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.