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Researcher finds Chinese concept can improve employee performance

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Posted April 19, 2017

In the United States, employees who don’t understand their bosses’ instructions usually are free to ask questions or send an email seeking clarification.

But that’s not always possible at Asian businesses, where hierarchy is so rigidly enforced that workers rarely speak during meetings and asking questions afterward may get them branded as bad employees. Instead, research from the University of Iowa suggests that Asian workers use the Chinese concept of moqi to better understand what their bosses are asking and to improve their efficiency.

Moqi—pronounced “mo-chee”—has no parallel concept in Western culture. It’s literally translated into English as “silent consensus,” though study co-author Ning Li, associate professor of management and organizations in the UI’s Tippie College of Business, describes it as implicit understanding of another person’s intentions. But he says neither translation really conveys the full richness of the term. He compares it to the relationship among members of a musical group who can improvise in tandem, or the coordination of athletic teammates.

“You don’t talk about what you’re going to do; you just understand each other and know to do it,” he says.

This is especially important in Eastern cultures, where the employee–supervisor relationship is highly formalized in a structured hierarchy. Li says workers rarely call their bosses by their given names, for instance, and at most meetings, only the boss speaks.

“The leaders think it’s the workers’ jobs to figure out what they want, and that leaves the employees looking for clues,” Li says. “If a worker is not clear what the boss wants, they’re reluctant to ask for clarification and have to guess or find more information from other channels.”

Li’s series of studies, the first to scientifically demonstrate the phenomenon at work, found that moqi can provide those clues. Over time, he says, workers learn to interpret subtle clues from body language, tone of voice, mood, or level of enthusiasm to more deeply understand what their boss is saying and build that implicit understanding. He says that ultimately leads to more efficient, higher-performing workers.

In one study, Li and his co-authors asked hundreds of workers at numerous Chinese firms to describe their relationships with their supervisors and whether they had a high level of moqi. They then asked the supervisors to describe each individuals’ work performance.

Li says supervisors consistently rated workers higher in instances when workers described a high degree of moqi. Lesser-performing workers described lower levels of moqi.

Li says the concept of moqi likely would have minimal impact on improving worker performance in domestic U.S. firms because Western culture tends to be less hierarchical and workers usually are free to ask questions or seek clarification from their supervisors. But he says an awareness of moqi could help U.S.-based multinational firms improve their Asian operations. American managers can encourage feedback or be more direct in their communications knowing that Asian employees will be reticent to seek clarification, and they can proactively develop moqi themselves.

Li’s studies, compiled in the paper “Unspoken yet Understood: An Introduction and Initial Framework of Subordinates’ Moqi with Supervisors,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Management.

Co-authors include Xingshan Zheng of Shanghai Jio Tong University, T. Brad Harris of Texas Christian University, Hui Liao of the University of Maryland, and Dan S. Chiaburu, an independent researcher.

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