China’s Millenials – Do You Know Your Team in China?

Ruben and I were finishing our visit to the impressive 3 Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, when Evelyn, our Chinese tour guide impressed me some more. Without any shyness, she asked me to read an economics term paper she’d written in English, and give her feedback. She told me her goal was to be a stock broker! She is like many of China’s top talent in marketing, engineering, IT, under 32 years old and having characteristics global employers should pay attention to. The 240 million member “Baling hou” (After 80’s generation) are shaping consumer patterns and corporate cultures, and giving Western managers interesting challenges to build teamwork. Here are the 10 “Must Know” strategies for your tool kit, when leading a project with young professionals in China.

Evelyn, a Baling hou, aspires to be a stock broker.

Growing up in modern China, China’s Baling hou are characterized by their optimism for the future, excitement for consumerism and entrepreneurship, openness to the West, and acceptance of their historic role in transforming China into an economic superpower. Broadly speaking, these young people from mostly one-child families are known to be independent, competitive, ambitious, brand-conscious, eager learners, tech-savvy, and enjoying the comforts they earn…now! Companies are experiencing turnover and wage compression when Baling hou seek higher salaries (wages increased 34% in the last 3 years), bonuses, promotions and perqs. How to motivate and retain Chinese young talent in your team? Charis recommends 10 Points to lead your team in China.

    1. Listen, socialize, get to know Chinese employees individually. – Some will be quite assertive, want opportunities to demo their work in front of others, and ask you personal questions. Others may be quite reserved, and you will need to draw them into conversation. Used to a lot of attention from adults, Baling hou say a close relationship with their manager is a big motivator. When visiting China, go to lunch, dinner or karaoke – great settings to build relationships.

  1. Communicate clearly, slowly, simply. – Remember this rule of thumb (for speaking or email) – One major point per sentence. If you have more than 3 related points, number them. Proofread and remove business or sports jargon (e.g., Let’s ramp up the roll out!) or slang. If you’re a fast talker, just think, “If this conversation were in Chinese, how fast would I want THEM to talk to ME?”
  2. Circle back 3x to check understanding or buy-in. – Chinese conversation style is often circular, revisiting a topic to give the opportunity to add or perceive information. Never ask, “Do you understand?” (it is insulting; besides, you’ll probably get a “yes” no matter what). If you ask for clarification or commitment 3 different ways on the same point, Chinese will know it is a priority for you, and increasingly disclose their understanding or commitment.
  3. Build teamwork through assignments and explicit instruction. Beware of their competitiveness and “connecting the dots.” – A common experience among these young people is not having shared with siblings, and needing to excel at extremely competitive national exams (gao kao). While older generations of Chinese are “collectivist”, many Baling hou do not find teamwork so natural. Avoid intra-team competition with very clear, structured role assignments, accountability to the manager, explicit assignment for task/project leadership, while giving guidance for steps and limits to taking initiative. Structure carefully who is “To” and who is “Cc” in emails; that is part of the message Baling hou will infer.
  4. Earn respect, with predictable behavior. – Send agendas, plans, slide decks ahead of meetings, so they can prepare questions and contributions, check the English, and gain confidence to speak up. Don’t surprise them by calling on them in a meeting, when they are not expecting to report project status or findings.
  5. Find a Chinese mentor, a senior engineer to guide you. – David Wan says, “China is not another country, it’s another world!” Spending a few hours a month with a Chinese mentor, one who can explain the challenges, hopes, pressures and assumptions operating in your team, can save you hours of repairing communication, rework, or new recruiting.
  6. Start projects small, build with patience. – A Chinese value that has not changed is mian-zi “face”. Building success patiently, in small steps, is critical for Baling hou who want to succeed but are still learning the job, business practices, etc.
  7. Plan more F2F time for coaching, accountability and guidance. – A “hands on” management style (some U.S. would call it micro-managing) is the norm for Chinese managers, and I’ve experienced being managed this way by Chinese clients. The message to Chinese reports is a) show me deliverables step by step (I’ll trust you after you deliver); b) I care about your work and you (relationship); and c) you and I will be held accountable, let’s avoid mistakes (don’t lose face).
  8. Be careful what you ask for – they may be too compliant. – Many Baling hou have taken big risks to follow their dreams, and obeyed their parents to study and work hard. Some fresh college graduates assume that a manager knows best, want to please him/her, and will say “yes” to a project, deadline, or a teambuilding activity beyond their ability. Remember #3, circle back with specific questions. One client had a swimming event, only to find that two people jumped into the water and did not know how to swim!
  9. Role model your Corporate Culture values; they aspire to lead by your example. – In interviews and training with over 600 Baling hou at software and semiconductor companies, Charis associate Amy Miao reports that “Open communication, direct and assertive style, quick reaction to solving problems, and fair/equal opportunity” are highly valued consistently among young Chinese high tech professionals. They are watching how their managers handle technological, ethical and human relations situations, to become good leaders one day themselves.

Next! To expand your knowledge and skills in working with Chinese of all generations, or request more resources, contact Charis at or call 925.931.0555

2 thoughts on “China’s Millenials – Do You Know Your Team in China?

  • Bonita Banducc

    This is so useful for working with my students in Gender and Engineering.
    I am so happy you had such a magnificent trip and made as difference as you learned.

  • Miriam Lacey

    Great article Marian. And so applicable in other places around the world. Especially the communication piece. I loved the “how fast would you want themn to talk to you in Chinese.” Priceless!

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