Confucius in the Factory

The benevolent man is attracted to benevolence because he feels at home in it. The wise man is attracted to benevolence because he finds it to his advantage.


In the late 1980s I worked for a consulting firm in Tokyo providing cross-cultural training, language and consulting services to Japanese clients doing business internationally. It turned out to be a gateway job into the Japanese manufacturing world, as Japanese automotive assemblers were scrambling at the time to set up factories in America’s Midwest and all across Dixie. (Five months into my very first gig with an automotive company, the client would end up recruiting, then repatriating me back to the U.S.)

My soon-to-be employer was a world-class metal stamper based in Shizuoka. At the strong urging of its largest customer, the company was about to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in the heart of America’s Deep South. Eight Japanese managers would oversee startup of the plant. My job was to prepare them for the assignment. Training would take place at their headquarters in rural Shizuoka.

The end of our first training session is still vivid in my memory over twenty years later. After three intensive hours of technical English drill, the lunch bell rang. Knowing the class was fatigued I thanked the participants for their attention, my hint that it was okay to rush off to the cafeteria. To my surprise no one moved. After a brief silence I turned to the senior member of the group and asked, “Are you going to lunch?”

He frowned, shook his head and said, “No, we can’t go yet.”

“Why not?”

His face softened. “Because our production workers have a really difficult job. Without their hard work our company would have no product to sell. To show our respect we let them go to lunch first.”

Confucius Say What?

A country of a thousand war chariots cannot be administered unless the ruler attends strictly to business, punctually observes his promises, is economical in expenditure, shows affection towards his subjects in general, and uses the labor of the peasantry only at the proper times of year.


Just two years removed from college I had no way of grasping the significance of the senior manager’s words. It was not at all what I expected to hear. The manager’s respect for, and deference toward the production associates seemed so incongruous with the strict Confucian hierarchy that permeates every facet of Japanese society. After all, I reasoned, wouldn’t Confucius dictate that the senior people go before their underlings?

Filtering the situation through American values and assumptions, I was seeing the corporate hierarchy as an organization with power concentrated at the top. It didn’t occur to me that other models existed in other cultures. I didn’t know, for example, that most Japanese organizations distribute power more broadly, with middle managers collectively getting the lion’s share of influence. I also missed the critical assumption by Japanese managers that leaders can only succeed with the support of subordinates, a reflection of three implicit beliefs rooted in Confucian thinking:

1) All levels of the hierarchy are interdependent.

2) Leaders are expected to practice benevolence toward subordinates.

3) Responsibility rolls uphill.

It’s not surprising that the American organization, with authority concentrated at the top, would favor charismatic take-charge leaders, while the Japanese model favors the humble, understated Confucian gentleman.

This difference in leadership style and expectation is as misunderstood as it is significant. Imagine the challenges this presents for Japanese and American leaders trying to run a company together.

It surprised me to learn that dictatorial leaders are the exception in corporate Japan. And as much as I was uncomfortable with the inequalities inherent in a hierarchy, I found it appealing that Confucius at least goes to bat for the underdog. This is Confucianism’s version of “checks and balances” to discourage power abuses the hierarchy invites, by putting the onus on leaders to be humble models of moral behavior, even go as far as “showing affection” toward underlings.

Can Westerners relate to Confucian values? Not all values, of course. But certain dimensions of Confucianism strike a chord with Westerners.

The three Confucian beliefs referenced above are potentially powerful connecting points for Japanese and Americans in the workplace. Leaders have the power to build cultural bridges within their organizations by embracing the following policies/practices:

1) Acknowledging that all employees, regardless of rank, are interdependent
2) Leaders practicing benevolence toward subordinates
3) Leaders accepting responsibility as it rolls uphill

On paper the ideal Confucian leader is expected to demonstrate humble behavior, never succumb to complacency, do any task he’d ask a subordinate to do, acknowledge his own weaknesses, and learn from mistakes through ongoing reflection. Sounds like the kind of leader Americans could embrace right now.

That’s the ideal. And while there’s no denying the powerful influence of Confucianism on Japanese society, it in no way implies that all Japanese leaders fit the humble, Confucian-gentleman mold. It’s simply a cultural ideal toward which the honorable leader is expected to aspire.

Certain dimensions of Confucianism offer universal values compatible with Western culture. In future posts we will discuss how the world’s best Japanese companies tap into the power of humility to drive continuous improvement in their organizations, and show how American values can access the same power.


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