When Positive Reinforcement Clashes with Japanese Negativity

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


3 responses to “When Positive Reinforcement Clashes with Japanese Negativity

  1. Well, I’m new here, but positive reinforcement is one of my favorite topics, so I thought I’d just jump in.

    My answer to this question would be that positive reinforcement as a method transcends any cultural differences and is effective when used on any person (or creature for that matter) on the planet. However, whether a person will USE positive reinforcement as a technique certainly has cultural correlations.

    As a former Army officer, former logistics operations supervisor, current Quality Manager, and yes – even in my leisure time as a part-time dog training instructor – I am convinced that the laws of learning which dictate (among other things) that behavior which is rewarded is more likely to be repeated are indeed “laws” and good science. For me, there is no debate as to their effectiveness. So the question remains – why is positive reinforcement not universally accepted?

    We as bosses, coworkers, spouses, etc. can influence the likelihood others’ behavior will be repeated by adding or removing positive and negative consequences for that behavior. This leaves us with four options to modify behavior:

    1) Positive Punishment – adding an aversive in order to reduce the probability a behavior will be repeated. This is the “punishment” we generally are referring to when we speak in layman’s terms.
    2) Negative Punishment – removing a “good thing” in order to reduce the probability a behavior will be repeated. Grounding a child for breaking curfew is an example.
    3) Positive Reinforcement – adding a rewarding consequence in order to increase the probability that a behavior will be repeated. This can be as simple as a performance conversation where you recognize a person’s improvement.
    4) Negative Reinforcement – removing a “bad thing” in order to increase the probability that a behavior will be repeated. One example is a situation where teams are required to turn in daily facility housekeeping inspection sheets due to neatness issues. Once the team has built habit strength and maintained a clean facility for thirty days, you announce that the teams are no longer required to turn in the audit sheets due to their sustained good performance.

    So maybe the question is not just why there is a cultural affinity/aversion to positive reinforcement – but what would prevent any culture or individual from considering all possible options and using all available tools?

    I can see two reasons why a person would not utilize all four methods, to include positive reinforcement: they are unaware of the methods, or they dismiss the methods. Certainly very few performance management training programs cover all of the methods listed above, so lack of knowledge may very well be an issue.

    Why would one dismiss one or all of the four methods? Cultural norms or individual personalities might lead a person to deem any reinforcement as wishy-washy or inappropriate for the workplace. But why? (…continuing along on root cause analysis.) From my experience, training on positive reinforcement so often involves a “feel-good” speech on morale, and talks about rounds of applause and recognition programs with prizes and contests, rather than focusing on effectiveness. It talks about ways to temporarily “buy” people’s good behavior instead of focusing on the quieter, less flashy, daily reinforcements of behavior that actually change people’s behavior and attitudes over time. The trainer very often has no idea about the theory behind the use of positive reinforcement, as so is completely unable to share these concepts with skeptics looking for hard data rather than cute anecdotes. I think it is quite possible that the way positive reinforcement is introduced as a concept is the very thing that deters many from using it. If positive reinforcement were put forth as a solid choice for leaders based on its effectiveness in changing behavior, and included an explanation of the science it is based on, we might see it get a very different reception. A hard-nosed leader quietly acknowledging the improvement made by an employee during an annual review might actually be more reinforcing to that employee than a big flashy prize in a workplace contest. But this is not the face most HR departments usually put on positive reinforcement, and it sells the science short.

    A favorite and very readable book on this topic is “Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training” by Karen Pryor. While it has become a favorite read in dog training circles, the author herself was annoyed at the title chosen by the publisher, as she intended for it a much broader audience. The book covers the use of positive reinforcement, as well as the other methods, with everything from dolphins to employees to spouses.

    • Ann, thank you for your thoughtful and informative comments. And thanks for articulating the terms so precisely. It’s key to having a coherent discussion. I learned something.

      I don’t have “positive reinforcement guru” on my resume. But I’ve been working in world class Japanese factories for 23 years. I see what works and what doesn’t. Even though Japanese approaches are often perceived as “negatives”, the elite Japanese companies have incorporated elements of positive reinforcement into their factories. It’s just more subtle.

      I understand that positive reinforcement can work in any culture if the will is there (and that’s a big question, although most Japanese I’ve trained are open to adapting their methods–but often only for American subordinates, lol.) Modification and selection of techniques is also important in working around cultural values/taboos, etc. For example in a collectivist society like Japan’s, public praise of an individual wouldn’t be effective–for reasons mentioned by Darren.

      Looking at this through Japanese eyes, they are baffled by the lack of negative feedback in the American workplace. Japanese generally don’t dislike the praise itself (although some do); they just think it comes across as insincere when it’s not at least balanced with a little bad news. They also don’t see much self-reflection going on with American coworkers, so wonder how anyone could possibly improve without considering the “negatives”.

      Toyota, Honda and other elite Japanese companies are unique in that they’ve figured out how to drive fear out of the workplace, and harness the brainpower of associates by challenging everyone to solve problems (instead of “writing them up” every time they make a mistake). This is subtle but very powerful positive reinforcement. Once you get hooked on improving stuff you can’t stop. Job satisfaction and productivity go way up under these conditions. And it’s ironic: with all the praise and superlatives that Americans love to verbalize, most HR departments (that I’ve dealt with) in the U.S. still have punitive 3-strikes-and-you’re-out write-up policies targeted at the poor operators.

      The fact remains that Japanese and Americans struggle with these positive/negative tendencies in the workplace. The samurai boss who’s been beating up (only) promising subordinates for the past 30 years is not always open to changing his evil ways, especially if he’s created a successful track record. Sometimes the only solution is keeping the samurai boss in Japan.

  2. First off, I’d like to raise a pertinent question, “Who’s got the poopy diaper?” Oh. Sorry. wrong discussion..

    Tim, thanks for the Darren refs. I love to see my name in print, heh.

    And mahalo Ann for joining Dr. Tim’s cultural dissections. You make some great observations. Particularly, your comments allude to a significant, to me anyway, aspect of: extrinsic vs. intrinsic. We best throw these qualities into the mix of reinforcement rap.

    Furthermore, I reckon western and eastern folks have different levels of acceptance/denial for the existence of ego, personality, psyche, or what have you. As such, stroking said construct, or illusion (form the eastern perspective), would certainly take on varying valuations of merits, etc.

    Perhaps I’m not putting it too clear (sleep deprivation can do many things) but awareness of the intrinsic worth, or lack thereof, would certainly stem from such backgrounds. And yes, Tim and Kurumi are also right in observing that, post-screen-staring has asserted itself as the biggest culture going.

    (Now back to that discussion of poopy diapers..)


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