Women Leading Research 2019: Hui Liao
SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Western-based managers who feel out of sync with their teams might need a new word in their vocabulary. Professor Hui Liao at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business says the Chinese construct of moqi (pronounced MO-chee), provides a useful but previously overlooked framework for understanding and improving supervisor-subordinate relationships.
Her research, published with three co-authors in the Journal of Management, introduces a scientific method for assessing and developing moqi and provides evidence that higher levels of the attribute lead to improved workplace performance.
“Although anecdotal evidence for the existence of and power behind moqi abounds in its indigenous home, little formal organizational research has examined the concept as a viable and measurable workplace construct,” the authors write.
They provide several potential explanations for the omission, including a predominant “West leads East” bias in academic research. “Management theories and practices that have originated in the West have been dominant in both the West and the East,” the authors write. “However, considering the dramatic differences across cultures, it is important to move beyond Western settings and theories.”
Another challenge is establishing an agreed upon definition. Roughly speaking, moqi refers to an unspoken understanding of another person’s expectations and intentions. The word is formed from two Chinese characters: the first meaning silence or without words, and the second describing consensus, rapport or fit. No direct translation to English exists.
“Even the Chinese struggle to define it,” Liao says. “People familiar with the concept often say they know it when they see it.”
When pressed to clarify, many Chinese natives give situational examples. Opera singers have moqi when they connect on a visceral level with their audiences. Athletes have moqi when they anticipate their teammates’ movements in near-perfect tandem. And workers have moqi when they perform on the fly across myriad situations without clear guidance from a leader.
Liao and her co-authors identify three cultural characteristics that make moqi especially relevant in China and other Eastern cultures.
The first cultural difference involves communication style. Eastern cultures tend to value high-context communication. Messages are not always spelled out or even spoken, and sometimes the words used do not match the intended meaning. Listeners in these cultures must pay close attention to contextual cues to navigate the ambiguity.
Communication rules work differently in low-context cultures like the United States and Germany, where people tend to say what they mean. Moqi becomes less important when desired outcomes are spelled out in contracts, regulations and work requests. A deadline of 5 p.m. on a certain date means precisely that, regardless of managerial intent.
The second characteristic that elevates moqi in China and other Eastern cultures is respect for power distance. This refers to the extent that people acknowledge their place within a hierarchy. Workers who value power distance defer to the authority of those placed above them in formal positions. When misunderstandings occur, subordinates typically blame themselves rather than the boss. Thus they are highly motivated to infer meaning correctly when instructions are vague.
Workers who reject power distance have no problem blaming a supervisor for causing ambiguity. They might even look for loopholes in the stated instructions, giving themselves an excuse to ignore or distort managerial intent. “If you wanted it done a certain way, then why didn’t you say so,” they might argue.
The third cultural value that elevates moqi is face consciousness, which refers to one’s desire to preserve a positive social image or reputation. In China and other Eastern cultures, saving another person’s face is equally important as saving your own. Nation, community and family all come before self. This creates a double incentive for subordinates to obtain moqi with the boss.
“Subordinates can lose face if they are excessively dependent on explicit instructions,” Liao says. “And supervisors can lose face if they must enter into detailed explanations related to job tasks.” Western workers might not care if their boss looks bad.
Despite the heightened need for moqi in some cultures, Liao and her co-authors show the importance of the construct anywhere work gets done by two or more people. “Individuals, regardless of their national culture, may develop and experience moqi uniquely,” they write. “As such, the origins of moqi may not prohibit Western application.”
In a preliminary study involving four Chinese samples, the authors establish a survey instrument for assessing moqi from the subordinate’s perspective. “Moqi may exist across external relationships or among peers — and countless other work relationships — but we chose a subordinate-centric view as a useful starting point in the scholarly discussion,” Liao says.
In a follow-up study the authors test their model and confirm what actions subordinates may take to obtain moqi with their supervisors. Communication style, power distance and face consciousness influence results, but subordinates have significant control in the achievement of moqi regardless of cultural factors.
Those who do it best seek explicit and implicit feedback from their supervisors. They also develop skills related to being more attuned to less direct stimuli, like emotional intelligence and social awareness. Ultimately, task performance improves and rewards increase for subordinates who attain moqi. “We present a new way to improve employee effectiveness,” the authors conclude.
Read more: Unspoken Yet Understood: An Introduction and Initial Framework of Subordinates’ Moqi With Supervisors is featured in the Journal of Management.
Hui Liao is the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management in the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Research interests: Leadership and human capital development; proactivity and creativity; service quality; high-performance work systems; organizational justice and inclusion.
Selected accomplishments: Cummings Scholarly Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (AOM)’s Organizational Behavior Division; Scholarly Achievement Award and Early Career Achievement Award from the AOM Human Resources Division; Dorothy Harlow Distinguished Paper Award from the AOM Gender and Diversity in Organizations Division. Distinguished Early Career Contributions Award from the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology.
About this series: Maryland Smith celebrates Women Leading Research during Women’s History Month. The initiative is organized in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Other Women's History Month activities include the eighth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 5, 2019.
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