Translating Research and Nuance to Chinese
The researchers were interested in seeing how their U.S.-tested studies would work in another culture and wanted to help Chinese business leaders better manage their developing needs as the country assumes a role as a global economic force.
“A lot of the organizational change and leadership research in our field has taken place in a U.S. context,” said Neubert, The H.R. Gibson Chair of Management Development. “With the emergence of China as an economic power, it heightened our interest in wanting to know how western leadership models would apply to China.”
Enabling them to make unusual business contacts was a graduate school colleague of Wu’s, Xiang Yi of Western Illinois University. Yi had translated for Chinese business leaders who came to the United States for graduate study. She used her contacts to set up the appointments, and Wu and Neubert provided research resources.
“Chinese business leaders wanted to better understand how to manage crucial changes in their companies,” Wu said. One of the companies the trio studied was a petroleum company in the process of transferring from state to private ownership. “There’s pretty much lifetime employment for employees if it’s state-owned,” Wu, associate professor of management, said.
With job security guaranteed, workers felt less concerned about creating efficiencies or improvements. But, as the company moved toward a competitive environment, its leaders began discontinuing lifetime employment guarantees and started evaluating employees more rigorously.
At one company, Neubert conducted a seminar for managers focusing on organizational change. In return, he hoped to get employee performance ratings. But out of about 80 managers attending, only two or three provided written information.
“Their reluctance to provide performance ratings might be partly cultural because identifying and evaluating individual people is contrary to their collective orientation,” Neubert said. “Also, they hadn’t previously focused on performance evaluations, so they may have seen that process as contrary to their organizational culture.”
Obtaining good performance data is difficult in U.S. companies, Neubert noted. But company managers in the United States are usually clear at the start of a discussion that they don’t want to supply that information. In this case, researchers found the mixed message confusing. Still, he said, the data they obtained was useful. Here’s what they discovered:
Attitudes toward change.
“A highly committed employee tends to perform well in context of the change,” Neubert said. His competency is a main driver of his attitude. If he feels competent, he can respond successfully to the change.
Another main driver is cynicism, or an employee’s attitude about leadership and the leader’s ability to carry out change. Wu, who led the research on factors relating to cynicism, found that a direct supervisor’s leadership style contributed to employees’ attitudes about organizational change. “We tested transformational leadership, in which leaders articulate a cutting-edge vision,” she said. This includes acting as a role model for employees as well as inspiring them, challenging them intellectually, and acting as a mentor. “We do find that the more employees feel their supervisors are transformational leaders, the less likely they will be cynical about a change.”
Transformational leadership is more group-oriented, which is important in China’s culture. “If you are in a position where you don’t work with other people and don’t feel close to other people in your department, then a leader’s appeal to pull together as a team and achieve common vision doesn’t resonate as well,” Neubert said.
This means that companies planning an organizational change should prepare leaders to be transformational and offer training to let them know what type of leadership works with change, Wu said.
Effects of leadership.
In a high-tech company, the research focused on discovering what influence a supervisor’s behavior has on employee creativity and innovation. Previous studies show that if leaders are supportive and encouraging, employees will be more innovative and creative, Wu said. Instead, this study focused on the leader’s own behavior as observed by employees.
“Our research indicates that it’s not just what leaders say, but what they do,” Neubert said. “Promoting creativity is not as much about telling employees what to do, but in their deeds, providing an example of focusing on achieving gains and improving. On the other hand, if a leader focuses on adherence to rules and limiting his exposure to risk, then employees get a signal that creativity is not important.”
Fostering employee creativity is important, Wu noted. “Companies are facing various challenges – globalization, competitors, new technology, and new ways of conducting business – which can be addressed, in part, by promoting creativity and innovation.”
This study investigated a nine-dimension measure of self-leadership that suggests employees manage change better if they are better at managing themselves. “We used a specific self-leadership scale developed in the United States and had it translated to Chinese context,” Neubert said. “We found that the specific questions and maybe even some of the underlying dimensions did not transfer over to Chinese managers. They attend to certain areas the same way, but other questions were not meaningful to them.”
Because of the influences of China on the global marketplace, the researchers plan to return, but not to visit the same companies, he said. “We’ve done what we can with our current contacts. Our next visit will likely take us to different organizations that we gain access to through different relationships.
We don’t know when we will return, but we intend to go back for research or possibly teaching opportunities.”