Chinese Manager’s Leadership Style

3.1 Introduction

Among various choices of research methodologies, this study draws on a framework within the qualitative research paradigm. The study takes an interpretive approach and adopts a data collection design of participant interviews. The purpose of this section is to introduce the underpinning philosophical arguments regarding methodological consideration and to justify the appropriateness of qualitative design to the context of this study. Supportive theories for this choice as well as the sampling methods, data collection methods, arrangements for interviews and the relevant research considerations will be addressed. In order to link the methodological choices with the study purpose, research questions will also be reiterated.

3.2Research questions

The purpose of qualitative research is to describe, explore, and explain phenomena being studied (Marshall and Rossman, 1999). Qualitative research questions, therefore, often take the form of what, how and why, and are more concerned with the process rather than the outcome. As this study is to explore how Chinese culture, specifically Confucius philosophical doctrines have shaped Chinese leadership style, as well as how Western theories have exerted a profound influence on Chinese leadership in modern Chinese society, the research questions of this study go as follows:

What are the main characteristics of Chinese managers’ leadership style in Public Sector in Tianjin?

Given the above, to what extent does Chinese culture, particularly Guanxi affect and shape Chinese leadership style?

In this day and age, how is leadership in China influenced by Western leadership models?

What are the implications that Chinese leadership styles present for the future practice?

As a result, the research methodology was selected and employed to explore the development of the topic to answer the above questions.

3.3 Methodological choice

3.3.1 Interpretive research tradition

Among the three research traditions, i.e. Positivism and Postpositivism, Interpretive Research, and Critical Postmodernism (Gephart, 2004), Interpretive Research is generally considered the most appealingly applied by a significant number of researchers. This study takes an interpretive approach to understand the Chinese manager’s leadership style as perceived by their

Qualitative research can be either interpretive or positive depending on the philosophical assumptions taken by the researcher. According to Schwandt (2000), qualitative research is a diverse term covering an array of techniques seeking to describe, decode, translate, and somehow come to terms with the meaning, rather than the measurement or frequency of phenomena in the social world. Interpretive research is a more specific term. Interpretive studies assume that people create and associate their own subjective and intersubjective meanings as they interact with the world around them. With regards to the epistemology, interpertivsts recognize that the way they make sense of the world is shaped by their goals, culture and experience (Creswell, 2003; Weber, 2004). Reality is viewed as socially constructed and cannot be objectively determined (Easterby- Smith et al., 1991). The foundation assumption for interpretive research is that knowledge is gained, or at least filtered, through social constructions such as language, consciousness, and shared meanings. In addition to the emphasis on the socially constructed nature of reality, interpretive research acknowledges the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is being explored, and the situational constraints shaping this process. Interpretivists believe that the researcher and the researched are interdependent and affect each other in their interactions (Gephart, 2004; Weber, 2004). Walsham (1995) indicates that interpretive research attempts to understand phenomena through the meanings that people assign to them. It does not predefine dependent and independent variables. Nor does it set out to test hypotheses, but rather aims to produce an understanding of the social context of the phenomenon and the process whereby the phenomenon influences and is influenced by the social context.

3.3.2 Qualitative study

Within the field of social research there have been opposing views on how the social world can be or should be understood. Traditionally the positivist paradigm has been related to quantitative research techniques, scientific measurement and empirical findings (Silverman, 2000). However, recently research methodology is considered as a continuum between quantitative and qualitative designs with the approach adopted based on an ability to answer or add knowledge to a particular issue (Creswell, 2003; Miller and Brewer, 2003). According to Creswell (1994), a qualitative study is defined as an inquiry process of understanding a social or human problem, based on building a complex, holistic picture, formed with words, reporting detailed views of informants, and conducted in a natural setting.

Although a quantitative research method was useful in studying statistical differences among variables and factors for proofing assumptions, its limitation was the inability to fully reveal the underlying meanings people associated with particular activities or social process (Esterberg, 2002). In favor of this argument, Silverman (1997) further extends that quantitative research may overlook the social and cultural construction of variables as well as the attitudes and meanings behind the variables.

Qualitative studies, though perceived to be complex, time-intensive, and sometimes fraught with methodological challenges, can be the richest of studies, often illuminating complex phenomena in radically new ways (Conger, 1998). They are responsible for paradigm shifts, insights into the role of context, and longitudinal perspectives that other methods often fall to capture (Isabella, 1990; Mintzberg, 1973; Roberts and Bradley, 1988).

Qualitative research may take on different traditions or assumptions such as phenomenology, hermeneutics and ethnography. However, Mason (1996) indicates that there are three common elements that bind qualitative research strategies together:

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Qualitative research takes an ‘interpretive’ position in relation to understanding interactions within a multi-layered social world;

Data generation is flexible and sensitive to the social context in which data is produced;

Data analysis that use explanation building which involve understanding the relevant complexity, detail and content of the subject matter. (Mason, 1996:4)

Such an argument provides a strong theoretical foundation for this study regarding the interaction between managers and their subordinates in Public Sector in China. As a result, having considered these arguments, qualitative methodology would be useful in exploring the meanings and perspectives in this dissertation, because it permits an exploration of participants’ concepts of Chinese leadership, the interpretation of cultural effects on Chinese leadership style and the complexity of issues that contribute to the subject.

3.3.3 Qualitative leadership studies

It has been widely held that qualitative research in the social sciences plays an important part only in the exploratory phases of a research. At this stage, the researcher knows about the subject he/she is to investigate, and his/her hypotheses are purely speculative. Once the researcher’s understanding gradually becomes well-defined, quantitative analysis can follow to refine and validate the hypotheses generated by the previous qualitative research.

However, Conger (1998) challenged this assumption by arguing that in reality, qualitative research must play an important role on matter at what stage in the investigation of leadership topics. The main reason, he points out, is the extreme and enduring complexity of the leadership phenomenon itself. Since leadership involves multiple levels of phenomena, possesses a dynamic character, and has a symbolic component, quantitative methods, which are largely based on surveys in the leadership field, tend to focus on a single level of analysis such as behavioral dimensions (Yukl, 1994), and in turn overlook the organizational and environmental factors (Conger, 1998). Therefore, they are insufficient to investigate thoroughly phenomena as complex as leadership.

In addition, other scholars have drawn limitations and narrowness of the investigation frame of quantitative analysis in the leadership study. For example, Phillips (1973) argues that quantitative surveys are usually influenced by social desirability concerns of respondents and only reflects behavior attitudes rather than actual observed behavior. Lantis (1987) also articulates that quantitative analysis is unable to measure interactions, which is a critical element of leadership.

Qualitative methods, as proposed by Conger (1998), when properly employed, may render leadership studies distinct advantages over quantitative methods:

First, more room to explore leadership in depth (Bryman, 1992);

Second, the flexibility to detect unexpected phenomena during the research;

Third, more opportunities to sense the contextual factors;

Fourth, more effective to investigate symbolic dimensions (Morgan and Smircich, 1980).

It is based on all these arguments, that this study adopts a qualitative method, trying to put into full play the advantages that qualitative method possesses in studying the Chinese leadership style in Public Sectors.

3.4 Interviews

3.4.1 Interviews as a qualitative method

Based on the methodological discussions, interview was chosen as the most appropriate method of data collection for the research at hand. This method is the most frequently used qualitative method and recommended in situations where a detailed understanding of complicated behavior is sought and where detailed probing of the respondent is anticipated. Kvale and Birnkmann (2009) emphasize a qualitative research interview as a professional conversation focusing on an alternation, which occurs on the personal interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee around a particular issue or range of topics and on the descriptive data conducted through that interaction.

Unstructured interviews

3.4.2 Semi-structured interviews

In this study, semi-structured interviews were applied as a research tool. Semi-structured interviews form an important part of qualitative research (Cassell and Symon, 2004). In semi-structured interviews, the interviewer designs a general structure by deciding in advance what ground is to be covered and what questions are to be asked. This leaves the detailed structure to be worked out during the interview. The interviewee is given considerable freedom to express his/her views on his/her own words. This results in them raising issues and topic that the researcher may not have thought about as important for the study (Banister and Booth, 2005).

The interviewer can respond using prompts, and follow-up questions to encourage the interviewee to clarify or expand on their answers. He/She can also react via facial expression and body language. This would allow the interviewer to innovate and give the interview a direction (King, 2004) and get explanatory answers for questions about people’s behavior and opinions (Saunders et al, 2003; Banister and Booth, 2005). This is one of the strengths of this kind of interviews. In summary, semi-structured interviews provide the opportunity for the researcher to probe deeply to uncover new clues, open up new dimensions of a problem and to secure vivid, accurate inclusive accounts that are based on personal experienced (Easterby-Smith et al., 2002).

In semi-structured interviews, the application of probing is one of the most significant techniques. Probing centers on assisting the interviewee in continuing to speak his/her mind by the interviewer posing questions fully and relevantly (Cooper and Schinder, 2000). Patton (1990) identifies three types of probing techniques, namely detail-oriented probes, elaboration probes, and clarification probes. In this study, the elaboration probe is employed to encourage the interviewee to express more feelings (Patton, 1990). The interviewer took the initiative and encouraged the interviewee by supplementing questions like “What makes you think so?”; “Can you give some examples?”; “Can you tell me more about this?” etc.

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For semi-structured interviews, basic structures and frameworks are necessary. Before conducting the interviews, boundaries were drawn with pertinence to the research questions and research objectives. In turn, boundaries and framework also provide reference for the judgment of data to be obtained. Without boundaries and framework, the discussion can go on different track and become too general (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000). With boundaries set to the interview, the interviewer can not only maintain the exploratory principles through the use of major topic themes within the questions but also had sufficient flexibility to extend the boundaries of the original theme or to vary the sequence and emphasis of the questions (Corbetta, 2003;Kvale, 1996; Miller and Brewer, 2003).

3.4.3 Framing the interview questions

Framing the questions for the interview is very important. The questions allow respondents to quantify individual experiences and convey the results or answers that are expected from the research (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000; Easterby-Smith et al., 2002). Silverman (2001) and King (2004) suggest that research questions should not reflect the researchers own presuppositions or biases. Saunder et al. (2003) also stress that the questions framed should not be leading or suggesting a restricted set of answers.

The interview questions in this study include a series of open-ended questions (Appendix). This is because open-ended questions provide the opportunity to gather an authentic understanding of people’s experience (Silverman, 1999). Moreover, they also allow the interview respondents to talk freely and explain their understanding on Chinese leadership style and Chinese and Western cultural effects on framing such kind of leadership style. As discussed above, discussion on these questions may move beyond the research boundaries, therefore sub-questions have been framed to direct the discussion in the required directions.

3.5 Sampling

Sampling for qualitative research seeks to provide explanations of attitudes and behavior rather than quantify their extent in the population. According to National Centre for Social Research (2002), qualitative samples should not be as large as survey samples or to be statistically representative. Rather, qualitative samples should be selected purposively to encompass the range and diversity present in the target population. Miles and Huberman (1994) also assert that qualitative researchers should work with small samples of people, bound by specific contexts, and studied in depth. In this study, unstructured interviews were conducted individually with five senior managers from five organizations of the Public Sector in Tianjin, as well as semi-structured interviews were employed seven subordinates of these managers. Therefore the sample size of the study is twelve.

Additionally, nonprobability sampling, a non-random and subjective sampling method (Cooper and Schindler, 1999) is used for this research. Different from random sampling, this method allowed the interviewer to choose sample members as she wished or wherever she could find them. Another concept related to nonprobability sampling is judgment sampling. As one kind of nonprobability samplings, judgment sampling is used to select sample members to conform to some criterion (Cooper and Schindler, 2000). With the application of judgment sampling, people who work as managers in Public Sector in Tianjin were selected for main target samples, and their subordinates for sub-target samples. Since the study is to investigate the general perception of the leadership style in Public Sector in Tianjin, the sampling frame of this study is the public in general who work in different managerial levels in Public Sector in Tianjin.

3.6 Data collection

3.6.1 Data collection procedure

The data collected for this dissertation has been obtained from a combination of both secondary and primary sources. The secondary data include a selection of variety of books, journals and articles. The primary data were gathered from a series of unstructured and semi-structured interviews. In total, 12 interviews were undertaken with interviewees form 5 organizations in Public Sector in Tianjin (Appendix). These multiple sources of data allowed the researchers to address a broader range of historical, attitudinal, and observation issues (Yin, 1989). Furthermore, multiple sources of evidences provided multiple perspectives of the same phenomenon.

Participants in this study ranged from general staff to senior managers. The judgment sampling method employed here correlates with one of the approaches described by Mason (1996) in that it seeks to provide a detailed view of “particular units”; not with any intent to act in a representative way of the wider population but to generate theory that may be applied or evaluated within a broader context.

Five senior managers form different organizations are researcher’s relatives. The close relationship, therefore, contributed to both fulfillment of the interviews and the in-depth exploration of the research. In addition, seven subordinates work with five managers respectively. Subordinates’ perception of their manager’s characteristics could enrich the performance of the research. As a result, this elicited 12 interviews that formed the database of this study. The five organizations from which 12 interviewees stemmed cover the following five sectors:

Economy and Trade Commission

Justice Bureau

Department of Cultural Affairs

Urban Planning Bureau

Public Primary School

Interviews were undertaken in June and July 2010. Among the 12 interviews, five with senior managers were conducted in their houses or the researcher’s house, and each interview lasted 40 minutes around. Others 7 were taped in interviewees’ offices, lasting 20-30 minutes respectively. Moreover, interviews were conducted in the interviewee’s native language (Chinese) so that the subject was able to express their ideas fully.

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All the interviews took place in a private and quiet environment with only the interviewer and interviewee present. All participants were made fully aware of the details of the study. The schedules were directly and respectively sent to all participants ahead of the interviews so as to confirm the researcher’s intent to record the interview via audiotape and to introduce the arrangements related to confidentiality. All participants consented to the using of the tape recorder during the interviews.

Such pre-interview communication proved important, because on the one hand, it allowed the participants enough time to get into the purpose and questions of the interview; on the other hand, it played an essential role in requesting ‘informed consents’ (Kvale and Birnkmann, 2009) from the participants, assuring them of safety, showing respect to their dignity, rights, and well-being. Especially when conducting qualitative research with sensitive topics, such ethical issues need to be a concern of the researcher (Malhotra, 2004), since there is much closer interaction between the interviewer and the individual examined (King, 2004) and usually more personal or sensitive information is shared. Therefore, the researcher had the responsibility to care for the rights and needs of the respondents (Kvale and Birnkmann, 2009). All this also supported the development of trust in the interaction of the interviewee with the interviewer to ensure that they would be as truthful and open about their experiences and feelings as possible (Easterby-Smith et al., 1999)

3.6.2 Data analysis

As is typical in qualitative research (Creswell, 1994), data analysis proceeded in tandem with data collection. The interview transcripts served as the basis for the data analysis. After a general sense of the information gathered through reading the transcripts several times (Creswell, 2003), coding of the data was used to analyze the interviews. Coding is defined as the formal process of selecting all the usable material from the complete data collected (Fisher, 2004). To code the data, it would be useful to identify clear themes at the initial stage. Hence, themes that consistently emerged in the interviews were identified and the material was divided into chunks and allocated to the themes (Creswell, 2003; Fisher, 2004). This approach to data analysis has the advantage as it is flexible and can be adapted to the needs of the study while it still forces the researcher to take a well-structured approach to analyzing the data, which assists in creating a clear and organized account of the findings. Therefore, after the transcription of the interview data from the audiotapes, the data analysis was categorized into four theme sections.

The process of coding and analyzing data was ongoing and continued throughout the formulation of the subsequent chapters. Therefore, codes remained open to modification until the end of the study and were modified and developed as the analysis proceeded (Fisher, 2004). In the analysis process, the method of direct quotations was used to illustrate informant’s responses precisely. Additionally, examples of contradicting arguments of the interviewees were included to ensure a balanced account of the data gathered. This enhanced the validity and authenticity of the research (Creswell, 2003; Spiggle, 1994). The presentation of the findings is structured around the main themes identified. Care was taken not to drift towards generalizations but keep in mind the individual experiences from which these themes were developed (Creswell, 2003; King, 2004).


Undertaking any form of research regardless of methodology or study design takes the author on a journey that is often challenging and frustrating. A potential major weakness of the research method employed in this study could be the problem of bias. Bell and Opie (1999) suggested that interview as a qualitative method is highly subjective technique and therefore there is always the danger of bias. This is true because there is a strong possibility that interviewees might choose not to reveal all issues related to the research questions due to feelings of embarrassment or a lack of knowledge on the topic and confusion etc.

The researcher may tend to seek out answers that support preconceived notions. This may not be deliberate but may arise due to the classification of information and the flow of analytical thinking. Such a bias may limit the scope of the available data in relation to the study themes (Miller and Brewer, 2003) and greatly influence the reliability of the data collected. However, as Gavron (1966) suggested, awareness of the problem plus constant self-control can help alleviate the degree of bias.

Another challenge that this study was facing is the transcribing of data. Since all interviews were conducted in Chinese, transcribing from the record in the audiotape into English written words may easily involve errors. This may occur due to the misunderstanding or mishearing of respondents’ words or ignoring the emotionally loaded intonations. Moreover, the language barrier constitutes another problem. Although the researcher tried her best to maintain the authenticity and reliability of the data, the slangs, jargons, colloquial expressions and established phrases in one language may not be possibly given a parallel in another language. Therefore, all that the researcher could do was to try to avoid any interventions and misunderstandings during the interview and repeated respondents’ key points in front of the respondents so as to ensure that interviewees’ opinions were fully and accurately understood by the researcher.

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