A critical investigation into the effects of organizational culture on employees
How does culture impact the workplace? A critical investigation into the effects of organizational culture on employees in Japan
This paper seeks to understand the ways in which culture can impact on employees in an organization. It considers the specific context of Japan as one of the countries which is at the forefront of organizational development given its contemporary reputation as a business hub as well as its tradition of strong cultural values in the wider community. The essay will use Hofstede’s (1984) dimensions of culture with specific reference to power distance; uncertainty avoidance; individualism/collectivism; masculinity/femininity; and the long term versus short term orientation. To that end the following scholarly works have been selected for critical analysis.
1.1 Selected Texts
Five main papers have been selected for analysis. Bergiel et al. (2012) deals with power distance in Japanese culture. Antoniu (2010) examines the Japanese approach to uncertainty. Iitaka (2010) analyses the competing forces of individualism and collectivism within contemporary Japanese organizational culture. Cochran (2009) considers the gender construction of culture (masculinity versus femininity) in Japanese corporate culture. Ryu and Moon (2009) has tested the orientation of Japanese organizations and employees in terms of their short term versus long term perspectives. Ganbold et al. (2015) discuss some of the impact of the low level of indulgence associated with Japanese culture. Throughout the findings and methodologies of these studies are compared and contrasted with empirical evidence as well as alternative papers. The paper then concludes by summarizing the nature and implications of organizational culture in Japan.
1.2 Importance and Relevance
This paper is important in as far as it is able to contextualize organizational culture theory within a specific time and space location. Not only are those explorations important to the general study of management practice and organizational development; they provide a unique perspective into the nature of work in Japan. This paper attempts to look at the perspective of employees who are not just cog wheels within a specific organizational structure but also key stakeholders whose responses to cultural change can break or make it (Alvesson, 2002). The paper also provides an opportunity to critique and evaluate empirical studies on the conceptualization of culture in an organizational setting; an important step in the development of knowledge about management practice.
1.3 Key Terms and their Definitions
The key terms in this paper include: “organizational culture”; “the workplace”; “employees” and “critical investigation”. Schein (2010, p. 3) defines organizational culture as a collection of norms, values, beliefs behaviours, folkways, mores and knowledge that determine the way in which people do things in a specific entity or structure. According to Hertel (2003, pp. 3-4); the workplace is any location (whether virtual or physical) in which productive activities of an organization (whether as a business entity or not-for profit establishment) are undertaken. To that end, Hertel (2003) then goes on to define employees as people who are formally recruited (for pay or otherwise) to execute specific productive activities within the context an organization. Alvesson et al. (2011) are of the view that a critical investigation goes beyond narratives of what happens within organization in as far as it questions the methods and conclusions arrived at during the process.
Whereas organizational culture is derived from the history; context; socialization; and personal proclivities of the actors within that structure: it also necessarily impacts on the way in which they behave (Alvesson, et al., 2011). Therefore organizational culture cannot be detached from employees as one of the most important elements of the structure that underpins all productive activities. Indeed Ganbold et al. (2015) have defined the organization as an ecology in which actors create and receive culture. Over time the organizational culture then becomes an amalgamation of the collective perspectives and approaches of the people that operate within it. However, that is not to dismiss the critical role that the wider culture plays in determining how and why people behave the way that they do once they are employed. For example Bergiel et al. (2012) have identified specific culturally constructed patterns of behaviour which distinguish Japanese employees from workers that have a differing cultural heritage including adherence to authority; bureaucratic adherence; and calmness. Moreover culture is fluid and may adapt over time or with changes in the organization’s wider environment (Alvesson & Berg, 1992). In fact the ability to adapt and change has been identified as a core competitive advantage particularly in multi-faceted workplaces (Ganbold, et al., 2015). In order to deconstruct the Japanese context, it is useful to consider its applicability to the various dimensions of organizational culture. Figure 1 compares Japan with a range of diverse countries in terms of culture and economic status. It shows the cultural divergence of Japanese culture not only from other developed countries like Norway and USA but also from developing countries like Tanzania.
Figure: Hofstede Dimensions of Culture from Selected Countries
Source: (The Hofstede Centre, 2015)
2.1 Power Distance
Bergiel et al. (2012) argue that the crux of power distance is the extent to which members of a given institution are willing to accept the reality of a power base that is unevenly distributed to the extent that there are clear dividing lines between the powerful and the powerless/less powerful. This is the diametrical opposite of an egalitarian mind-set which seeks to emphasize equality if not equity in the distribution of power centres (Ghosh, 2011). On the other hand Ganbold et al. (2015) depart somewhat from that view with emphasis on the power of the structure to impose its will on individuals regardless of the extent to which they accept the inequality of power distribution. This latter view is weakened by its failure to acknowledge the power of employees to collectively resist the imposition of an unacceptable corporate culture. That is the very essence of the trade union movement, albeit in a less militant form within the Japanese context (Bergiel, et al., 2012). Japan is notable for an intermediate score of 54 which falls within the cluster of borderline hierarchical societies (The Hofstede Centre, 2015).
In the workplace, this means that Japanese employees are less likely to challenge established power structures according to Bergiel et al. (2012). However an article in The Economist (2014) goes against this view by arguing that Japanese employees (in this case women) are quite capable of challenging illegitimate power as well as legitimate power that is illegitimately used. Their main concern is about process and mutual respect. That is why for example the Japanese will take as long as is required in order to reach the right decision in the right way (Ryu & Moon, 2009). To that extent the argument might be not so much as to whether Japanese employees are compliant but whether they are concerned about rules and regulations. This has serious implications for foreigners doing business in Japan. A case in point is where the go-get-it-now enthusiasm of American entrepreneurs might be negatively perceived by Japanese community hosts (Bergiel, et al., 2012).
Despite the much vaunted intermediate power distance of Japanese employees, it is worth noting that at the crux of the decision-making paradigm is an egalitarian framework that is at odds with the perception of a people that are content to behave according to the expectations of their class within an organization (Cochran, 2009). For example the Japanese are not very tolerant of the big man syndrome or micromanagement since they appear to enjoy the painstaking process of making decisions almost by universal consensus. Kariya and Dore (2006) actually observe that Japanese society is one of the most meritocratic establishments despite the fact that it is led by a seemingly infallible emperor. This throws into question the very premise of Bergiel et al. (2012) that Japanese society is rigidly stratified. For employers and organizations; this means that Japanese employees expect rules to be followed and everyone to be treated fairly regardless of where they lie within the structure of the organization.
2.2 Uncertainty Avoidance
Antoniu (2010) defines uncertainty avoidance as the extent to which members of a community are willing to accept an uncontrollable or alternatively to attempt to control it. This presupposes that the subject is unaware of what the future holds; a truism on face value but one which is challenged in many business environments due to extensive research and development (Alvesson, 2002). Accordingly the assumption is that homeostasis in the system can either be achieved by letting things be or changing them to suit the needs of the organization at a given time. At the heart of the concept is the notion that cultures like the Japanese are simply unwilling to change things yet paradoxically by maintaining the status quo; they create predictability (Bergiel, et al., 2012).
Hofstede (1984) postulates that it is all to do with the extent to which the institutions of a culture are threatened by difference and the unexpected. Specifically those cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance score tend to construct a super structure that avoids, sidesteps or prevents ambiguity altogether. Schein (2010) finds that there is a direct link between the geographical circumstances of a culture and its manifestations. Thus Japan avoids uncertainty partly because of its long history of devastating natural disasters including tsunamis and typhoons. On the other hand Antoniu (2010) rejects the notion that the Japanese do not prepare for uncertainty. Instead their preparation takes the form of ritualization; routinization; and procedure as an insulation against the unexpected. In the workplace, Japanese employees are open to the ceremonial because it reinforces the notion of a planned existence that is more or less in equilibrium. However Alvesson and Berg (1992) caution that it is not just the existence of ceremony and ritual but the fact that it is uniformly carried out in a standardized and largely homogenous way across different spheres of production.
For an organization employing or working with Japanese people; the implication is the need to pay particular attention to the notion of precedence (Genzberger, et al., 1994, pp. 155-156). Negative precedents are therefore equally as bad as the corruption of positive precedents. In the absence of precedence a lot of research is required before full commitment is given to any project. This is the type of diligence that has become a stereotype of Japanese employees. The contrarian view may be that the precedence in itself exerts a certain amount of control on the environment (Ganbold, et al., 2015). In that sense the Japanese employees do not just bury their heads in the sand and hope for the best but actually proactively take steps to ensure that their organization is fully prepared for uncertainty.
2.3 Individualism versus Collectivism
Iitaka (2010) is of the view that individualism and collectivism are really questions of interdependence which emanate from the extent to which an environment and its participants are able to symbiotically support each other. Those cultures (like the Japanese) that perceive a high level of interdependence will gravitate towards collectivism while those that find limited interdependence (USA) will opt for individualism (Bergiel, et al., 2012). In that sense the level of collectivism or individualism is a function of past experiences in which either the environment or its actors have been called upon to play a supportive role. Failure or success in undertaking this role will then orientate the culture in the future.
Ganbold et al. (2015) add to Iitaka (2010) by narrowing down this conceptualization to the individual level. They argue that this is a battle between the “I” and the “We”. This is really about self-image and the way in which Japanese workers perceive their role in the organization. Individualistic cultures may not be a good fit in Japan because they are too egotistical in as far as they limit their concerns to the self and immediate family whereas in Japanese culture everybody belongs to everybody to a great extent (Alvesson, et al., 2011). That is not to say that the care within a collectivist society is not without its costs. According to Genzberger et al. (1994, p. 156) there is an expectation of loyalty in return for being looked after by the society. This is part and parcel of the unwritten contract which Japanese employees make with their employer.
In the workplace this translates into a herding-together approach to problems or the notion of a second family where everyone looks out for the other. Japanese workers typically place a lot of store by harmony of the group to the extent that they are willing to forego personal pleasure and comfort if it will lead to better relations within the group (Antoniu, 2010). At the other end of the scale is the unwillingness to voice personal criticism and the strong emphasis on never losing face. For the organization there are few more egregious affronts to a Japanese worker that losing face amongst his or her peers (Schultz & Schultz, 2016, p. 260).
Nevertheless Genzberger et al. (1994) point out the fact that the Japanese are paradoxically not as collectivist as some of the other Asian countries including Korea and China. Iitaka (2010) attempts to explain this with reference to the family structure in Japan which is still largely nuclear unlike those of its cultural neighbours who tend to have extended family links. Its paternalism passes family assets and reputation to the eldest son and the rest have to find their way in life. Of particular importance in the organizational setting is the perceived loyalty of Japanese employees who individualistically make a conscious choice to stick to their company as a second family as opposed to Chinese who are not afraid to job shop because their loyalties really lie within the external community/extended family (Iitaka, 2010). This is what Takano and Osaka (1999) referred to as situational individualism. Another issue that creates this paradox is the personal distance and privacy that is typical of Japanese people (Genzberger, et al., 1994). This means that Japanese culture (unlike other comparative Asian cultures) cannot be truly collectivist with the requisite proximity and familiarity.
2.4 Masculinity versus Femininity
Cochran (2009) joins a growing list of scholars that marvel at the level of masculinity in Japanese culture. In this instance the core components of gender construction are not just deprived from physical identity but values such as competitiveness; achievement-orientation; and excellence. On the other hand The Economist (2014) questions the classification of these traits as being exclusively masculine. The feminist perspective may go as far as saying that the classification themselves are a demonstration of the long standing gender construction which universally seeks to disadvantage the female sex in all walks of life (Bergiel, et al., 2012). The criticism of Hofstede’s classification notwithstanding; the consensus is the Japanese society is uncommonly “masculine”.
At the most extreme interpretation of Cochran (2009) is the notion that Japanese society is less concerned with care for others and quality of life than say a “feminine” society like Norway. All that matters is being successful at all costs. That view is somewhat at odds with empirical evidence that shows the Japanese caring very much about how people behave and their own perceptions (Genzberger, et al., 1994). Indeed it has been suggested that the reason for the duality of masculinity and moderate collectivism is because the Japanese have traditionally eschewed excessive competition or assertiveness (Cochran, 2009). In other words this particular culture challenges the notions of masculinity by contesting the stereotype of overtly aggressive behaviour. Ganbold et al. (2015) suggest a latent aggressiveness amongst Japanese employees but that it is successfully masked for purposes of saving face. This aggressiveness only comes to the fore when the Japanese are in groups which groups compete against one another.
In the workplace, this trait will translate into tribal loyalties but then inter-team rivalry. Iitaka (2010) for example notes an intensified level of competitiveness when Japanese employees are on a high performance-high achievement team. This translates into unusually high scores for efficiency, excellence and compliance during the production process because of the perception of these qualities as being critical to the ability to dominate other groups. The lesson for organizations is to distinguish between the intra-group masculinity and the personal masculinity of Japanese employees. Cochran (2009) also finds a gender construction of overwork which leads to what might be deemed workaholism. Indeed The Economist (2014) reports that the career ladder in Japan is stacked against women precisely because of its emphasis on long hours.
2.5 Short Term versus Long Term Orientation
Ryu and Moon (2009) define the short term or long term orientation as the extent to which a society is willing to hack back to the past even as it handles the realities of its contemporary existence and future. In other words, these are two distinct coping strategies. One relies on the future while the other is lives in the past/present. Japan has a high score which means that it tends to invest for the long term and is willing to overlook short term inconveniences in the process. This is very much unlike societies (Iran for example) which usually spend and live for the present (Hofstede, 1984). These societies tend to prefer the status quo and homeostasis within their environment. One might then conclude that by contrast the Japanese do not view the future with trepidation.
Nevertheless according to Ryu and Moon (2009); it is not necessarily the case that the Japanese are willing to let go of their past and simply prepare for a long future. This remains a largely traditional society in very fundamental ways despite the technology and advancements that Japan has made over the years. In fact the Japanese are very much aware of their mortality and the insignificance of individual lifespans in the grand scheme of things (Genzberger, et al., 1994). Therefore Japanese employees are largely fatalistic although they are also quite capable of exercising the full extent of their capabilities in the present. This remains the case even if the Japanese are not particularly associated with a notion of a single all-powerful God. Instead they rely on a practical and useful lifestyle to prepare for the future no matter how short it may be (Iitaka, 2010).
For the organization the implications are that Japanese employees will invest a lot of effort into finding new knowledge and technologies in order to increase future production (Bergiel, et al., 2012). They are also more likely to weather the storm in hard times particularly when they consider the future prospects to be promising (Schein, 2010). This long term outlook combined with their loyalty to organizations, means that Japanese workers tend to be generally institutionalized into the job. Ryu and Moon (2009) therefore conclude the culturally Japanese employees place more emphasis on durability as opposed to expedience when selecting careers and performing in them.
2.6 Indulgence and Restraint
Apart from their much-vaunted politeness, the enduring stereotype of the Japanese is that of a restrained people who rarely cause ripples in the workplace (Bergiel, et al., 2012). This is very different from the indulgences of other cultures like the USA and Norway where the self must be expressed at all costs (Schein, 2010). Ganbold et al. (2015) find that Japanese employees are particularly adept at controlling their impulses, often masking their desires unless extensively provoked. One explanation for this phenomenon is the strictly controlled socialization of Japanese children which rarely gives in to histrionics (Alvesson, 2002). Nevertheless their objective score on the Hofstede graph is moderate for restraint.
Although such traits may create a relatively calm and controlled workplace; they are not without their demerits. For example Schultz and Schultz (2016) have linked such control to a generally pessimistic attitude towards life and a disbelief in the basic goodness of human nature. In other words the Japanese by virtue of their low score on indulgence are more likely to be very cynical in the workplace. This has important implications during change management where worker buy-in is of the utmost importance (Alvesson & Berg, 1992). Moreover the de-prioritization of leisure and gratification can cause friction if Japanese employees are in positions of power which allow them to control allocation of fringe benefits (Antoniu, 2010).
This paper has shown that the cultural background of the Japanese ultimately determines their corporate behaviour as employees. It has demonstrated a general consensus that the Japanese have been associated with modest power-distance, collectivism and indulgence. However the Japanese rank high on masculinity; uncertainty avoidance and long term orientation. Nevertheless these classifications are never set in stone and there are variations from time to time. What is abundantly clear is that Japanese society remains complex and the behaviour of Japanese people in the workplace does not always conform to the stereotypes. Organizations therefore need to be imaginative when working with and employing and working with Japanese people.
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