Positive Reinforcement: “The giving of encouragement to a particular behavior with the intended result that it is more likely to be repeated.”
I recently wrote a piece on American Culture and Positive Reinforcement. I received some thought-provoking responses. Rather than adding a long comment to the original post, I decided to continue the conversation here.
Does Positive Reinforcement (Necessarily) Land Upon Cultural Lines?
Let’s start with Darren’s comment that he “takes issue with the implied premise that ‘positive reinforcement’ lands upon cultural lines.”
I agree that positive reinforcement doesn’t necessarily land along Japanese/American cultural lines. It could just as easily be generational changes in values and behavior, or as Darren points out, differences in subcultures within any given country.
It’s easy to get tangled up in semantics. Darren understands this, but for those who don’t, I’d like to point out that the notion of “cultural differences” doesn’t only refer to cultural gaps between nations. Cultural differences exist between my father’s generation and mine. They exist within the borders of my country, between North and South and East and West– not to mention the cultural differences between Irish Americans and German Americans and African Americans and Native Americans, etc. Japan also has issues of diversity (Kanto versus Kansai, etc.), but obviously not as dramatic as the US.
The reality is that cultural tendencies do exist–and clash–in mixed Japanese/American workplaces, especially when you focus on positive versus negative approaches to training and management.
Mixed-culture workplaces have a way of highlighting behavior patterns that you might not otherwise notice. I can’t remember ever working with a Japanese transplant in the U.S. that didn’t experience friction due to Japanese (perceived) “negativity” and the Japanese boss’s reluctance to pat subordinates on the back. This distinct pattern provides ample proof that a huge cultural gap does indeed exist, certainly within the context of the workplace.
Why Are Japanese So Negative?
In highlighting the gaps, it’s instructive to not only ask why Americans are so enamored with positive reinforcement, but also consider why Japanese take such a negative approach to developing employees.
I submit that Japanese “negativity” is a product of the Confucian hierarchy (bushido version) and Japan’s traditional epistemological framework best described as “radical-empiricism-meets-bushido”, the idea that the only way to learn is through experience, repetition and getting beat up (usually in the figurative sense). A representative model of the traditional Japanese teaching approach is the Japanese karate instructor: he only critiques what’s wrong, never offers praise about what’s right.
In this framework it’s impossible to ignore the sensei-deshi (teacher-pupil) hierarchy and its implications within the framework of Japan’s “totei seido” (apprenticeship) system. In a Japanese-style apprenticeship program the student is expected to suffer in order to improve, to “steal” the boss’s knowledge and techniques rather than wait to be taught. (Now there’s an operative word if I ever heard one: “steal”. Operative because the Japanese boss doesn’t give explicit feedback to subordinates: his loyal deshi gotta come dig for the knowledge–while the Japanese boss beats them up for every little mistake they make.)
There’s a great quote about totei seido in Robert Whiting’s book, The Meaning of Ichiro: the new Wave from Japan and the Transformation of our National Pastime:
“Orix’s pint-sized manager Shozo Doi believed in what was known as the totei seido (apprenticeship system), long evident in many areas of Japanese society from small factories to large corporations and government offices. To Doi, totei seido meant baseball rookies should endure a certain amount of pain and suffering and should not be allowed to experience too much success too early…Thus, after Ichiro, in his first season as a professional, had led the Japanese minor leagues in batting with a .366 average in 58 games and compiled a .253 average in 40 games with the parent team, Doi returned him to the farm club early the following year.”
Doi explained his rationale as such:
“Ichiro had come too fast too far. He was progressing without any problems. A player has to know hardship if he’s going to reach his full potential.”
No surprise that the poor deshi in Japan make lots of mistakes while struggling to emulate the sensei. Every time a mistake is made the boss lets the deshi know it, sometimes in a nice way, more often in a gruff, harsh way (depending, of course, on whether the boss is a “wizened Zen Master” or “Crazy Samurai” type personality).
Now I’m wondering if apprenticeship-style systems around the world might share this negative approach. My dad was a pipefitter who learned his trade within the apprenticeship system. Like the Japanese, when he got in his teaching mode he favored the “negative reinforcement” approach (my term). Not always. But he was hard on us–not to be mean but to push us to be better, not unlike former Japanese bosses. (Not implying here that it worked in my case, just that the negativity was driven by good intentions. ;-))
In regard to my father’s “Japanese-style” approach, I believe it’s a generational issue. But I can’t help but wonder if it has anything to do with apprenticeship culture (particularly in the trades). If anyone has an opinion on this please enlighten me.
The discussion continues in my next post…
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009