“Peer pressure is much more powerful than a concept of a boss. Many, many times more powerful.”
Jim Buckley, long-time employee of GORE
Just as Japanese parents punish their children in ways unimaginable to Westerners, so it goes in the Japanese workplace.
In the previous post we looked at how values affect the way we punish our children. Remember the image of young Kurumi pounding on the door to get back in the house while her mother ignored her cries? She just wanted to belong! (Meanwhile naughty, individualistic Tim was grounded at home, yearning for freedom and independence.)
Today we’ll look at corporate Japan’s version of “locking-out the naughty child.” But for context, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese expats find plenty of “strange” things about the U.S. workplace.
For starters, it’s tough for Japanese expats to grasp all the overwhelming policies, rules and regulations they have to follow to stay out of trouble in America. And indeed, some fail to stay out of trouble.
It helps to understand that Japan is a homogenous society–about 98% of the population is Japanese. Under these conditions, no surprise Japanese companies have no EEOC regulations to deal with. This reality alone makes HR systems in the Japanese workplace much less complex than in America.
Don’t misunderstand–Japan has plenty of complexity. It’s just that the complexity is built into the culture.
From a World Without Individual Job Descriptions!
Here’s another big difference between Japanese and American workplaces: to the chagrin of many American HR professionals, Japanese expats come to the American workplace with no clear individual job descriptions, an outgrowth of Japan’s collective way of structuring work. (They don’t have clear job descriptions in Japan either.) This means that each Japanese employee’s specific job responsibilities are fuzzy at best. Now try to imagine the sheer inefficiency caused by duplicated efforts.
And here’s the rub: the collective teamwork concept in Japanese companies is predicated on the assumption that each employee will take initiative. The employee has no choice, really: not only does he not have an individual job description, his boss is averse to spelling things out from “1 to 10,” and offers only smatterings of ambiguous feedback, more often than not of the negative variety.
Indeed employees in Japanese companies are expected to figure out for themselves what to do. The most successful take initiative and “think for themselves.” And while pride and commitment to quality are great motivators in Japanese culture, individual performance is driven to a great degree by an underlying fear of performing below expectation of one’s peers.
So what’s a feedback-starved, self-motivated employee to do? Ere on the side of caution, of course: Assume your efforts are never quite good enough; keep going the extra yard, just in case. This mindset keeps many Japanese employees scrambling their entire careers.
Fear of This, Fear of That
As strict as Japanese society can be, it’s ironic that Japanese factory managers are shocked at America’s punitive approach to employee mistakes.
A good example is the write-up system common in American factories, a technique usually tied to a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” kind of policy. (Sometimes you get more strikes, sometimes less, but the sword always looms near the poor production operator’s neck.)
It might surprise you to learn that Japanese believe this kind of punitive system is crazy, because it encourages employees to hide mistakes, a condition counter to continuous improvement philosophy, a core management strategy embraced by Japan’s elite companies.
Don’t misconstrue this to mean that Japanese employees don’t feel fear in the workplace. They feel it all right. But it’s not fear of losing their jobs. They feel the fear of that little girl pounding on the locked door, her fear of rejection from the collective.
This is why Japanese companies don’t need all those fancy schmancy HR rules to get employees to toe the line. When it comes to regulating employee behavior, American style three-strike policies can’t hold a candle to the power of Japanese-style ostracism.
The Power of Peer Pressure
The Japanese don’t have a monopoly on ostracism, of course. Anyone who has ever played team sports has seen or felt it–no one on the team wants to be the guy doggin’ it. Fear of letting down teammates keeps most team members motivated enough to contribute.
Some American companies also use the peer-pressure concept to regulate employee behavior. Japanese automakers have employed it with great success in their U.S. subsidiaries as well. The U.S. company Gore, maker of Gore-Tex™, organizes its employees into small teams for this reason. Gore’s leaders say that peer pressure is a much more powerful motivator than any punishment a middle manager could ever mete out. Guided by this organizational philosophy, the Gore organization functions effectively and efficiently with a minimal headcount of middle managers. (For more on this, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.)
Peer pressure notwithstanding, it takes some major-league goof-ups and seriously disruptive behavior–not to mention a total lack of effort–before Japanese will give up on a teammate.
The good news is that Japanese managers will move heaven and earth to salvage a non-performing subordinate, even move the subordinate into lateral positions to match his or her talents to the needs of the organization. The bad news is that once the Japanese finally give up, the errant teammate soon finds himself with a newspaper–compliments of the team–and a seat near the window. Whether he realizes it or not, he is now officially at the end of the bench, a member of the infamous madogiwa-zoku or “window tribe.”
This is the Japanese non-verbal, passive-aggressive way of saying, “we’ve given up on you, you’re useless, stay out of our way.”
Madogiwa-zoku in the U.S. Workplace?
Imagine employing the “window-tribe” tactic in the U.S. The American non-performer would think he’d gotten a promotion! “Hey, I’ve got a window with a view, a newspaper, don’t have to work–I’ve made it!”
If you think about the madogiwa-zoku phenomenon it’s really just the corporate version of my Japanese wife many years ago being locked out of her house by her mother. The glaring difference is that the party being pushed out at work is no longer dealing with an indulgent mom. Once you get that window seat in the workplace, the door is locked forever. Your only choices then are to live near the window in shame, leave the organization on your own accord, or jump out the window.
Indeed Japanese teammates can be a tough crowd to please, and the individual is merely a fraction of the whole. (Interesting the Japanese word for “self” is jibun, literally “one’s part.”) As cultures go, Japan is the mother of all pressure cookers, as it forces conformity based on the uncompromising assumption that each “fraction of the whole” will sacrifice personal desires for the greater collective. The payoff is acceptance by the group.
Most Americans would not consider acceptance by a group with such strict demands and commitments a good deal at all. That’s because belonging isn’t a big motivator for Americans. It’s safe to say that for many Americans, the value on belonging ranks well below individualism, freedom, independence, and the pursuit of individual happiness.
Life in a Pressure-Cooker
No doubt peer pressure controls lots of problems in Japanese society, or at least sweeps them under the rug. But Japanese-style peer pressure is wrought with painful ambiguity that few Americans are comfortable dealing with. You never really know where you stand with the Japanese (even if you’re Japanese) so you’re stuck guessing.
American culture is much clearer. We don’t beat around the bush, we tell subordinates in no uncertain terms what we think, good or bad (at least in theory). Non-performers in America will be hard-pressed to find someone willing to put in the time and effort to “salvage” them. Truth is, an American misfit would have a much better shot at redemption in a Japanese company.
My guess is that the days of the madogiwa-zoku “window tribe” are numbered in Japan. After all, who can afford the luxury now? But I don’t see ostracism going away anytime soon; it’s just too ingrained in Japan’s collectivist psyche.
For what it’s worth, after living and working with the Japanese for some thirty-seven years, here’s my take: it is really tough to be Japanese. This personal awareness of the pressure-cooker nature of Japanese society–the burden on Japanese people to conform and selflessly please everyone else–inspires tremendous respect and compassion for my Japanese friends, family and clients. And it makes me appreciate even more my good fortune to enjoy the freedom my culture encourages.
To avoid becoming a madogiwazoku in the first place, check out: The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009