Examples From Japan: Collectivism And Individualism In Cultures

“We picked up a bottle of Shochu the last time we were in Japan. It was my first time drinking Shochu. Before the evening drove to a close, we were through with the entire bottle.” It was one of the experiences one of the clients was sharing over dinner, of experiences we had all encountered working with diverse cultures.

“They asked us not to pay for the Shochu. We were surprised and asked why. They said “You drink like a Japanese”.”

The imitation was classic and we all had a good laugh. Yet, it got us think of how these cultural variations actually do impact work and work relationships as well. Soon our discussion veered towards diverse behaviors we see with regard to collectivism and individualism across cultures, and how these tend to become especially pronounced when one compares two diametric opposites such as USA and Japan.

My first to this was during the last life of Lehman Brothers. I hardly knew then that it was but the tip of the ice-berg. I hadn’t seen anything till we saw the Nomura acquisition of Lehman Brothers in Asia, including India, turning a globally American company into a traditional Japanese one overnight.

That first incident with Lehman Brothers was when I was put in touch with the Tokyo office for the first time over some work on a work-life coaching program I was doing for India. The senior staff in the US office typically explained this as “Well, the Tokyo office is quite keen and if we are doing something in one office in Asia, we could go with the same in others to ensure consistency.” So far so good. As a young associate, I was more than delighted to have my work go international. It was when I had the call with the senior HR person in Tokyo that the urgency really hit me. He said, and I will never forget, “What if people jump off the top of the building and kill themselves. We have to help them.” That was a Roppongi Hills office skyscraper he was talking about. Why would anyone do such a thing?

He explained that with Lehman Brothers going through a bad time, employees would blame themselves for the company’s losses and therefore, tend to commit suicide. I never really linked it to the collectivism of the culture. It seemed just plain shocking to me. But made me think… and read more about suicides in Japan and their cultural symbolism.

Individualism and Collectivism - Japan

What’s interesting, to the point I made when I began, is the comparison between a highly individualistic culture such as the US and a highly collectivist culture such as Japan. An oft quoted example is the suicide versus homicide rates in both countries. Japan has amongst the higher suicide rates in the world while US is among the higher homicide rates in the world. Why is that? A cultural explanation is individualism versus collectivism.

Collectivism is Japan says, “When something is wrong, the group is right and I am wrong. I am responsible.” Individualism in the US says, “When something is wrong, the world is wrong and I am right. Others are responsible.”

One may extend this to international affairs, politics and more. But at a simpler, everyday level, it impacts how we behave in the workplace. Two key things I learnt working with my Japanese colleagues on how collectivism manifests are in the area of decision making:

Decisions are made collectively, almost always through consensus. Decision making takes, what other might call, “forever”. Time is spent is ensuring everyone’s inputs are considered and feedback is shared with everyone on how and why their inputs were used or not

 

Once a decision is made within the group, everyone stands by it and there is no more allowance for contrasting personal opinions to then come in the way. This makes execution lighting fast and sometimes surprises other cultures who may have assumed that execution might be as slow as the decision making

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