Guest Post by Swish

I walk into the office, but this time something is different. I take a seat, login, and greet the colleagues. Most around me return the gesture, but one does not. No worries, I think, she looks focused on something, it’s probably important. Benefit of the doubt.

The atmosphere though is palpable. I go about my duties, plan out my day, and catch up on emails. But there’s tension in the air, and not the good kind. Well, she must be occupied with something. Although it’s tempting for people to believe its all about them, usually it’s something else that is going on that you don’t know about.

Lunchtime. I go with a few colleagues downstairs, she does not join. Not for this day, or subsequent days. Finally, we are forced to exchange information during a team meeting. Cold. The pendulum begins to swing. Now I begin to understand my previous colleague’s advice, “just be patient,” he said.

I go about my job with a work ethic ingrained from the multitude of part-time jobs I had as a kid. Done. I send it out and await feedback. In the meantime, there isn’t much else to do, so lets take the initiative. Hey, this looks like some interesting news and commentary on a few relevant-to-my-job topics, let me collate, summarise, and add my opinion here and there, and share with the team.
One colleague expresses her appreciation, “thank you for sharing!”, but my other cold, never-join-for-lunch colleague, doesn’t get back to me until much later.

Finally, when she does, I get berated for taking the initiative, because according to her, it needed more analysis, a clearer purpose, or somehow some added extra value. Despite there being no direction or criteria for it in the first place, it’s somehow wrong. On top of that, I had shared something very similar prior, which at the time was appreciated by her.

Let’s be clear – this is the easiest and quickest way to demotivate any employee from taking the initiative, in any country, any culture. You can bet I’m never going to do something like that of my own volition ever again.

As it turns out, the holiday I took, was not appreciated by her at all. After eliminating all other possibilities over the last few weeks, this colleague was not impressed with me taking a vacation or enjoying life. What a sad life this person must live, where they cannot express their feelings directly, nor can they accept that someone has a life outside of work.

There are many things going on here.

First, in Japan ‘work is life!’ and to take a vacation is traditionally seen as placing pressure on colleagues to carry the ‘burden’ of your work, while you are away (hence why everyone brings back souvenirs after they return).

Secondly, Japanese work culture overly values trying one’s best and overcoming adversity, ahead of results or outcomes.

Finally, putting in time with the people at your company to develop the right relationships is vital in Japan, again to the detriment of actually getting things done.

I’m not going to go into the cultural and historical background that I believe these concepts emerged from, rather, I am going to point out the problems they cause and what can be done to turn the tide.

There is a persistent belief around the world, that Japanese work so very hard.

This is a myth, one born from decades of unprecedented economic growth, coupled with economic upheaval in another, which led many to believe, that business as it was conducted in Japan, was the best model for prosperity. Books were written. Words and customs adopted. Built on a hardworking population emerging from the ashes of a world war, the Japanese built globally dominating companies that became household brands.

But all good things must come to an end. For the last two decades, Japan has been known for its economic malaise; slow growth, stagnant wages, and deflation, and economies in Asia have slowly but surely chipped away at the once powerhouse economy. Korea has cars that can match, if not out perform, Japan makers, China moves up the manufacturing chain, improving quality and consistency year on year, and South East Asia’s flexible and dynamic economies have each created their own niche industries, threatening any shift Japan might make to a financial or technology services based economy.

What remains, is a nation with not much to do. Reconciling those old work-late-at-any-cost habits with a new not-much-to-do reality, creates a perverse set of incentives. Imagine, if your bosses had been taught that to work into the night is the model for achievement, but you don’t actually have that much to do today – what will you do? Take whatever piece of work you have and stretch it out to fill the day and into the night.

Story time.

Two of my friends, auditors, at a ‘big four’ firm discovered that their teams and most of their floor, were watching movies during the day, and leaving their tasks until 5pm to start, so they could give the appearance of working hard. How did my friends find out everyone was watching online movies? IT sent around an email telling people to stop watching movies, as it was using up all the bandwidth. Classic IT. To solve this, my friends asked their subordinates to fill out a form to justify when they had to work late, otherwise they should leave. Well, you can bet that everyone had crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s, and thought of some good reasons to stay late, because they had nothing else to do all-day except to fill out this one form. Suffice to say, the form didn’t work, and my two friends returned home after a year or so of frustration and no progress.

Working hard, overcoming adversity, building good relationships, and consideration for your colleagues are all admirable qualities, but taken to their extreme, can create environments that are not conducive to succeeding or results.

Back to my colleague. No-one is immune to the pressure that social context places on your behaviour, and being aware of the influence this has, or understanding the culture, doesn’t help much either. I still feel the pressure to work hard when I have nothing to do, stay late at the office, pretend like I’m struggling with a task, all to elicit admiration from colleagues. Don’t underestimate the influence of an environment on one’s behaviour, it can eclipse cultural backgrounds and old habits.

Solutions.

Despite all of this focus on the process, the appearance of working hard or the late nights, in the end, results will matter. Or at least I like to believe they will. In my roles, I’ve done my best to focus on getting results out ahead of time, not stretching out the task, and being as straightforward as I can with people. I sincerely believe this does impact on people’s mindsets, if not immediately, at least they’ll remember this somewhere down the line, and perhaps make a different decision.

Slowly, things are changing. Results are beginning to matter more, especially in a few of the more progressive companies. But there needs to be some sort of major economic shock to the core of this system, and banks letting so-called Zombie companies go bankrupt, to improve competitiveness and the end product or service, would be a good start.

In the meantime, resist the pressure, fight the machine, and most of all, just. go. home.

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