Positive Reinforcement Meets Bushido

This is part three in a continuing discussion–or monologue if you choose to make it so–on what happens when positive, happy Americans get a taste of Samurai Management. To follow the discussion from the beginning click over to: American Culture and Positive Reinforcement: What’s the Connection?, then (if the spirit moves you) check out When Positive Reinforcement Clashes with Japanese Negativity.

Or you can just skip all that and start here. I’m picking up where I left off in my last post, with another spot-on observation by Darren.

The Impact of Collectivism

Darren hit the nail on the head with his collectivism remark–the idea that “blowing too much sunshine” toward any individual in Japan would naturally make that person the proverbial “nail that sticks up”. (Yeah, we’ve got a “nail” metaphor going here.) So if you ever want to embarrass a Japanese coworker, for example, try this little experiment: put him in front of a crowd and start heaping on the praise. He will frantically start bowing while waiving a hand in front of his face, deny the accolades and instead redirect it toward the group or a superior. Why? Because everyone in Japan knows that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. So the safest path is to avoid drawing attention to oneself. I’m guessing that if some of my Japanese friends had to choose between positive public recognition or a public scolding, some might actually prefer the latter.

It’s worth mentioning that in old-school Japanese workplaces it’s acceptable to publicly chew out a subordinate, the purpose (if you believe my Japanese mentors) is to ensure everyone else learns from the errant person’s mistake. It’s not hard to imagine what happens when Japanese managers employ this approach in the U.S. workplace. (It has indeed inspired and manifested entire seminars!) Many Japanese managers have to be taught not to publicly scold.

Generational Issues

If you believe what Japan’s “older generation” is saying, the Spartan Samurai culture is being replaced with a softer, more genteel “positive” approach. And the old-timers don’t like it one bit! (Even Samurai wife describes the youngsters as “a bunch of lightweights”–but for the record I’m not lumping my wife into the “older generation” category. :-o)

And we can’t ignore the “little emperor syndrome”. This custom is also going through an evolution of sorts. (Alluded to in a previous post.) No doubt there’s an element of child worship in Japanese culture. But traditionally the little Japanese gods and goddesses only got to rule the world until the onset of school, when teachers sternly took control and started hammering away.

But that’s old-school Japan. Times are indeed a changing.

Kurumi saw the change firsthand as a schoolteacher when she taught Japanese weekend supplementary school several years ago. In the good old days Japanese teachers could employ whatever disciplinary means–negative or positive–necessary to get the job done. (Flashback to the Catholic nuns, aaah!) According to my wife and her teacher friends, many Japanese parents now come to school to defend their kids–with little consideration about whether the kid is right or wrong.

Don’t misconstrue my point: I suffered the consequences of the old-school “beat-‘em-up” approach, and believe it has no relevance today. But you have to wonder if the new way hasn’t backlashed to an equally unhealthy extreme. With all this happy positive reinforcement going on it seems that too many of the new breed aren’t tough enough to take criticism from others–nor are they inclined to look inward and critique themselves. Very bad combination there. The significance of this attitude in the workplace is that it’s the worst mindset possible if an organization hopes to create a sustainable continuous improvement culture.

For what it’s worth, I believe the enlightened approach to management and training attempts to strike a healthy balance between the positive and the negative, which means leaders provide both positive and negative feedback–always with respect and compassion.

But the real key is to get others to practice hansei or “self reflection”. Imagine if you could get everyone in your organization constantly reflecting on how to improve themselves? Think about the power of this idea. It’s the essence of what the elite Japanese companies are trying to create within their organizations, the very foundation of a continuous improvement culture. Leaders best promote this behavior by practicing reflection themselves, and institutionalizing the practice within their organizations.

Discussion continues in the next post…

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

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