Home All Engagement vs. Hierarchy – Well-Being in Chinese Workplaces

Engagement vs. Hierarchy – Well-Being in Chinese Workplaces

written by Timothy T.C. So 4 December 2007

Timothy So, Msc, es candidato al Doctorado de Psicología en el Departamento de Psiquiatría de la Universidad de Cambridge. Es Investigador Asociado del Cambridge University's Well-being Institute y Psicólogo Ocupacional. Timothy también es responsable de los sitios del PPND tanto en chino tradicional como en el simplificado. Biografía completa.

Sus artículos anteriores en inglés están aquí. Y también puedes encontrar sus otros artículos traducidos al español aquí.

“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 Organizations

Who Listens to Whom?

Indeed, 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
  4. 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

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Senia 5 December 2007 - 1:22 am

Thank you for being a guest author. Great article! So valid to notice how the business dynamic works in Chinese companies. I really like applying these four suggestions here – between the suggestions and the study by you and Michael West, it was very interesting, thank you.


Stephanie 9 December 2007 - 1:38 pm

Interesting article Tim. It also seems to me that there is a need to engage Chinese employees to their work as well as the organization so as to promote better employee well-being, and that employee engagement in Chinese organizations remains relatively unexplored in the field. It might be the case that what engages employees differ across cultures. Since Chinese people are more people-oriented and concern more about relationships, I just wonder if a more relational approach to employee engagement in Chinese organization would be more effective.

Timothy 10 December 2007 - 5:15 am

Thank you very much Senia! It is also very nice to read your encouragement and I appreciate your guidance and help on my engagement in positive psychology. The opportunities you offer are just magnificent to a junior writer.

By the way, the study by Michael and me is going to be published soon, we are all looking forward… 🙂

Timothy 10 December 2007 - 5:19 am

Wonderful thought and suggestion Stephanie!

You are right, more research on employee engagement and well being in Chinese Org. is definitely necessary. I am going to do a cross-cultural study on leadership in organizations across China, HK and UK in my PhD thesis next year, hoping to better understand the differences in organization across cultures.

Besides, here is the link of one of the most recent studies on Chinese employee engagement and retention conducted by Manpower China , which I think you might be interested:


And.. good luck on your postgraduate thesis, please send my greeting to Prof Bond and everyone in psych. dept from CUHK

Hon 10 December 2007 - 11:28 am

I find Stephanie’s idea thoughtful, too. I guess if it’s that easy to engage managers or bosses to take those steps, there won’t be much problems with hierarchy. I guess it’s good to see how we, employees, can do to alleviate the problem. Looking forward to your next article Tim.

Timothy 11 December 2007 - 4:30 pm

Hi Hon, thanks for your comment! I think the topic might particularly be of your interest as tense employment relationships are common in the aviation industry, which is as well a concern of many people. Achieving employee engagement as well as enhancing employment relationships requires efforts from both bosses and employees, and I am always looking forward to put academic findings into practice.

Thanks Hon, will do my best on my writings in PPND.

Employee Engagement Guy 17 December 2007 - 7:24 pm

Interesting article. Hadn’t heard much about Chinese employee engagement tactics, so it’s good to see someone addressing the issues. I don’t think hierarchy and engagement are two competing forces, however – they can go hand in hand.

Timothy 18 December 2007 - 1:42 pm

Thank you very much for your interest and comment 🙂
Yea, I agree with you that engagement and hierarchy are not necessarily contradictory. Engagement is rather a tool for enhancing employee well-being in organizations with strong hierarchy.
Perhaps it is not accurate to say engagement ‘breaks’ work place hierarchy, instead it ‘complements’ the potential negative impacts brought by this hierarchy.
Again, thanks for your comment as comments are always stimulating, inspiring and specific thoughts! Thanks!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com