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1.6 Boss and Subordinates

In the traditional Confucian context, the relationship between a boss and his subordinates is similar to that between a general and his soldiers. The boss leads and takes care of the interests of his subordinates, both in financial and social matters. Subordinates offer their loyalty, support and integrity. When the boss succeeds, the subordinates succeed. When the boss celebrates, the subordinates join in.5

Although this Confucian relationship has guided the relationship between a boss and his subordinates for thousands of years, recent changes in Chinese business have seen a sharp erosion in its structure. There are two main reasons for this breakdown in traditional values. The first is that the structure of the Chinese economy has rapidly transformed from one that was centrally planned to one that is closer to a market economy. The second is the integration of China into the global economy, with foreign companies and multi-nationals having a greater impact on the workforce.

The general-soldier relationship still exists, but it does so alongside a growing recognition of the success of the Western-style work relationship, with employees seen by employers, and even themselves, as something more akin to guns for hire.

Perhaps the most valuable facet of the traditional Confucian boss-subordinate relationship was that of the mentor-apprentice, which can benefit the career success of both. The value of this relationship is reflected in the saying “A fine bird chooses a tree in which to nestle, and a wise man selects a master to serve.”6 This relationship, which endures in China at smaller companies, state-owned or family-controlled firms, is likened to that between a father and son (“Once a teacher, for life a father.”7) and is expected to transcend the workplace. A pious Confucian will remember a mentor well after the two no longer work together, and will be expected to visit him and show his appreciation for many years.

Foreign employers in China will find that establishing this sort of mentor-apprentice relationship with Chinese employees can lead to returns in loyalty and hard work.

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