According to a FT/ICSA Boardroom Bellwether poll in 2015, only 7% of UK companies were willing to speak out in favour of the UK staying in the European Union, even though two thirds believed leaving the EU would be damaging for them. Of course the Greek crisis made it difficult to say anything positive about Europe, but I also think the British have a strong preference for talking negatively rather than positively, when asked to make a commitment to something, particularly if they feel there are plenty of downsides to getting involved.
Then, like the British professor of economics I met recently – who not only forecast the 2008 Lehman shock but also advised the UK against joining the euro – we can say, smugly, “I told you so”, when things go wrong. This apparent wisdom does not, however, take into account what might have happened if we British had got involved. Maybe the Eurozone would have been better structured and managed, or a more balanced approach taken to Greece’s membership conditions and current difficulties if the UK had participated, not only to point out the problems, but find solutions.
I’ve noticed when working in European teams that British pragmatism acts as a good counterbalance to French rhetoric and German methodological rigour. Both Japanese and American managers are united however, in finding the British urge to be upfront about all the likely problems and obstacles, without suggesting any solutions, very frustrating.
Americans want to “just do it” and are not interested in the past, whereas the British look to history and their own experience, so as not to repeat mistakes. A Japanese manager who had become used to the American management style said to me recently “how do I motivate British staff? In the US, my team will do as I ask, because I can promise them a bonus or threaten to fire them if they don’t do it, but the British team don’t seem to be so motivated by money, and they know it’s a lot harder to fire them here than in the US.”
Some British employees are of course motivated by money, particularly in the financial sector, but for most British workers the motivation is more around self-fulfilment, a chance to put their expertise and experience into practice, to make a difference. So if they believe that they will not be able to do something, they won’t even try, as they know how demotivating and humiliating failure will be.
I discussed with the Japanese manager the concept of “jinji wo tsukushite, tenmei wo matsu” (do all that is humanly possible, then wait for the heavens to decide) – that Japanese also have a sense of fatalism, but that does not preclude doing whatever you can to make something work. I described this conversation to a senior British executive, and she started smiling ruefully. It turned out she had insisted to a Japanese boss that a particular course of action was not feasible. He had persuaded her (I expect through appealing to her expertise and experience) and so she eventually went ahead, and to her surprise, she succeeded.
This article was originally published in Japanese in the Teikoku Bank News on 12 August 2015 and also appears in Pernille Rudlin’s new book “Shinrai: Japanese Corporate Integrity in a Disintegrating Europe” – available as a paperback and Kindle ebook on Amazon.
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