Leadership and internal guanxi in Chinese electric motor enterprises

  • Xin Yan

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This research explores the nature of guanxi inside Chinese enterprises and considers the implications for leadership at a time when Western leadership models are growing in dominance, and Eastern cultural norms are still in existence. The literature on guanxi is extensive, but the lack of its application inside organizations, and, in this case, in the leadership function is sparse.
The research questions include whether guanxi is applied internally to the organization and, if it is, how does this influence leadership behaviour?
The research adopts a pragmatist, social constructivist position, and uses a mixed method approach to investigate the interaction between leadership behaviour and guanxi: the internal guanxi. The researcher is an employee of ABLE Electric Motor Group, a large and successful private sector enterprise in the rapidly growing and transforming Chinese economy. Drawing on the special and unique position in the organisation and existing experience, the researcher uses multiple employee case studies, involving 34 in-depth interviews with senior leaders across ABLE, and surveys the Chinese electric motor sector using a questionnaire collected from 337 respondents.
The research developed a conceptual model, creating links between Chinese leadership characteristics and guanxi characteristics, and these are used to focus on the collection and analysis of themes. These themes correspond to seven propositions arising from the initial desk research, the on-going participant observation and a pilot study. These are then explored further through the findings and discussion.
The findings suggest that internal guanxi is operating and that it extends beyond the boundaries of the company. However, globalisation and transformation in the Chinese market are changing the nature of the relationship between leadership and guanxi and producing mixed results. Private sector businesses benefit from the leadership–guanxi dynamic, while foreign and state firms are deriving fewer benefits. The research identifies three models of the internal guanxi–leadership relationship: (i) internal, (ii) inter-firm and (iii) inter-regulatory hybrid, providing examples of prominence and behaviours.
Leadership approaches that ignore the role of guanxi limit the potential of the firm, which impacts on innovation, the recruitment, and retention of staff. Foreign and state-owned firms are less likely to resolve problems through relationships and typically apply more formal structures.
This research has implications for culturally different companies entering this market and those transforming companies that need to maintain harmony in times of revolutionary change.
Date of AwardJun 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Abertay University
SupervisorGary Mulholland (Supervisor) & Gavin Reid (Supervisor)


  • Guanxi
  • Leadership

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