What I think about Japanese employee engagement – it’s all in the family
Somebody writing a white paper on the reason for low engagement amongst Japanese workers contacted me this week with some questions, which I answered (possibly in more detail than was helpful!) as follows:
As you may have gathered from the articles I have written, I am cautious about applying Western standards, using surveys which are basically translations of (usually American) methodologies and materials, to Japanese companies.
Whenever I find something that is puzzling about Japanese companies – in this case that employees in Japanese companies have consistently lower engagement levels than companies with other countries of origin – then I use the framework developed by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, in Riding the Waves of Culture, which classifies Japanese companies as “Family” type companies, as distinct from Missile type companies or Eiffel Tower type companies or Incubator companies. Please see http://changingminds.org/
For Family type companies, the primary motivation is to put food on the table and look after the members of the family, and secondarily the long term survival, and therefore the reputation of the family and its acceptance by the community in which it is based. In Missile type companies motivation is more about success – personal and the company’s and therefore being materially rewarded and recognised for your contribution to that success. Eiffel Tower companies are about believing in and executing the strategy and being rewarded through promotion/status. In an Incubator company, your motivation is self fulfilment – to have a job which makes the most of your skills and interests, and make a difference or do something new.
If you think of Japanese employees as members of a family, and replace “company/employer” with the word “family” then you can quickly see that they will have trouble answering questions in employee engagement surveys which are more suited to Missile, Eiffel Tower or Incubator companies. For example, “would you recommend your family to others/are you proud to tell people you belong to/work for your family” – when it would be seen as boastful to tell others what a great family you have, particularly for modest Japanese people – and traditionally it’s been very difficult for people to join big Japanese family style companies later in their careers, so why would you recommend it to your friends? You wouldn’t say – hey why don’t you leave your family and be adopted by mine?
Families all pull together, nobody expects to be rewarded individually, and if they were this would cause big arguments and accusations of favouritism. So again, there is likely to be a negative to neutral response about being rewarded or recognised or able to make an individual contribution/impact.
Families don’t have strategies, mission and purpose other than, as I said above, long term survival and protection of their reputation. So questions about whether you understand the mission and purpose and strategy will be tough to answer. Japanese employees are used to doing what they are told by mum and dad, and the mission of the family is implicit, not explicitly explained.
So if you asked Japanese employees different questions about their motivation, like “do you feel confident or secure that your company will look after you and your family in the long term” or “do you believe your company acts in the best interests of the community and therefore gives you the opportunity to contribute to the community too” then they might be much more positive.
Even questions about teamwork are tough to answer for Japanese employees – you would expect your family to be supportive and work well together because you know each other so well, so Japanese companies don’t spend much time thinking consciously about teams and individual roles within those teams. They are also, like families, very well aware of each others’ flaws and also the flaws of their seniors – mum and dad – who are the leaders but also just ordinary people who happen to be older – you didn’t choose for them to be your parents.
So Japanese do tend to be highly critical of each other and their companies in general – but just like families, are extremely defensive if someone outside the company/family tries to criticise it.
Overall, I would say, even if you asked more culturally sensitive questions in an employee engagement survey, (by the way, even the word ‘engagement’ has no direct translation into Japanese), you would probably still uncover a motivational problem. Japanese companies have gone through a very tough 20 years. Many of them are still struggling to find their “raison d’etre”, and are having to make unpleasant decisions about axing businesses, which means that their employees do not feel as secure and protected as they used to, nor do they feel that their company is making the contribution to society it used to. Plus the number of “contract” staff has increased to over 30% of the workforce now – these are not members of the family, and have none of the benefits the family members do.
Even the family members are being forced into taking very early retirement (basically redundancy) and the younger family members are wondering whether staying inside the family until retirement is quite as attractive as it used to be – as so many are not getting married or having children, they have less need for a secure and protective employer.
What we did at Fujitsu was to refresh the values and vision, to try to come up with something that made sense inside and outside Japan. We communicated them internally and externally, with a new visual identity and some very emotionally driven advertising about contributing to society through supercomputers etc. Interestingly, the Japan side of Fujitsu were not so keen to have workshops about the values and vision but the one thing they did do was to compile a book of stories of individual employees, – called something like “the power to challenge” in Japanese, translated into “Fortune Favours the Brave – the Fujitsu Way”. So it was celebrating individuals, but again in a very family type way, which is to create some new inspiring family myths/stories.
Families like to tell good stories!
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