBC or tuned in to anything with “Real” in the title knows, that means that they are unlikely to be overburdened by facts or judgment. Last week ChinaSolved talked about the need to treat HR in China as a competitive competency. Now we’ll drill down a bit and talk about how international managers and New China Hands can handle the newly emergent West Lake crowd.

Management tips for a self-important China

1. Talk about what THEY care about — schools. Chinese white collar hires used to come to MNCs expecting prestige, money and advancement. No more. The only ace left in the New China Hand’s deck is western education. (Forget the Schwarzman scholarship noise – the most optimistic plans call for 200 western grad students going to Beijing. During the 2010-11 academic year 157,588 Chinese students were studying in the U.S.) If you want to retain key Chinese talent, one of the strongest options to explore is helping their kids get into schools or working up some kind of tuition assistance program.

2. Ask for advice –– particularly about interpersonal, management and marketing issues. They may or may not have great ideas, but they notice when you don’t ask. It’s quick, cheap and makes the Chinese believe you actually care what they think. (Hint: there’s a good chance that they believe you don’t.)

3. Talk in terms of them working & living in the US. This approach will not ring everyone’s bell, but will be huge with the right guys. Float it as a trial balloon with a couple of high-potential young staffers and see what happens. One of the big beefs white collar Chinese have with western employers is that there is no visible career path. Individual Chinese may not love Americans (the people) – but they still have a pretty high regard for America (the place).

4. Select staff, suppliers and counterparties carefully – and know what you are getting yourself into. You may still be able to work with arrogant, nationalistic or competitive Chinese – but you aren’t going to change their behavior or attitude. They aren’t as afraid of losing their jobs as Americans or Europeans. If threatening to fire people is your big management move, consider broadening your repertoire. Motivating Chinese knowledge workers is a crucial skill, and typical “carrot and stick” approaches may not work.

5. Remember that propaganda and censorship work. In the US we call it “marketing” and “news”, but it’s the same principle. Don’t try bucking the trend. The good news is that you know exactly what everyone is thinking – just read the People’s Daily  (for policy direction) and ChinaSmack (for reality-TV type insights). The bad news is that it may be hard to spin your company message so that it aligns with Weibo sensibilities — but that’s what you have to do.

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