Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
“The average adult spends much of his or her life working, as much as a quarter or perhaps a third of his waking life in work. As much as a fifth to a quarter of the variation in adult life satisfaction can be accounted for by satisfaction with work”
Campbell, Converse & Rodgers, 1976
Last week, I was reminded of the above quote by speaking with my friend who is currently working at an accounting firm in Hong Kong.
“I’d like to do something more significant for the company, but my supervisor is so detached and no one in the company is giving me the chance,” said my friend.
“What makes you feel that?”
“There are no chances for me to express my opinions to my supervisor. Yes, all the colleague are really bright, with big egos, independent….but as they are independent, they keep doing their own thing, and only interact with colleagues of the same level and seldom talk with us (junior level) …….which makes me depressed during a 10-hour day at the office…..”
Hierarchies in Chinese OrganizationsIndeed, what my friend came across is not a removed case. Workplace hierarchy has been shown in a number of studies from the Journal of Group Dynamics to have negative impact on an employment relationship. Hierarchy also kills communication, demotivates, and hinders employee performance. This issue is especially apparent in Chinese organizations with the high Chinese traditionality and power distance; organizational members (the management level in particular) tend to have strong authority orientation and hierarchy sensitivity. This schema is fairly hard to change since it has been adopted by the Chinese for a long time. Ever since two thousands years ago, the top rule among the twelve Confucian behavior rules according to Analects of Confucius is “obedience to authorities (parents and superior people).” With this concept, the management level would be more likely to become autocrats (Hofstede and Bond), and employees may suffer from depression and stress because of the negative effects of workplace hierarchy listed above. This could in turn result in employee detachment and low commitment.
Employee Engagement in the Work Place
Even though workplace hierarchy is a kind of norm and the usual practice in Chinese organizations, it by no means implies that we can do nothing with it. One way to get around its negative effects is to get employees engaged. Harter suggested that growth in engagement is related to growth in employee and business outcomes. With the purpose of aiming at positive emotions and well-being in employees, engagement in Chinese organizations is expected not only to break the work place hierarchy but also to ultimately give rise to four positive emotions highlighted by Frederickson – Joy, Interest, Contentment and Love. As according to Spector, less depressed employees are more efficient, cooperative, and willing to help their colleagues, it is certain that if the workplace is structured by means of fostering engagement to enhance employee well-being it would be very worthy to be practiced in Chinese workplace.
Four Engaging Ways to Relieve the Downside of Hierarchy
According to the review by Harter, Schmidt, and Keyes in Gallup Studies, there are four elements of employee engagement, which I would take as wonderful practices to relieve the downside of workplace hierarchy and would like to discuss here.
- Clarity of expectations and basic materials supported. Managers should help employees figure out goals and ultimate outcomes and supportively supply them with what they need to get it done. Chinese managers usually tend to control every step of working procedure. They often provide good resources, however without paying much attention to clarify expectations and goals, and thus lead to confusion and negative emotions such as boredom and resentment.
- Encourage employee contribution & fulfilment. In order to become engaging, managers should be keen to link individual needs to organizational needs, as well as recognize employees’ contribution objectively. As a result, employees could contribute to the organization under a person-environment fit. For employee engagement to occur in Chinese organizations, old mindsets such as hierarchy and bureaucracy should be discarded and a strengths-based workplace should be built – in which employees’ strengths are understood and their contributions are recognized. (For more information on strengths-based workplace, work by Rath)
- Sense of belonging. Like what Ashforth and Mael examined regarding organizational identity, a sense of belonging refers to how the employee is cognitively attached to the organization as well as his level of interest and ownership toward their organization. Managers should keep in mind that hierarchy hinders communication and organizational friendship, and that hindrance is a barrier to engagement. Fortunately, it is not hard to enhance employees’ sense of belonging as long as mangers offer a larger and meaningful mission to them, as well as create a good interactive environment for them to build friendships within the organization. Positive emotions could result from easy practices.
- Intellectual resources. Lastly, opportunities for employees to discuss and interact on their work process and growth would also lead to positive emotions. A recent study by Michael West and me examined how team structure with regular meeting and platform discussing work procedure would greatly enhance job satisfaction and work stress. Managers should therefore not only break the hierarchy by interacting with employees directly, but also by building an environment that allows them to discuss their work.
Thirty years after Campbell, Converse & Rodgers made their claim, employees today perhaps work even longer than before like my friend. Joy, Interest, Contentment, and Love should never be neglected in workplace. To foster employee well-being in Chinese organizations, approach the issue with the solution of employee engagement would be particularly relevant. As Aristotle said, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” I wish my friend, as well as every employee, could leave his office with the biggest smile everyday after engaging in his work.
Ashforth, B.E., Mael F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management Review, 14: pp20-39
Campbell, A., Converse, P. E.,& Rodgers, W. L. (1976). The Quality of American Life: Perceptions, Evaluations, and Satisfactions. New York: Russell Sage.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Harter, J. K. (2000). The linkage of employee perception to outcomes in a retail environment: Cause and effect? The Gallup Research Journal-Special Issue of Linkage Analysis
Hofstede, G. & Bond, M. (1988). The Confucius Connection: from Cultural Roots to Economic Growth. Organizational Dynamics, 16(4): 4-21.
Rath, T. (2004). How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life New York: Gallup Press.
Spector, P. E. (1997). Job Satisfaction: Application, Assessment, Causes, and Consequences Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Image taken from an image by dulhunk