In my first job, the school’s management structure was traditional Chinese, meaning there were many layers of middle management, each responsible for very little, if anything. At times it seemed almost like there was one boss for every two workers. During more than five years with the company, I never ascertained what any of them did. Mostly they seemed to just swagger in and out of my work life, looking boss-like, whilst accomplishing little. Each sported a grandiose though ultimately unenlightening title: Executive Director of Corporation (what corporation, it was a school); VP Hospitality Services (at a school?); Managing Director of Marketing, East Sea Zone (where is the East Sea?); etc.
Many Taiwanese companies have a top heavy structure. Presumably, one reason is that the Taiwanese like to have face. One way to get face is to have a title, preferably as majestic and cryptic as possible. For management distributing titles is an easy way to give a stellar worker a bit of face. It is an economical incentive and effective in keeping up workplace morale. Another benefit is the company builds its corporate face by having a Managing Director of Grommets, Asia Pacific Zone on staff. It’s a win for everyone, except that many of these “managers” do not have a management role, or at least not a very clearly defined one. Many Taiwanese managers are little more than local industry’s superfluous third nipple.
In my school the coven of middle managers seemed primarily concerned with accruing more face for themselves. The time-wasting meeting was a favorite tool of middle managers who felt the need for a little ego bump. The process went something like this: call a general meeting, usually no reason for the meeting was given, because usually there was no purpose; the workers would show up and sit quietly, while the boss du jour paraded back-and-forth at the podium, fingers hooked under his armpits, chest stuck out, pontificating grandiosely on some point of total insignificance. At monologue’s end the floor would be opened to discussion.
Asian staff members all were savvy enough not to engage in any discussion. Veteran expats also had things figured out enough to avoid talking. At these meetings, there would be no discussion, mostly because nothing of substance was ever said. At the end, the boss would make some self-important grunts and stride out of the meeting hall—cock of the walk—happy that face had been served and the office’s hierarchy acknowledged and maintained.
These little morality plays tended to get pretty roughly ground up on the rocky shoals when there were newly arrived teachers from America, Australia or Europe. New arrivals consistently failed to discern the purpose of such meetings. They frequently interrupted the boss’s self-serving little monologues with questions, observations, or suggestions, generally on the stupidity of how things were currently being done.
Boss: “…and, as I proposed in discussions with the Assistant Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Education,” said while positively bursting with the radiated importance of having rubbed shoulders with such an august personage. Puffing himself up, so all present could better appreciate his importance, the boss would continue, “We should have more real-world English, including, but not limited to business situations, foreign classroom situations,…”
Newby #1: “Well, there’s no such thing as business English, that’s simply a marketing technique. We need to provide our students with a sound founda…”
Boss [wresting back control of the conversation]: “Yes, well, we can certainly examine that. But, to continue, the Assistant and I agreed to get together a proposal to take to the Minister regarding this very important new initiative….”
Newby #2: “Excuse me, if you’re going to be talking with the Education Minister, maybe you could address the issue of class sizes. Teaching a language course with class sizes sometimes reaching seventy students is a joke, and needs to be addressed.”
Boss [clearly losing his equilibrium]: “ Yes, well, okay, but back to the point…”
The above conversation is a pretty typical example of how these meetings could rapidly devolve into something that was never intended; a meaningful exchange of ideas between workers and management. I have seen bosses literally become so nonplussed by the out of control level of interaction that they ran away in the middle of their speech. If they managed to limp to the end of their speech—all the while questioning how much face they were really getting and whether getting face from a bunch of crazy laowai ( 老外) was worth the trouble—and opened the floor to general discussion that’s when things really slipped away from them.
Occasionally bosses staggered to the general discussion phase of the meeting, but I never saw one make it beyond. The Asian way for a meeting’s general discussion to proceed is with each staff member sitting quietly, offering up as little input as possible, allowing the boss to strut around a bit pretending to try to elicit comments. After these fruitless attempts, the boss having completed his strutting and crowing would stride out, face served, while the workers trickled out – nothing achieved.
Not so when newly minted expats were involved. When the floor was opened to discussion, the newly arrived staff member would take over the floor to set up a roundtable discussion to really dig into the issues, root around, and expose the internal inconsistencies of how things were being done, with an eye to improving on the frankly irrational system they were laboring under. This is the opposite of face-giving. It was digging around looking for problems. From a Taiwanese perspective, the newbies were trying to change things that had been done a certain way, for a long time, and hence obviously should always be done that way.
The poor boss who hadn’t been looking to solve any problems, or God forbid change anything, but simply wanted to engage in a practical reminder of the social structure and each person’s position in the pecking order, was inevitably forced to flee the room with the uncomfortable realization that, at least in the eyes of his employees, the social hierarchy might not be quite what he thought. Of course all this subtext was totally lost on newly arrived teachers, who inevitably were disappointed that the boss would choose to leave just as they were beginning to peel away the layers of illogicality and really get at how to improve the workplace.
Oh those wacky foreigners.