Workplace Culture Shock in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a modern westernized city on the surface, but it can be surprisingly difficult to adjust to the unspoken cultural norms of many workplaces. Expat managers should raise their levels of awareness about workplace assumptions and values to avoid sticky situations.

Take the case of Bob from the UK who joined the Hong Kong office of a large multi-national financial services corporation 6 months ago. The new job was very similar to his previous roles. He wasn’t expecting a major challenge: how wrong he was.

When he joined the office, the first thing that struck Bob about his new workplace was the working hours. Large numbers of his staff were regularly in the office past 9pm. This fact caused him to take three important decisions that had a snowball effect on his success at work.

First of all, even though he was the boss, he felt uncomfortable leaving the office at 5 or 6pm as was his usual practice at home. He wanted to fit in to the local culture in order to build rapport with his staff. Consequently he started a habit of staying late as well.

Secondly, Bob assumed that because his team members were staying so late, they must have had far too much work to do. Indeed they all confirmed that they were very, very busy and had been staying late at work regularly for at least the past year. Bob was very surprised because he had been assured that he would be receiving a well-staffed and established team. From his point of view, the workload was completely out of hand. It was practically a crisis.

He felt concerned for the immense strain on his employees and was worried that some might quit just when he needed them most. So he decided not to delegate anymore work to them in order to protect them. He would have to take up the slack himself until he could get a larger staff.

He chose to focus his attention on lobbying upper management for more staff. To him the need was urgent and obvious. And yet, he was surprised by how difficult it was to convince others of this fact.

These three decisions, made almost unconsciously, soon began to have negative effects on Bob’s work results and reputation.

He was wearing himself out with long working hours and constant stress of trying to catch up to a seemingly impossible workload. As the work mounted, he was less able to intelligently address the complex issues that he was facing. He made some critical mistakes. And he was ill-tempered and withdrawn from the people he most needed. Rather than warming to his team and colleagues to build mutual consideration, he was creating deeper divisions.

In trying to protect his staff, he fell into the trap of doing the work rather than managing the team. He was spending his time on spreadsheets rather than relationships and decisions.

His strategy for focusing on the need for more staff failed to impress or persuade his colleagues or seniors. Unknowingly, he was working against the values of the prevailing culture.

In Hong Kong, working late is often accepted as normal and workers are not strongly focused on leaving the office at a particular time. People see the requirement for long hours at work as a sign of their importance, and they use their office spaces as second homes where they often have more privacy and comfort than at home.They don’t have the Western habit of escaping the office as quickly as possible. Consequently, they may not see the same urgency to reduce workloads and improve efficiency. They’re more compliant to ‘busy work’ as they’re happy to fill the time and it makes them feel recognized.

These aspects of the culture, and other subtle differences can easily confound the efforts of an experienced manager to achieve desired results. And the best solution is not simply to learn the fundamentals of the culture, because in fact each workplace is completely different.

A more dependable solution is to take the time to reflect fully, with the help of a trustworthy and informed friend, colleague or professional coach. By frequently stepping back to assess the situation from different points of view, a newcomer to the workplace culture can discover and clarify the real issues at play in order to develop and apply smart sustainable solutions.

For a few well-timed hours of reflection, Bob could have saved himself and his family from a great deal of stress. He could have learned much more quickly and painlessly to be a success in Hong Kong.

As published in the South China Morning Post, November 2006

7 Responses to Workplace Culture Shock in Hong Kong

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post – I remember this one from the Post when it first appeared and chuckled at some of my own learning through what is now 5 years in Hong Kong.One of the most important things we can all do, I think, is to allow room for our own private lives–its a restorative. And putting out radar as to cultural clues is vital–the small things reveal a lot.Ever notice (!) mobile phones on the MTR, seeming personal calls made in public places? Could be that many people seek privacy in the anonymity of the crowd…that reveals something about close quarters at home, and supports the idea that an office can become a relished private space. Long hours might not have less to do with workload and more to do with control over “personal” space. Understanding that can help change the dynamic that arises when a new boss sees the long hours and assumes too much about what that might mean.Thanks for the chance to reflect on this one.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi John,It's so amazing to me how far off track we can get through very subtle assumptions.Having been in Hong Kong so long now, I enjoy going back to Canada and noticing what wrong assumptions I can make or how communication can get lost because I don't have all the subtle background information that is expected. Life is so rich in this way.You prompt me to think of making a list of the major assumptions that catch Westerners coming to Hong Kong. What else is on that list?*Thanks for being the first to post a comment to my blog ..yeah!*

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