March 09, 2015

The price of harmony

My sister Kate recently mentioned some reading she'd been doing for a course in interpersonal communications she's teaching. This particular text [The Culture Map by Erin Meyer] roughly separates corporate cultures into the categories of "low" and "high" context.

The U.S. has a "low context" culture. Contemporary American culture has been distilled over the centuries from a varied immigrant population that do not share a common background, so things have to be spelled out. The fewer assumptions made the better.

Japan has a "high context" culture. They've shared the same operating manual for the past two millennia. If you don't share it, then you're expected to pretend until you do. But rather than "high" and "low," let's call it "go along to get along" versus "I'm from Missouri."

The value of "go along to get along" is that since cooperation is presumed, people do their best to cooperate. Nobody makes waves. Making waves just proves you weren't getting along and you're not a team player. (It probably also means you can't read minds.)

That attitude can leave you stuck when the boss assumes X has been communicated and you have no idea what X is. And his boss may simply be trying to communicate what his boss assumes he understood and is kicking the can down the hierarchical road.

According to novelist Kaoru Takamura (she began her career at a foreign trading company):

In an organization where the authority-responsibility structure is unclear, employees are unable to make their own decisions and must constantly refer to their superiors. But because these superiors are also unclear about their own authority, they can't make responsible decisions. Problems just get shuffled around and everyone ends up working longer hours.

It comes down to the ratio of actual work to CYA. The consensus-seeking, conflict-avoiding style of Japanese business easily becomes a way of avoiding blame. If you've got to cover your superior's ass, you're going to make sure your own ass is covered too.

So where the brash American might shrug and wing it, the cautious Japanese is going to hunker down and play it safe.

The hallowed business practices of ringi (the bottom-up circulation of new proposals) and nemawashi (the politicking that accompanies it) do produce a sense of collective responsibility and wa (harmony).

But they also obviate personal responsibility (the buck stops nowhere) and chew up tons of time and energy. Noah Smith states it bluntly: as a result, white-collar productivity in Japan is horrendous.

Employees sit idly in front of their computers waiting for the boss to leave so they can go home, or make busy-work for themselves, copying electronic records onto paper (yes, this is real!). Unproductive workers are kept on the payrolls because of lifetime employment, with high salaries guaranteed by the system of seniority pay. To this, add endless meetings, each of which must be exhaustively prepared for in advance. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy with poorly defined accountability.

There is a price for everything, and the one for "going along to get along" can be steep. However we love to decry the "adversarial system" in law, politics and commerce, as Churchill said of democracy, it's the worse system we've got . . . except for all the rest.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
3/10/2015 6:33 AM   
The book I'm reading, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, also discusses egalitarian versus hierarchical bosses. Like with so many aspects of business, the US comes mostly in the middle, a little to the egalitarian side. UK is slightly more hierarchical. Russia, China, and Japan are far more hierarchical.

Interestingly enough, the demand for a particular type of boss seems to come as much from those "below" as those "above." A Danish boss, who managed his group of Danes in classic egalitarian style, found that style upset his group in China: not taking the corner office and not traveling to work like the other bosses made them look bad.

On the other hand, a Mexican boss in charge of a bunch of Danes commented, "I wish that once in awhile they would remember that I'm in charge." It seems that every work group struggles between "let's discuss the issue" and "can we make a decision already?".
# posted by Blogger Eugene
3/12/2015 8:50 AM   
Japanese companies are hierarchical from top to bottom. New employees are ranked according to when they joined the company (large corporations hold elaborate matriculation ceremonies that coincide with the fiscal year). So if your college classmate joined the company a year ahead of you, he'll be your "senior" until and unless you get a promotion to a higher-ranked position.

There is one great equalizer in all this: it is almost universally accepted that if the boss takes the office staff out for drinks after work (a regular occurrence), "what happens there stays there." It's the escape valve built into the system, which is why, under certain conditions, drunken behavior is given far more latitude in Japan than in the U.S.