Expatriate Managers in China


Globalization has led to an increase in global business activities. By the end of the twentieth century, multinational companies had spread their activities in most countries in the world. Today the global economy is becoming integrated with many organizations having ventures in more than one country. Although globalization and international business activities have brought various advantages they come with various challenges.

One of the challenges of global business activities is in human resource management (Hodgetts & Luthans, 2003, p. 89). To participate in global and international business activities, organizations have to send individuals in international assignments. The success of international business ventures is highly dependent on the individuals sent to the ventures. International assignments pose various challenges.

The individuals in the international assignments have to cope with the different environment from that of their country of origin. The end of the twentieth century saw an increase in the number of western multinational companies. Globalization and increase in international ventures have led to western multinationals sending more people in international assignments. China is one of the places western expatriates find difficult to perform. To enable employees to be successful in assignments in China, western multinational companies should result in expatriate training.


Economic development has attracted multinational companies to Eastern Asia. Eastern Asia countries have experienced consistent economic growth since the 1970s. The positive economic environment offers a great opportunity for growth to western multinational companies. As a consequence, many western multinational companies have ventured into Japan, Korea, China, or other East Asia countries. China is one of the countries that have attracted foreign investors Western multinational companies have taken advantage of business opportunities in the country to set up various international ventures.

Despite unique business opportunities in China, multinational companies with investments in the country are faced with various challenges. One of the major challenges in obtaining experts. Multinationals with operations in China often have to send experts from elsewhere. Some western multinationals also send experts to maintain control. It is common for individuals in western multinational companies to be sent for assignments in East Asia and in particular, China. Whatever the reason for sending experts, doing so involves various challenges.

Failure of Western Experts in China

Western companies send experts in foreign ventures in countries such as China with the hope that the expatriate would help them to be successful (Leat, 1998, p, 79). Expert assignments in China, however, have poor records. It is reported that many western experts find the environment hard to work in and about 20 to 30 percent fail in their assignments. Whatever the reasons for these failures, the failure leads to great losses to organizations.

The inability of an expert to perform in the new environment would mean that an organization would not be able to accomplish its mission. Failure to perform may call for an organization to recall the underperforming individuals and replace them with others (Harzing & Van Ruysseveldt, 2004, p. 78).

This, sometimes, is not a solution as the experts that are sent as replacements may be faced with similar challenges and fail to be successful. The high rate of failure of experts in China is a major challenge to United Kingdom’s companies in China. The high rates not only increase the cost of doing business in China but also inhibit the companies from exploiting the business opportunities in the country. Among other strategies to the solution, training is one of the ways to ensure the success of UK expatriates in China.

Being sent for assignments in China is usually considered a breakthrough in management. Being successful in the country is considered a benchmark for being successful in management roles. However, being successful in China is a major challenge to United Kingdom’s managers. Many managers experience difficulties in dealing with the Chinese economy, politics, and culture. One of the major reasons for the failure of western management expatriates has been cited as the failure of western companies to offer sufficient training. In moving to China, most western experts are faced with culture shock (Selmer, 1999, p. 527).

They meet a culture that is different from the cultures that they as accustomed to. Lack of cross-cultural management skills makes management roles difficult, leading to failure. A good proportion of United Kingdom’s management expatriates fail to complete their assignments because of poor performance. Some of them, on the other hand, withdraw because of being unable to adapt to the environment in China. About half of the management experts that choose to remain usually register poor low performance. The observed phenomenon in China is not unique. Poor performance in international assignments is usually observed in places where there is a great difference between the culture of the expatriates and that of the place they work (Schneider & Barsoux, 2003, p. 207).

The inability of a management expatriate to perform in another country has a great effect on an individual expert as well as on the organization that had sent him or her for the assignment. Inability to perform may affect a management expert’s confidence. Most management experts accept foreign duties hoping that the assignments would offer the opportunity to develop their skills and grow in their careers. When these expectations are not fulfilled, an individual may be discouraged and not be able to perform effectively in other areas. To organizations, the failure leads to very high financial and business losses.

United Kingdom’s expatriates working in China experience challenges that are different from those in other places. The Chinese culture, history, and political ideology combine to form a challenging working environment. The expectations of the United Kingdom’s management expertise may fail to be accomplished in the unique environment (Holden, 2002, p. 107). An expatriate may also not be able to use the management practice he or she is used to. One of the major challenges is in human resource management. In China, western human resource management practices may not be used freely. A manager cannot hire or fire as he would have done in the United Kingdom.

The reward and disciplining mechanisms used in the United Kingdom fail to be successful. Instead of motivating performance, the individual incentive may have negative results. The ability to retain high-performing employees also depends on different parameters than those in the United Kingdom. The language barrier is a major challenge to expatriates. Inability to use the native language may affect performance. The use of the Chinese language to keep records makes it difficult for western managers to keep track of the trend in their organizations. Protection of workers by workers’ unions brings about other challenges in management. Although the environment seems over challenging and difficult to be a success, with new and unique skills an expatriate can be successful.


Management cannot take place without communication. Communication enables coordination between the management and the other stakeholders. In most cases, communication depends on a common language used by individuals in management positions and the other staff. Language barriers are one of the greatest challenges to the United Kingdom’s expatriates working in China. The expatriates speak English and other western languages but rarely know Chinese.

On the other hand, China insists on national language leading most Chinese to fail to learn foreign languages. Communication between the expatriates and Chinese workers is usually a challenge. Although some expatriates attempt to learn Chinese, few take time to learn enough Chinese to facilitate communication. In most cases, communication is through interpreters. This is not only slow but also leads to a loss of meaning. A translation cannot retain its original meaning and in some cases, it loses its original meaning or it is misinterpreted (Sermer, 2006, p. 1225).

Even English is used in communication, there is a challenge in communication between Chinese and United Kingdom’s expatriates. Chinese tend to use a different communication as western people. The way of communication is heavily influenced by Chinese culture and affects how China sends and receives the message. Unlike people in the west, the Chinese tend to speak using the implicit method.

Without knowledge of the characteristic, a western expatriate may misinterpret the trend for something else leading to miscommunication. Chinese are excessively polite and have a high bias for listening. Other characteristics in the way of communication of Chinese include the use of face-directed communication. Without knowledge, the western expatriate may mistake the Chinese way of communication as lack of confidence, deception, or shyness.


China is a deeply cultured society. The shared history of Chinese people has led to the retention of most of the traditional Chinese cultures. Chinese culture is evident in every way of their lives from their foods to their clothes, family life to mannerism to interpersonal relations. Chinese culture emphasizes high on respect and family values. Chinese show great respect to each other and especially to individuals in higher positions. The Chinese expect a similar expression of respect in expatriates that work in the place. Unlike western society, the Chinese have public rather than private life. By this way of life, a Chinese works mate can easily infringe expatriate privacy. For example, a Chinese workmate can just pop in without giving any warning. To a United Kingdom’s expatriate, this could be considered rude but it is normal to Chinese.

Leadership style

Leadership style is an important factor in the success of an expatriate in a foreign country. The difference in leadership style between Chinese and Britons is a major challenge to United Kingdom expatriates in China. Unlike the west where people have individualist tendencies, the Chinese have collectivity tendencies. Chinese value group achievement than individual achievement. The Chinese culture has a high influence on this trend. The culture tends to value family and community more than an individual goal. In most cases, Chine considers itself as part of a group and tries to fulfill the objectives of the groups (Bjorkman & Schapp, 2004, p. 151).

In decision-making, the Chinese tend to be more consultative (Selmer, 2001, p. 59). They try to find consensus in almost everything even is issues that may be considered inconsequential. In China, more meetings proceed for a long period. This is in contrast to the leadership style in the United Kingdom. United Kingdom’s Expatriates carry with them the leadership and management styles used in the United Kingdom (Kraimer, Wayne & Jaworski, 2001, par 7). The expatriates would consult less often unless when making a decision. Unlike Chinese, Britons are more time conscious and would prefer shorter meetings. The hierarchical leadership trend in Westerners may not be effective in China. Chinese do not recognize the powers zones and may cross from one power zone to the other at ease.

Training as a solution to the Challenges

Failure and poor performance of western expatriates in East Asia resulting from the huge difference in culture and way of life. Although the challenges seem to be too much, they come to be minimized by training. United Kingdom expatriates and Chinese have great differences that lead to poor performance of the expatriates. Training should aim to help the expatriates to understand the environment and people they would work with (Bloom & Weiss, 1990, par 7). The training should also aim at providing the expatriates with the necessary skills that can help them be successful.

The language barrier is a major challenge to expatriates working in China. Learning basic Chinese should be a necessity for those who want to work in China. Substantial training should be carried out to make sure that the expatriate can cope in the new environment. Training in the language would help the expatriate not only to communicate with fellow workers but also help them to develop a relationship (Hofstede, 1991, p. 135). This can help to reduce isolation or the causes of failure. Apart from survival language, the expatriates should be trained on how to interpret and use the various nonverbal cues used in China. This can help the expatriates from misinterpreting the Chinese and help them develop a connection with the people they work with.

Training can help to reduce failures by preparing the expatriate for the working environment that they expect to meet. Most of the failures of expatriates result from cultural shock. The expatriate meets themselves in an environment that they did not expect and are not able to perform (Hollinshead & Leat, 1995, p. 73). The training should help the expatriates to readjust their expectations and set more realistic goals. By training, the expatriates would be prepared that they would meet an environment that is different from that in United Kingdom (Hendry, 1995, P.105). They should be prepared to live in isolation or limited social interaction. The training should advise the expatriate on the items such as maps that they may require in their assignments.

Challenges resulting from cultural differences can be overcome by cross-cultural training. Through cross-cultural training, a United Kingdom expatriate manager can be able to understand the culture of the people that he would be working with. Through cross-cultural training, the expatriate can be able to adopt management skills that are in conformance with Chinese culture (Tung, 1997, p. 19). For example, by understanding the Chinese way of life, the expatriate can learn to use collective rather than individualistic incentives.


Although China provides one of the most promising economic opportunities to western companies, it is one of the most challenging countries to work in. There is a high rate of failure and poor performance of western expatriates in China. The high rates of failure result mostly from the great cultural difference. Major challenger United Kingdom expatriate working in China includes language difference, cultural difference, and difference in leadership and management styles. Expatriate training can help to overcome some of the challenges and reduce the rates of failure. Training would prepare the expatriate on the environment that they would meet and help acquire workable management and leadership skills.

Reference List

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Tung, R. 1997. “Expatriate Assignments: Enhancing Success and Minimizing Failure”. The Academy of Management Executive. Vol. 10. No, 2. pp 117-125.

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