Are Chinese leaders more resilient and agile?

The rapid rise of Chinese business leads to the question whether Chinese leaders are more agile and resilient in the face of turbulence and uncertainty compared to Western leaders? Are Chinese leaders particularly well placed to deal with change or economic unpredictability and to use it to their advantage?

A comparison of the psychology of Chinese versus Westerners seems to support this hypothesis. There are various reasons for the stronger resilience of the Chinese – these focus especially on the concept of self and the management of emotions. When I interviewed Professor Chang Weining, a cross-cultural expert who was formerly lecturing at the National University of Singapore and at Nanyang Technological University, she described the following key differences in the psychology of Chinese and Westerners:

  • The view of the self

Westerners believe in a ‘stable self ’ – a self that is unyielding and not flexible. The Chinese in contrast see the self as a ‘process of development’ – ‘a dynamic process of evolution’ according to Chang. The Asian view of self is steeped in Confucius – the message is to develop what is beneficial. Most Chinese learn early on to change the things you can change and accept the things you cannot change.

  • Illusion of control and adaptability

The West has an excessive illusion of control – to the extent that Westerners believe they can control things that are clearly uncontrollable. For Asians, the mantra is ‘to work with the situation’; this means, to accept the situation and look for opportunities – resulting in a good adaptability to circumstances.

  • Response to volatility

This focus on adaptability may act as a buffer against stress when faced with volatility and unpredictable events. The Chinese accept unpredictability and non-controllability as a rule. Chang also supports her view that Chinese are more resilient than Westerners with research on post-traumatic stress where Chinese showed fewer psychological symptoms compared to Western counterparts.

  • Management of emotions

The Chinese notion of ‘self as a study in progress’ has an in-built element of resilience as ‘you learn to manage your emotions’. Learning to manage your emotions, particularly in volatile situations, is one of the key factors in the increased resilience of Chinese.

  • Situational attunedness – high level of external sensitivity

The malleable self and the belief in interconnectedness prepare the Chinese early on to be highly sensitive to their environment and changing circumstances. What we Westerners see as a pragmatic attitude is likely a faster response to changing circumstances due to a heightened external sensitivity. 

Therefore, having a flexible concept of self, learning early on to manage one’s emotions and having a heightened sensitivity to external events may explain some of the agility we see in the impressive success of Chinese business leaders.

The Blog is an excerpt on the topic from chapter 4 of my book “The Power of Global Teams” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). A new article on this subject is due out soon.