Truth, Harmony, White Lies and Monkey Traps

Years ago while browsing for something to read at a bookstore in Tokyo, I stumbled onto a gem by Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (For more on this see Zen and the Art of Total Quality.) It was such a bizarre title, I had to look inside. The first page hooked me and I bought the book.

It’s been years since I read Zen, but I still recall a passage where Pirsig introduces the concept of a “value trap”. He illustrates the idea with a story about the South Indian monkey trap.

The trappers use a simple but effective device to catch monkeys. They put food in a place only accessible through a narrow slot. The monkey can slip his open hand through the slot to grab the food inside. But with his fingers wrapped around the morsels it’s impossible to back out of the slot with a fistful of food. The monkey refuses to let go of the food and the trappers take him away.

Pirsig challenges the reader to give the trapped monkey general advice that will help him out of his predicament. In other words, don’t tell the monkey to let go of the food–that would be too specific.

What general advice would you give the monkey? Pirsig says to tell him to reconsider his priorities–food or freedom?

Of course it’s not such a simple decision for the poor monkey. He can’t reason beyond the here-and-now. He doesn’t grasp the consequences of his single-minded desire for the food and hangs onto what he thinks is “good”. Unable to adjust his priorities under extraordinary circumstances, the monkey is trapped by his own value rigidity.

Cross-Cultural Value Traps: a Case Study

As smart as humans are, we too fall victim to value traps and sometimes fail to reason beyond the here-and-now. It happens in our daily lives, it happens at work. No one is immune. Here’s an example of a value trap that made a monkey out of me in a Japanese transplant many years ago.

Two American managers were feuding. It was a classic territorial rivalry: Quality Control versus the Production Department. A large batch of defective parts were awaiting disposition. We knew they couldn’t be reworked. The only glimmer of hope was the customer granting a temporary deviation, but it was a long shot. As days turned into weeks it started looking more and more like an expensive operational blunder.

The American plant manager proposed storing the defective parts in front of the final assembly cells where all the production associates could see them. The intent was to raise awareness among the production associates that they had “screwed up big time”, and should be more diligent in the future not to make the same mistake.

The American QC manager begged to differ. The proposed spot was way too close to the shipping dock for comfort; he was concerned the parts might find their way onto a truck and get to the customer. He thought the suspect parts should be safely quarantined in the QC cage until the customer gave final disposition. And he believed the onus was on management to fix the production process to avoid making the defective parts in the first place.

In the middle of the feud was a soft-spoken, senior Japanese executive just looking for a little love.

As the debate raged on the parts sat in limbo in a dark, distant corner of the plant (nicknamed, appropriately, “Limbo”). Everyday at the production meeting the Americans tried to push the Japanese executive into making a decision. And everyday he would dance his way out of it, always with an ambiguous remark in broken English. His words always confused us and, in retrospect, it was probably intentional.

This just made the American managers more determined to persuade him to accept their respective points of view, each using his own brand of logic to win over the Japanese executive. The meeting would always end with the executive saying he would think about it, and the debate would rage on behind the scenes.

The Japanese executive’s indecision was as confusing to me as it was to my co-workers. But I should have known better. Dealing with this on a daily basis for several weeks forced me to reflect on what might be causing the stalemate. And it dawned on me that, just like the battling American managers, contrasting cultural values were competing for dominance. The question was, what values were clashing?

Western Value on Truth and Logic

A philosophy teacher in college once forced me at gunpoint to read Plato’s Republic. At the time I couldn’t imagine the information ever serving a useful purpose. I learned that in ancient Athens the seeds of scientific thought were planted as philosophers engaged in deductive reasoning, pondered the nature of reality and argued about metaphysical issues that could never be proved. It took too many years in the real world for me to truly understand how profoundly these thinkers influenced us. Their contribution permeates Western thought. So much in fact, that it is as invisible to most Americans as water is to a fish. I was swimming blind.

After some reflection the light bulb went on and I saw the proverbial “water.” When you think about what the Greek philosophers were saying and boil it down to its essence, it was all about finding the truth through the process of debate, or what they called the “dialectic.” This commitment to the truth is at the core of Western culture; it’s at the core of science.

It’s worth mentioning that just because Westerners value truth and logic, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re always truthful and logical. It simply means that Western culture puts truth at the top of the hierarchy of values, an ideal we aspire to uphold. Most Westerners believe, in principle, that “telling the truth” is the right thing to do.

In Confucian societies the corresponding dominant value is harmony. Truth is important, but harmony is king. It is hard to imagine a Confucian society ever inventing science–harmony would smother it.

Don’t misconstrue this to mean that Confucian cultures don’t value the truth. But when truth and harmony collide, the Japanese are more likely to opt for harmony than Westerners. In the example cited above, the Japanese executive didn’t care as much about truth or logic as he did about maintaining harmony and making sure no one “lost face.” He was hoping the problem would go away quietly, and it might have if he were dealing with a Japanese staff. But his avoidance tactics were ineffective with Americans and merely exacerbated the situation. The longer it festered, the more everyone dug in their heels.

In the eyes of the Americans a “decision” was never made. But their assessment was incorrect. The “decision” was to do nothing and let the parts sit in limbo. And that’s where they remained until they were officially scrapped when the customer finally nixed the temporary-deviation idea.

My guess is the Japanese executive was relieved that he managed to delay the decision long enough for everyone to save face. On the surface it seems like a victory for harmony, but the ordeal just deepened the rift between the two Americans. Many other Americans were seduced into taking sides and most came to resent the indecisive Japanese executive. Perhaps the relationship between the two Americans was doomed from the start, but what began as a minor problem escalated into an ugly divisive issue. Bad feelings lingered long after the parts were scrapped out and forgotten.

In this situation most American bosses would have been more decisive. People’s feelings would have been considered, but only in regard to how the decision was communicated, not the outcome of the decision itself. In the ideal American business world, the pursuit of “truth” – not personal feelings – drives decisions. Taking an American approach would surely have made at least one of the American managers unhappy. But most Americans would accept it as a consequence of serving “the truth”.

White Lies in America

As much as we Americans claim to love the truth it would be hypocritical to call harmony-loving Japanese “liars”. Americans are known to tell a fib now and then. We just don’t like to admit it. And our culture certainly doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

Here’s an example: Let’s say an American is invited to someone’s house for a semi-formal dinner. The host worked hard to prepare the dinner and is proud of his cooking abilities. But the moment the dinner guest takes her first bite she decides it tastes terrible. In this situation most Americans will pretend to like it, or at least give a reason for not eating it. (“My stomach’s feeling queasy”; “I ate a big lunch”, etc.) The lie is unofficially sanctioned in the name of sparing someone’s feelings, and it’s proof that even truth-loving Westerners will sacrifice the truth when the situation calls for it.

Japanese culture openly acknowledges this dichotomy and the Japanese even have a name for it: “ honne-tatemae. ” Honne means “one’s true feelings”; tatemae, “the truth for public consumption.” The Japanese see honne-tatemae as two sides to the same coin of reality.

American culture doesn’t acknowledge such a dichotomy because it would conflict with the value Westerners place on the truth. Westerners–certainly Americans–pride themselves on being truthful, so why would we acknowledge being otherwise?

Yet it seems to me that in the current politically correct environment with ethnic, religious and racial sensitivities running high, America has been moving closer to a honne-tatemae society for the last thirty years or so. The dichotomy is there, it’s resented, and we still haven’t come up with a good name for it.

Escaping Your Value Traps

Unlike monkeys we humans have the capacity to reflect on our mistakes and learn from them. The irony is that upon reflection, the defective-parts fiasco made monkeys of us all! I was trapped by my reverence for the dialectic; the Japanese executive couldn’t let go of his desire for harmony; and the American managers clung to their egos, each claiming to be more logical than the other.

What would have been the best course of action? The American managers should not have let ego influence their behavior: both were too stubborn. But the Japanese executive at the top bears most of the responsibility. His indecisiveness created conditions for bad feelings to fester. A lot of pain could have been avoided had he acknowledged the good points proposed by both men and facilitated a compromise.

The executive should have insisted from the start that all further discussions about the storage issue take place in a private meeting with just the three of them. This would have been the appropriate forum for the Japanese executive to acknowledge that the idea of raising awareness among the operators was a good one. And that putting the parts in the QC cage also made sense. Then the executive might have proposed moving the parts into the QC cage and scheduling plant-wide training for all production associates to learn about the problem, the impact it had on the company’s financial health, and what was being done to rectify it. Such a proposal would have turned a negative experience into something positive. It would have nipped in the bud a petty, territorial feud and provided instead, an educational event that promoted interdepartmental communication.

The above proposal is just one option, and is not without weaknesses. But it is decisive, reasons are given for the decision, and it doesn’t embarrass anyone. Both managers would have grumbled no matter what the boss decided. But they would have respected his decisiveness and then moved on.

The best general advice for Western managers dealing with cross-cultural conflict is to pick your battles carefully. Save the fight for the principles you believe are worth fighting for.

In the larger scheme of things, the location of the defective parts was unimportant. Yet we wasted so much time bickering over it–all for naught.

If you must do battle, a little passion never hurts as long as you are constructive and respectful. But it takes only a couple emotional outbursts to lose credibility with the Japanese. You can make much better use of your energy by learning to participate in the Japanese decision-making process (coming soon in a future post), as this is the most effective way to expand influence within a Japanese-owned organization.

Learn to sense impending conflict. When you do, make a conscious effort to set aside your emotions and examine the values that might be trapping you into a limited view of the situation. Ask yourself if your values reflect the right priorities for the situation. Should you hold onto the food or live to eat another day? Imagine what values might be driving the other person’s behavior. Consider the possibility that making concessions might serve a higher purpose. Understand that by gently deferring to others in matters of less importance, you command more respect when you choose to make a stand for things that matter.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009


9 responses to “Truth, Harmony, White Lies and Monkey Traps

  1. Hi Tim,

    Your post helped me with an issue I have with one friend.


  2. Mahalo, Andy. Your comment made my day. 🙂

  3. Tim…

    If you blogged more frequently… your blog is definitely a blog that I would add to my “Blogroll” if you wanted me to.

    I know you have other things to do then be bored like me… but let me know if you decide to start blogging more frequently.

    I just posted your link on Big Island Chronicle as a blog to watch.

  4. I’m flattered that anyone is taking time to read this blog. Can’t promise right now to up the frequency of my posts, but I’ll do my best. (As you implied, it’s a function of how busy I am.)

    Only you can decide if and when Intercultural Twilight Zone is worthy of your blogroll. But thanks for even considering it!

    That said, comments like yours (and Andy’s) keep me motivated to write. Thanks for your support, the exposure and inspiration.


  5. Just passing by. Btw, your website has great content!

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Mike. Hope you’ll stop by again. Aloha 🙂


  7. Aloha Tim! REALLY enjoying reading through your blogs…having started, built and sold 40+ small businesses in Japan…having started SakeOne Corporation as the Founder/CEO/JV Partner with a VERY traditional Japanese sake brewery I found myself nodding my head over and over about your insights…with SakeOne I actually wrote the business plan and had no intention of getting involved…when I presented the business plan to the Momokawa Brewing board ($100K/ 12 months in the making) they asked who would run the business…I later learned that had been the original intent of the fifth generation president of Momokawa…find the right American partner to take the ball and run….we will have many shared cross cultural experience to discuss over a glass or two or three of premium chilled sake soon!

  8. My advice for the monkey.

    Relax, sleep on it. You’ll find the situation is different in the morning.

  9. I’ll pass that advice on to the monkey, Jay. LOL.

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