The China Culture Corner

By Sean Upton-McLaughlin

The many faces of suzhi in the Chinese organization and society: Implications for multinational HRM practice

This article is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear here (10.1108/JCHRM-01-2014-0004). Emerald does not grant permission for this article to be further copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

The available literature regarding Chinese business and organizational culture has extensively studied the concepts of “guanxi (relationships, 关系),” “mianzi (face,面子)” or “renqing (human feelings,人情)” (Chen et al., 2013). While these terms are important, they are not sufficient by themselves to understand the effective managerial practices in Chinese organizations, particularly from a multinational human resource management (HRM) practitioner’s perspective. To understand Chinese employees and HRM practice in China, it is also necessary to understand the Chinese concept of “suzhi (素质)”. Suzhi often refers to the quality of an individual or a group and their associated character and behavior. Although the terms of guanximianzi or renqing are implicitly related to suzhi, they only provide a partial understanding of what the Chinese believe to be proper character and behavior.

Understanding suzhi allows expatriate managers to gain a necessary insight into the behaviors and mindsets of Chinese employees and executives, and helps modify the way in which they communicate with their Chinese counterparts to create an effective and harmonious work environment. More importantly, knowledge of suzhi can facilitate improved managerial practices with regard to attracting, retaining and managing Chinese talent to support continued organizational success in China. In the current market environment, Chinese companies have become more competitive in offering salary packages that are comparable to or higher than their foreign competitors with more familiar organizational cultures and work environments to the employee (Vorhauser-Smith, 2012). Multinational companies in China face a shortage of international-grade local talent due to suzhi-related factors ranging from the quality of education to a lack of English language skills (Farrell and Grant, 2005). Thus, it is more important than ever for foreign companies in China to be sensitive about the local culture and related behavior, in order to create a work environment and organizational culture to which Chinese employees can relate and feel comfortable with, thereby increasing employee retention.

In what follows, I will first present an overview of suzhi and discuss its usage within modern Chinese society. I will then discuss several Chinese behavioral standards and values inherent to suzhi and their implications for managing talent in a company in China. Third, I will comment on the malleability of suzhi and its potential to shift with future changes to Chinese society. I conclude with a discussion on the implications presented by suzhi for the future practice and research of HRM in China.

Cultural roots of suzhi

To understand suzhi in the Chinese context, it is necessary to first understand what factors influence Chinese people’s interpretation of proper behavior and character. Chinese society and culture is rooted in Confucianism (rujiao 儒教), a philosophy which held prominence for much of Chinese history (Yip, 2008). At its core, Confucianism emphasizes proper values, hierarchy and corresponding behaviors in harmonizing and maintaining social order and everyday life (Wang et al., 2005). Confucianism-ruled behavioral patterns can be observed in social and business etiquette, including behavior such as modesty, tact and the common desire to keep a low profile. Another element from the Chinese traditional value system that influences ideas of suzhi today is concerned with education and knowledge. Even from as early as the seventh century AD, China had developed and used a national examination system to select candidates for government posts through testing their knowledge of the Confucian classics, essay writing and poetry (Gu et al., 2012). This emphasis placed on education and knowledge has continued into the modern era with the Chinese competing for a limited number of spaces in domestic universities and pursuing prestigious degrees abroad (Wong, 2012).

A government push to create civilized suzhi

Complementary to traditional ideas of suzhi as influenced by Confucianism, the Chinese government has in recent years undertaken a concerted effort toward the moral indoctrination of the middle class. It has promoted to Chinese citizens the idea of a harmonious society (hexie shehui,和谐社会) through suzhi building to enable social self-governance and to avoid the threats of civil unrest (Tomba, 2009). The term harmonious society, used in this capacity, is a combination of traditional Confucian teachings and Marxist ideologies as interpreted by the government (Wielander, 2011). Through this interpretation, the central government adds to the existing behavioral standards associated with the concept of suzhi through Confucianism, specifically aiming to unify the country and promote “civilized behavior”. This has also had an effect on creating a more nationally unified mindset among the Chinese. The government has benefited from encouraging and spurring on grassroots nationalism, which presents the benefits of removing attention from domestic crises and focusing the country on certain positive government policies and the economic development agendas. Meanwhile, the government has also made significant efforts in pursuing a goal to promote China as a civilized country among its Western and Asian counterparts, especially in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Additionally, the government has launched a number of national and city-specific campaigns to promote civilized behavior common in other countries (Yardley, 2007). These include refraining from spitting or littering, queuing up at bus and subway stations, prohibiting smoking indoors and speaking quietly in public – all actions that are often considered as a necessary part of suzhi for good citizenship behavior.

General usage of suzhi

In Chinese society the term suzhi is, based on my experience, often accompanied by certain modifiers, such as good (好) or bad (不好), and high (高) or low (低), often referring to the specific nature of an individual’s suzhi. And while possessing a high level of suzhi might sound similar to possessing good suzhi, the same as possessing low suzhi might sound similar to possessing bad suzhi, the difference is actually subtle. A good or bad level of suzhirefers to types of behaviors which an individual in Chinese society understands to be right or wrong. By contrast, high or low suzhi more or less refers to behavior influenced by one’s class background, education and training (or lack thereof). In this case, an individual may not know any better. For example, young Chinese professionals who spit, drink and behave badly in public are likely to be accused of having bad suzhi, while an individual with no education from the rural countryside who behaves similarly might instead be considered having low suzhi. The difference here is that the latter does not have the background or education to know any better, but the former would be expected by society at large to know better based on a more civilized upbringing in urban areas. With regard to good and high suzhi, good suzhiwould refer to a person who behaves in a proper manner, listens to his or her superiors and observes all necessary social etiquette. Someone with high suzhi, in comparison, would reflect a higher degree of education or academic learning, a better command of social etiquette and be more likely to be at a higher hierarchical position in the chain of social, political or business order.

Possessing an awareness of the elements inherent to the concept of suzhi can make it easier to navigate the confusing and sometimes treacherous currents of social and organizational interactions in China. Understanding suzhi as a whole can provide key insights into managing interactions in the business environment as well as the complex web of needs and expectations held by Chinese employees and executives in organizations. Through this, expatriate managers in China have the potential to manage talent more effectively.

Suzhi and HRM

To further understand suzhi as a whole, it is necessary to present some of the general elements commonly associated with proper behavior in Chinese organizational settings. In the discussion below, I select a number of important suzhi-related behavioral standards that I have personally observed and discussed with numerous Chinese natives, inside and outside the workplace. I also offer supplemental examples on how each applies to talent management in China for the expatriate manager.


Qianxu (modesty,谦虚)” is an important aspect of suzhi in Chinese culture, and can be characterized by an individual’s emphasis on the accomplishments of others, while downplaying one’s own. For example, if a Chinese employee contributed most of the effort to a project, it is a common practice as a social or organization norm for the person to spread and share the credit with related coworkers and acknowledge the guidance or support provided by managers and leaders. In my experience, the need for Chinese employees and executives to behave modestly derives as much from the ideas of proper suzhi as from the social and workplace collectivism cultural pressures. It can create problems for the expatriate manager unaccustomed to them.

First, false modesty (as it may be interpreted from a Western point of view) is used to take credit which might be normally reserved for oneself and deferring it to another individual or entity. This can include team members, superiors, the company or in special cases the government. An expatriate manager new to China could be forgiven for thinking that this behavior is akin to sucking up or pandering to superiors in the hope of a promotion. But this could not be further from the truth. Modesty in China, and more importantly in a Chinese organization, is a social tool used to maintain harmony in organizations. If a Chinese employee is willing to use direct communication and does not spread credit around, the person risks criticism from coworkers resenting his or her openness. Second, expatriate managers must also be able to learn to speak modestly when interacting with their Chinese superiors. Chinese executives and leaders can take a harsh view of lower-level employees and managers who use a direct and honest approach to stating their accomplishments. This type of direct language may be considered not only arrogant regardless of actual accomplishments but also as infringing on the Chinese executive or leader’s own authority.

Third, although Chinese employees will maintain modesty on many occasions, there is by no means a guarantee that they actually feel this way. This is especially true with the increased social pressures of modern China in which a large number of Chinese compete for better money and opportunities only available to a few. I have previously observed Chinese employees who remain modest in front of coworkers and superiors, but feel upset in private from a perceived lack of recognition for their skills or accomplishments. This type of lack of recognition, in extreme cases, can lead to an employee leaving a company without their manager being aware of the real cause. Thus, in dealing with the issue of modesty in Chinese organizations, the expatriate manager faces several key challenges. The expatriate manager must be able to listen to the self-deprecation of subordinates and coworkers yet correctly interpret contributions and levels of competency. Failing in this not only has the potential to reduce the efficiency of work and the proper assignment of tasks but also carries the danger of creating higher than average turnover in the company. The expatriate manager must also learn to be modest in line with the Chinese standards of communications in their dealings with local employees and executives. Failing to behave modestly, one may at worst be considered arrogant and rude, and at best grate on the nerves of one’s Chinese fellows.

Keeping a low profile

Consistent with suzhi-related modesty, Chinese employees and executives prefer to act didiao (low profile, 低调), so as not to draw unnecessary attention in the workplace and social settings. While this is similar to the idea of modesty, keeping a low profile in China has more to do with how one should act as opposed to how one speaks. Chinese employees and executives, especially those from less urbanized areas and those with less work experience, are not used to speaking up or being proactive as expatriate managers may be used to. This can be in part explained by the “Doctrine of the Mean” or (zhongyong,中庸). hongyong is a key aspect of Confucianism with great influence on Chinese culture and society. Through this mentality, Chinese believe that moderation must take place in all their dealings. In the workplace, this translates into moderation in behavior for all the roles one may take. While it affects all employees in a company, the ways and degrees of this can differ.

On one hand, lower level employees may not like to speak up in front of their superiors with their own ideas or criticisms. To use an English expression, the nail standing up gets hammered down first. This, in my experience, is a mindset which is hammered into the Chinese from a young age, first from parents, and then later, through the education system. This can then be further reinforced in the workplace, especially in organizations with traditional and conservative cultures where speaking up or offering suggestions may spell the early end to a promising career. To the same degree, Chinese executives can maintain a low profile in their own fashion. This is mainly through remaining more aloof in the chain of command and separating oneself from daily operations and interactions in a company. This can also be described as managing from a distance, which, according to my experience, focuses on commanding and standing apart from the actual management and implementation processes. Expatriate managers in Chinese organizations therefore must learn to accommodate the desired low profiles of both subordinates and superiors. It is often important to those using Western styles of management to obtain feedback and suggestions from employees. However, if pressure is placed upon employees to speak up, there is the potential for embarrassment – or worse, humiliation – if they divulge something they would rather not. Likewise, when dealing with a Chinese superior, the expatriate manager must be able to adapt to his or her management style. If one mistakenly assumes the Chinese superior wants to be actively involved in the management of a project when in fact the person simply wants commands to be carried out with no questions, the person runs the risk of being viewed as incompetent or inefficient.


Weiwan (tact,委婉)” refers to yet another managerial aspect of suzhi, to not unduly upset or embarrass someone, especially when that person is higher in a given organizational or social hierarchy. This aspect can be compared to the Chinese concept of face, though in this case showing tact is focused on not causing someone to lose face. For example, the Chinese do not like to bring up potentially embarrassing issues or to directly broach problems to others. When forced to speak of awkward issues at all, the Chinese prefer to ease into a conversation in a roundabout manner or even put off the matter entirely. This attention to tactful communication plays an important role in building relationships and maintaining harmony within organizations. Chinese employees are usually very careful about not embarrassing or upsetting a superior both to save and respect the individual’s face and to protect themselves from reproach. I have witnessed instances of Chinese employees, when pressed by their direct supervisor on an issue, doing everything over the course of several minutes to avoid a direct answer to a question. While this process of avoidance causes much anxiety, it is, in these types of cases, preferable to a Chinese employee to the alternative of responding directly and truthfully.

Sometimes Chinese executives apply tact in communications for contrary reasons. On one hand, despite the prestige and power enjoyed by Chinese executives, they very much understand the importance of organizational politics and maintaining relationships. By damaging key relationships with subordinates, work can become more difficult due to resulting uncooperative behavior from employees. On the other hand, speaking in a tactful manner and not being overly direct is thought of as an important component of a cultured individual, or in this case someone with good suzhi. Thus, even when criticizing subordinates or issuing compulsory directives, Chinese executives prefer to avoid directness, though to native employees the actual meaning is often quite clear. I have, in one instance, observed the CEO of a small Chinese company criticizing a departing employee through a lengthy dialogue focusing on the importance of working hard and remaining loyal to the company. In another instance, an executive had asked an employee if she had any free time to attend an industry conference over the weekend, only to feel insulted when the employee said she did not, refusing what to the executive was a clear directive to attending the conference.

Expatriate managers in China face the difficulty of learning how to interpret the vague, roundabout and tactful phrasing embedded in Chinese culture. On the other hand, they need to learn to couch their own commands and criticisms in ways that are more acceptable to the local employees. If an expatriate manager who is used to direct communication misinterprets information offered in a tactful way by a Chinese employee or underestimates the severity of a problem, there is a potential for disruption to the company’s operations. Likewise, those who are too direct, and, to the sensibilities of the Chinese, insensitive to their employees’ face and potential embarrassment may find themselves with uncooperative employees, possibly at the cost of a higher turnover rate.

Respect and etiquette

Zunzhong (respect, 尊重) and liyi (etiquette, 礼仪) are both important elements with regard to an individual’s level of suzhi in China. More importantly, they are associated with an individual’s ability to function effectively in the complex and often conservative hierarchy of Chinese organizations. Hierarchies separate one person from another via a combination of factors including age, sex, family background, education level, wealth and position. All these can potentially affect one’s suzhi. For most Chinese people, either in or outside the workplace, it is usually clear where one fits regarding one’s position in a given hierarchy. Harmony in an organization is maintained and accomplished through expressing the proper degree of respect to everyone in the corresponding hierarchy from the higher to the lower levels. Etiquette as an aspect of suzhi carries the means of expressing this respect.

While an employee must understand that everyone above him or her in the organizational hierarchy deserves more respect than him- or herself, this knowledge alone is insufficient. When showing respect to two senior executives of an organization with differing ranks, it is also critical that the employee in question not show each executive the same degree of respect when both are present. Otherwise, the situation could be at the very least awkward, or at the worst, anger-inducing. Similarly, employees expect a manager to differentiate their ranks and act accordingly.

In my experience, there are various types of behaviors, languages and physical gestures that convey respect and denote one’s individual position relative to another as either higher or lower within the company’s hierarchy. With regard to behavior, it is common for subordinates to act in a submissive manner, to follow commands and obey promptly, but not to speak up unless asked. Language etiquette may be a combination of modesty and tact as presented earlier and sometimes even include direct flattery. Physical gestures as a form of etiquette may range from the way to presenting a business card, to proposing a toast or to offering a gift. When dealing with these related areas of showing respect using etiquette, an expatriate manager must in many cases unlearn what has been learned in the Western context. In my experience, however, what may in fact come even more difficult to the expatriate manager are the subtle forms of expected etiquette in China.

First, the many rules that are associated with social interactions including giving toasts, presenting gifts and seating arrangement in meetings or at a dinner table and other forms of physical etiquette contain many nuances difficult to decipher for non-natives. Second, the behavioral expressions of etiquette which include body language accompanying speech in many cases contain exaggerated measures of both submissiveness (when speaking to superiors) and eagerness (when trying to give face and build relationships). Expatriate managers who are unable to observe and apply the appropriate etiquette may be left with unhappy and disgruntled coworkers and subordinates. From a rational standpoint, it may not be realistic to require the expatriate manager to adopt these suzhi-related behavioral norms as the locals do. Yet the way the Chinese feel about respect and etiquette is partly emotional and therefore partly felt on a subconscious level and hard to ignore completely where expatriate managers are concerned.

Education and knowledge

The pursuit of education (jiaoyu,教育) and knowledge (zhishi,知识) has a long history in China as a way for Chinese people to distinguish themselves, gain status and be promoted to official positions in the government (xue er you ce shi,学而优则仕). Although formal education suffered setbacks in China in the decades of the Cultural Revolution, since China’s opening up to the outside world in the late 1970s, education has once again returned to the spotlight. For several decades, obtaining a Western diploma has been the key to educational success and prestige. Today, domestic business schools and training courses at night and technical schools are crowded with Chinese employees in search of something better. A high level of education in China is not only viewed in a positive light by the society but is also a point of pride among the holders of degrees and certificates. Thus, a graduate of a prestigious university would almost automatically be considered to possess a higher level of suzhi compared to a coworker of equal rank. Aside from formal education, the Chinese place great importance on general knowledge and learning. This can include expertise in an industry or potentially one’s network of contacts. Thus, even a Chinese businessperson who lacks formal education could potentially become revered for their knowledge by attaining success within and network of contacts pertaining to a specific industry. The expatriate manager in China needs to be aware of the implications on this aspect of suzhi to manage employees effectively.

First, there is the potential for employees in Chinese organizations to form cliques based upon the prestige of their educational background. I have experienced first-hand a Chinese white-collar worker looking down upon peers with less prestigious degrees even when the workers criticized were older and of a higher rank (though in a different company). In these cliques, if an individual with a prestigious degree feels he or she is given the same degree of respect as those without the equivalent educational prestige, the person may feel a loss of face. Second, sometimes more importance is placed upon the status of a degree or certificate and less upon the actual knowledge learned. This is reflected in the more recent trend of younger generations of Chinese students studying overseas relying more on the merit of their wealthy parents than their own abilities. In recent years, “haigui (sea turtles,海龟)”, a term describing Chinese overseas returnees (graduates and experienced professionals), has become a popular term of derision rather than praise in some Chinese circles. Thus, an expatriate manager can no longer depend on overseas degrees as a signal for high quality talent, but must use other tools and methods in the hiring process.

Finally, the emphasis on high degree of suzhi with regard to education and knowledge can show through in the hiring process and cause job applicants (even senior executives) to inflate their job qualifications and backgrounds, and in some cases lie outright (Chao, 2010). The expatriate manager, to pick out the best talent during the hiring process, must be able to employ a rigorous process of due diligence and learn to ask the right questions to identify the best candidates.

Differing gender expectations

Differing expectations with regard to gender roles in China, and the gender biases that arise from them, can greatly influence how individual men and women are expected to act (or feel they need to act) by their coworkers and superiors. Although Chairman Mao once declared, “Chinese women hold up half the sky (funv neng ding banbian tian,妇女能顶半边天)” and that Chinese women are guaranteed equality in the Chinese Constitution, a significant gender bias still exists in modern China (Richburg, 2012). This gender bias means that the interpretations of suzhi can vary between men and women and in some cases mainly through differing standards of accepted behavior for Chinese men and women. For instance, in Chinese society much more power is placed in the hands of men compared to women. Hence, by focusing more on power and masculinity, Chinese men are usually much more sensitive to the issues of face and prestige than Chinese women. Women by contrast are expected to be more subservient and settle down in their mid-1920s to marriage and children. Chinese men (while not necessarily encouraged by modern social norms) still find it much easier than their female counterparts to pursue multiple romantic partners before and after marriage. These differing expectations for men and women can be illuminated by recent events in which Chinese female university students were derided for trying to encourage female independence (feminism) through the promotion of a Chinese version of “The Vagina Monologues”. This news prompted a firestorm on local social media in which the female students were likened (by many male commentators) as akin to harlots and prostitutes (Lu, 2013). These examples, among many others, serve to illustrate that gender bias, and differing gender roles are still an ongoing issue in contemporary China, resulting in key differences between how Chinese men and women are expected to behave.

The expatriate manager must thus make allowances for gender in the management of local employees and interactions with superiors. For example, the more submissive nature common in many (though not all) young Chinese females can make them better equipped for repetitive tasks such as research, data entry and analysis. In an interview with an expatriate manager at the Shanghai office of a well-known multinational consultancy, I learned that the company targeted mainly female college graduates for all junior positions, two-three years out of university. In another instance, I met with the local General Manager of a Shanghai-based international trading firm, who was unable to criticize or control a key male manager. In this case, the male manager was very proud and concerned with his own face and acted in a manner which was inefficient for the company. However, with no way for the General Manager to effectively give criticism without causing the male manager a huge loss of face (which might cause the manager to leave the company), the General Manager was forced to accept a less efficient operation until a replacement could be found.

In short, the multiple elements presented earlier play a key role in modern China with regard to proper behavior related to suzhi. While each aspect was presented separately, in practice, they all function in an interconnected manner. For example, Chinese employees must respect their elders and social hierarchies; to do so they must respect the hierarchy in the organization and show corresponding respect to the leaders of different ranks. In the meantime, the employee will need to observe the proper rules of etiquette when appropriate and give face to superiors. They must, in turn, appear modest and praise their superiors in a tactful manner, while keeping a low profile in the company. Therefore, the concept of suzhi is best thought of as a general value system, as opposed to a specific rule of conduct in organizational settings.

Suzhi at the societal level

At a societal level, it is also important to note that the meanings of suzhi can be much more ambiguous and vary depending on the context. Due to stark differences in economic development as well as cultural changes, there are clear and sometimes vast differences between different regions, both within China and in Chinese communities worldwide, with regard to what is considered good or high suzhi. On one hand, due to an overt focus on urbanization over the past several decades there is a vast difference between urban and rural regions regarding ideas of proper and civilized behavior. It is common in China for farmers and peasants (the foundation of the new China as it were) as well as for manual laborers to be looked down upon by urban residents for low intelligence, bad manners and overall low suzhi. In modern China, the word nongmin (farmer,农民) has become a curse word to refer to those with bad manners, poor education and other faults. In contrast, young white-collar Chinese workers in urban areas such as Shanghai or Beijing have become increasingly westernized, adopting Western names and values (Wang, 2010). In these cases, when Chinese youth adopt Western values and in some cases abandons Chinese ones, their definition of suzhi can shift and change. At the same time, the mainland Chinese tourists overall are on occasion derided by Chinese and Western citizens in Hong Kong, the USA and other parts of the world for their own bad manners. One commonly cited source of complaint from Hong Kong locals with regard to their mainland counterparts is regarding eating restrictions on the subway, an issue of social protocol which mainland Chinese often ignore (Minter, 2012). Chinese tourists around the world also draw ire from the citizens of those countries for issues such as talking loudly in public, spitting and cutting in line (Levin, 2013). Because of these differences in interpretation, to correctly apply the concept of suzhi in China it is essential to not only realize where you are but also to whom (age, gender, position, etc.) you are talking.

Concluding remarks

Through the overview of the Chinese concept of suzhi as presented earlier, there are several key assertions and conclusions that can be drawn to support scholarly research on suzhi in the Chinese HRM context.

  • Suzhi is a general and malleable concept to describe behavioral standards within Chinese society.
  • Understanding the Chinese concept of suzhi requires a prerequisite knowledge of many different unspoken rules and standards relating to Chinese culture with respect to behaviors and communications.
  • Current understanding as relating to suzhi in the Chinese HRM community is insufficient from a Western perspective, and further research is needed to expand and deepen the understanding of suzhi, given its importance in organizational management and social implications.

Suzhi and its associated cultural elements are very much the product of socio-cultural evolution embedded in Confucianism and have developed, though not always as quickly, with the progression of the Chinese society. As such there is no set definition for suzhi, instead suzhi can be viewed as a reflection of the current Chinese social values, viewpoints and trends. As Chinese society changes, suzhi may inevitably change to reflect its new condition. Compared to the known traditional attitudes a few hundred years ago I have observed that modern China possesses differences including less conservative attitudes throughout the society as a whole. And as Chinese society continues to change and evolve, it is more than likely that Chinese concepts of suzhi will change.
While understanding the general appearance of suzhi may be simple, a deep understanding of suzhi is more complex. Due to the limitation of my own experiences and observations, I may not be able to cover all aspects of suzhi. Nonetheless, suzhi’s implications for talent management in Chinese organizations are clear. Further research is required to expand our understanding of this important concept and its relevance to HRM practices in China.


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This article is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear here (10.1108/JCHRM-01-2014-0004). Emerald does not grant permission for this article to be further copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions on suzhi or HRM in China? Can you share any relevant experiences from working and doing business in China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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