Channeling the Chinese Power of Moqi at Work

Unspoken Connections with Supervisors Drive Results

Jun 27, 2018
As Featured In 
Journal of Management

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.

Communication Style

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.

Power Distance

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.

Face Consciousness

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.

About the Author(s)

Hui Liao

Dr. Hui Liao is the endowed Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Before joining Maryland, she was on the faculties of the Rutgers University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Ph.D. with concentrations in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and her BA in International Economics from the Renmin University of China.

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