Is Kowtowing an Acceptable Practice in the Workplace?

Kowtowing means to act in an overly subservient manner. In East Asian cultures it is the highest sign of reverence. But is kowtowing acceptable in workplaces in the western world, like Australia? Furthermore, what is happening when it occurs in the workplace?

I commenced my public service career of 25 years in the 1980s. Back then all job promotions were seniority driven, not through merit. So, I believe I am credentialed to provide commentary on the topic.

It was in such an environment that I learned early that everyone kowtowed to those more senior. This meant we had to be careful with our words. Also, our commentary, and views. If you had a better idea or a different view to your superior this could be seen as usurping their authority. That is, there was insufficient reverence by subordinates for our superior.

Before appointment to my public sector job there was an intrusive medical examination. As a woman in my 30s I had the Chief Medical Officer poking and prodding my stomach. I never thought too much of it at the time. This is because women were culturally indoctrinated to be subservient to men. I had to show respect and follow protocol without question. Kowtowing was necessary to get the job.

This year, women through the media have ‘called out’ the power disparity and its abuse in the Australian Federal Parliament workplace. A toxic workplace has been exposed, including sexual harassment and assault. But sexual harassment and assault is nothing new in the workplace, in society. Is the source of this due, in part, to the culture of kowtowing? That is, reverence and submission to those more senior, those with authority? As history tells us men in the last century dominated the workplace and leadership positions, including the Australian Parliament.

When I was at university in my 30s (a late bloomer baby boomer) I was aware of many cases of sexual relationships between lecturers and students. After I left university one of my friends told me about her relationship with a married senior lecturer. While the relationship was consensual there was a power disparity. Afterall, the lecturer was marking his lover’s examination papers!

In such situations was the young student kowtowing for a reason? That is, to get an advantage. Was the student showing deep respect, admiration and more, in the belief there would be a pay off? Or was the older person taking advantage? And by such behaviour were students stroking the egos of these men?

Stroking another’s ego can be done on purpose. Flattery falls from the lips. A person wants something and uses ‘sweet talk’ to get it. It is insincere. Stroking a person’s ego by giving them a compliment is acceptable, as long as it is authentic. That is, no hidden agendas.

Our work lives work better if there is commitment to our work role and responsibilities. If we put in the effort, are tolerant of others and act with integrity we get better results. Good communication skills and respect of others is essential. But kowtowing is different. It is intentional and the behaviour, in our westernised culture is a corruption of the practice. It seeks a reward.

Another example of kowtowing in the workplace is through written language. I had a male staff member on my staff who engaged in this approach. Full of words that indicated a submissive stance showing reverence to me as his manager. It was obvious and unnecessary. I decided to try the approach with my line manager. It was a good thing he knew me well. He came back with an amusing comment about me ‘going over the top.’ Caught out kowtowing! I was always respectful but not to the point of kowtowing!

An effective and successful leader does not need a workforce of kowtowing sub-servient workers. Kowtowing might work for some people, but only in the short term. Professional work relationships are built on mutual respect, open and honest communication. It takes kindred work spirits with common goals to distil a kowtowing culture.

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