Thursday, August 17, 2006

High Anxiety and Western Values..

are driving the Japanese crazy, according to this Times Online article:
THE rapid spread of Western business practices in Japan has caused widespread mental illness and is responsible for a deepening demographic crisis, government officials say.

Statistics indicate that 60 per cent of workers suffer from “high anxiety” and that 65 per cent of companies report soaring levels of mental illness.

Meanwhile, the size of the Japanese population is shrinking, and for the first time the Government has acknowledged that the falling birth rate is linked to job-related factors. Directors of the Japanese Mental Health Institute blame the same factors for rising levels of depression among workers and the country’s suicide rate, which remains the highest among rich nations.

Merit-based pay and promotion are of particular concern because they are at odds with the traditional system, built on seniority, that has reigned supreme in corporate Japan. In the harsh new atmosphere of cut-throat rivalry between workers, the Institute for Population and Social Security argues, young people do not feel financially stable enough to start families.

The trend is put down to Japanese companies’ attempts to globalise by adopting working practices more closely in line with US and British models. Larger numbers of temporary staff, a greater willingness to sack people and greater pay disparities are the downside.

A spokesman for the Mental Health Institute said that the emphasis on individual performance was driving Japanese workers — particularly those in their thirties — to mental turmoil. “People tend to be individualised under the new working patterns,” he said. “When people worked in teams they were happier.”


Now stop me if I'm wrong, but weren't the Japanese under an enormous psychological burden under the old system, as well? While guraranteed lifetime employment, workers were required to put in long hours and then required to socialize with the boss until the wee hours of the evening. They even coined a new term in Japanese to describe the early deaths brought on by this highly socialized industrial regimen: karoshi.

But I can understand the culture shock that such an individualized, competitive ethos can have on more traditional, collectivized cultures. I think that this shows just how radical Anglo-Saxon culture is in comparison to the rest of the world. The complaints from the Japanese workers don't sound much different than the wails from the brave French students standing up for their rights to lifetime security. I think that it is part of our evolved nature as a tribal species to expect a permanent place in the social sphere, which is not contingent on extra-social factors related to one's ability to adapt to some ever-shifting set of performance criteria, but to one's ability to establish and maintain social bonds in a group that will endure through one's lifetime.

Which is why I think socialism and other collectivist ethics will remain permanent players on the socio-political scene. Our nature is to derive economic status from social accomplishments, not vice versa, which is the capitalist way. There is something radically different about the way that we have de-linked economic potential from social factors.

Self Rererence Alert! Speaking of workplace anxiety, I underwent my annual performance review with my new employer today. The good news is that I'm on the high side of "meets expectation". The discouraging part about the whole review process is that it is just one more opportunity for the world to point out the flaws that you have had since birth and which you will not be getting rid of until your death.

The review is based on the flawed assumption that it is possible to mold employees into the coveted "well rounded person" in whom all personality traits are equally balanced. This is all just a farce perpetrated by the Human Potential movement and encouraged under the futile Human Resources practice labeled "personal development". Each of us is unbalanced by nature. We have a set personality which contains strong points and weak points, as viewed from the perspective of any particular job situation. No matter how well you do a job, employers will always see it as their duty to point out those particular traits that you posess that they think would make you a better worker if they were changed.

So every year I hear the same thing in my performance review: "could be more agressive". This is something I've been told since I was a young, painfully shy child. I'm by nature cautious and non-confrontational, but I've managed to build a successful career as an IT professional with a non-agressive, cooperative style. Heck, I was even a successful Marine officer, although they also told me I needed to be more aggressive. Just once I'd like to see a review that stated "isn't very agressive, but gets the job done in his own style". If I get the job done, does it matter that I'm not agressive? And just what do I have to do differently to be more agressive? Bang my shoes on the table? Would that really make people feel better? Or are we (as Americans) just so keyed into the idea that being aggressive is the single milestone for measuring success?

So even though I predicted that comment would be in my review, and that I would get a good review anyhow, I'm still bummed. It's just another jab into an old wound, all the more painful because it is such a rote exercise, as if the Human Resources manual stated "As part of every review, make sure to poke the employee in some old, sensitive wound".

That cheese revenue can't come fast enough.

16 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The myth of the sararyman is, indeed, a myth.

Very few Japanese workers were in those kinds of jobs.

My brother, who does a lot of consulting in Japan and speaks Osaka dialect fluently, does not let his clients know that. They therefore say things around him that they wouldn't want him to know.

If you go onto a Japanese factory floor, those different colored jumpsuits indicate more than just which work division a person is in. The majority of Japanese factory workers do not have lifetime employment.

Up to 1960, the Japanese government was worried about overpopulation, and quite ready to kill Chinese to make room for the extra Japanese. I cannot regard the stagnation of Japanese demography as anything but a triumph.

August 17, 2006 5:03 PM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

"High side of meets expectations"? What the heck is wrong with you? Slacker.

August 17, 2006 10:09 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Heh. We never liked the reviews either, especially one co-worked, BBB (who was a BrosJudd commentor years ago). They'd tell him, "if you don't cooperate, you won't get promoted" and he'd reply "OK". Totally stumped them. We'd compete to see who could come up with the highest concentration of buzzwords in their objectives. The funniest result of that was getting called in to the boss' office for putting down something so obviously silly he was unwilling to give me a pass on it. I then showed him that it was a paraphrase from the corporate guide on how to fill them out. Ah, good times.

August 17, 2006 10:20 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The Institute for Population and Social Security may or may not be correct about young Japanese not feeling financially stable enough to start families now, but I would point out that Japan's demographic problems started before today's nubile Japanese were even born, back when the U.S. were afraid that Japan was going to eat our lunch - '70s and '80s.

While I think that the Japanese have some cool sub-cultures, world-class cool as a matter of fact, I also agree with Harry that a good Japan is a weak Japan.
They're a quirky bunch. As a culture, one might say that they're great to hang out with, but one wouldn't want to work under them.

While serving in the U.S. Army, I once got a career-ending performance review (partially deserved) - one which led directly to my being assigned to the second-best position that I held in 10 years of military service.
They essentially promoted me out of the way, into retired-on-duty status.

Life's funny like that.

August 18, 2006 3:07 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

BTW, how does a "painfully shy, cautious, and non-confrontational" person end up as a Marine officer anyhow ?

That sounds inherently fairly aggressive to me.

August 18, 2006 3:13 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

HR departments tend to be staffed by people who don't know much about human beings.

August 18, 2006 3:48 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck, why don't you print out a few of your classic jeremiads against religion and the Church from Brosjudd and the DD and leave them on the boss' desk? That might make them recognize your inner tiger. You'd be president in no time.

Maybe not.

This theme could support a hundred threads and a thousand comments. One thing I find irksome about economic conservatives is the blithe, unquestionning way they prescribe the principles of economic conservatism and free enterprise for bureaucracies and large organizations. Frankly, the thinking left is much better at recognizing how human nature works in these settings (or one side of it, that is), although their prescriptions are usually insane. Duck's example of the performance review is a good one, because we all come to realize too late that it is a game and the middle managers conducting those reviews have to show their stuff whatever they really think. As they themselves are doing all they can to move on as fast as possible, they have to be noticed and make a mark, and that ain't going to happen if they just keep reporting to upstairs that everything in their shop is humming along nicely. Plus the lawyers want to make sure no one's performance reviews is too good lest they have to get rid him in the future.

My father spent a career as a corporate executive and told me that, until the early seventies, nobody got fired, promotions and raises were modest and rote, nothing was downsized and the tried and true ways were usually best. Then when the Japanese and Europeans got going, a whole ethos of constant change and dynamism took over. Fine, ossification was indeed a problem and it gave a boost to the old entrepreneurial spirit, but it also spawned a whole culture of MBA whizzkids who feel impelled to turn everything upside down and then move on as fast as possible. Add in all kinds of nonsense from motivational psychology, computer compatible "studies" and questionnaires, etc. and pretty soon the workforce is in the hands of cheery psychopaths who really don't care much what the solution to a problem is as long as it is something completely different, makes a heck of a Powerpoint presentation and can be defended artfully in commercial psychobabble.

I listen to the guy who argues that the principles of economic liberalism are best because anything else is worse, but the young punk who pats himself on the back for "downsizing" forty middle-aged married workers and thinks that proves he has "the right stuff" disgusts me.

The other side, though, is how addictive working for a large organization can be. I did a guest stint in the foreign ministry for three years in the late 80's. Tough times--budgets and promotions all frozen--and morale was in the tank. Just about every lunch was given over to never-ending discussions about alternative career options. But almost none of them did leave and every discussion eventually got around to talking about not wanting to lose their blessed pensions. These were bright, talented guys in their late thirties! Their wounds all looked self-inflicted to me and there were obviously very unhealthy psychological bonds in play. Many of them talked not as employees, but like minority shareholders contemplating going to court for an oppression remedy against the majority. The experience really made me understand why those popular movies that climax when the hero tells the boss to stuff it pull such an emotional punch for everyone. It really has little to do with the boss.

Moral: Employment is not marriage. If you throw your self-worth dice on career success, recognize it as a dangerous extreme sport. If you can, avoid working in any organization with more than seven employees.

August 18, 2006 4:09 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

BTW, how does a "painfully shy, cautious, and non-confrontational" person end up as a Marine officer anyhow ?

That's a great question. Short answer is that I really wanted to fly supersonic jets, and the Marines initially offered to send me to flight school as an NFO (Naval Flight Officer, otherwise known as the navigator, since I didn't have the 20/20 vision to be an aviator), but then they later reneged when they sped up their transition from the F4 to the F18.

Long answer was that joining the Marines was my one big adventure, an opportunity to challenge myself in something that was totally out of my comfort zone. It was a good experience, because it helped me break out of my shell and gain confidence. It is an experience that has paid dividends in my later career and life. But these experiences don't change your basic nature, and I'm still by nature cautious and non-confrontational (except on stuff that matters, like religion, of course).

It's not that I can't be confrontational, its that I prefer to solve problems without pissing people off. I tend to empathize with other people's points of view. If it takes a little longer to get something done while preserving a relationship, I see that as beneficial in the long run, whereas other less patient people prefer to "cut to the chase" and break the china by taking the most direct route through the shop.

So basically, I'm a type "B" personality in a type "A" culture.

August 18, 2006 5:52 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

BTW, how does a "painfully shy, cautious, and non-confrontational" person end up as a Marine officer anyhow ?

That's a great question. Short answer is that I really wanted to fly supersonic jets, and the Marines initially offered to send me to flight school as an NFO (Naval Flight Officer, otherwise known as the navigator, since I didn't have the 20/20 vision to be an aviator), but then they later reneged when they sped up their transition from the F4 to the F18.

Long answer was that joining the Marines was my one big adventure, an opportunity to challenge myself in something that was totally out of my comfort zone. It was a good experience, because it helped me break out of my shell and gain confidence. It is an experience that has paid dividends in my later career and life. But these experiences don't change your basic nature, and I'm still by nature cautious and non-confrontational (except on stuff that matters, like religion, of course).

It's not that I can't be confrontational, its that I prefer to solve problems without pissing people off. I tend to empathize with other people's points of view. If it takes a little longer to get something done while preserving a relationship, I see that as beneficial in the long run, whereas other less patient people prefer to "cut to the chase" and break the china by taking the most direct route through the shop.

So basically, I'm a type "B" personality in a type "A" culture.

August 18, 2006 5:53 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
All good points. You could argue that the shift in attitude from work as necessity to work as personal fulfillment vehicle has probably ended up leaving people less fulfilled. For many it has become a new secular religion. If you watch or read the pitch from gurus of the human potential/motivational movement, like Tony Robbins or the Franklin Covey people, it becomes hard to distinguish them from evangelical preachers. In fact I think that there is a large overlap between the two groups.

August 18, 2006 6:05 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

As with many issues, I'm riddled with ambivalence.

I admire entrepreneurs, but wouldn't want to be one, as they tend to be somewhat one-dimensional. They are generally good company however, at least for short periods, whereas Machiavellian careerist types within large organisations are just insufferable.

And, like Peter, I acknowledge that the lefty attitude to business is nonsense, while retaining a healthy personal dislike for those who delight in pushing fathers and mothers into redundancy with a smug shrug and a line combining one or all of the following: just market forces/dog eat dog/survival of the fittest/not a charity, you know.

The thing about corporate bullshit like staff reviews - and I've been on both reviewer and reviewee sides of the fence - is that everybody knows its bullshit, but we have to go through the whole process anyway, a bit like the tedious rigamarole of sampling the wine in a posh restaurant.

August 18, 2006 6:36 AM  
Blogger David said...

You guys are missing the high comedy and low tragedy that is the annual performance review.

The point of having annual performance reviews is to provide a paper trail for white collar workers when the company wants to fire them, or they sue for discrimination. In theory, the performance reviews will show a history of poor performance, and that the employee was warned that he was not up to snuff and counseled on how to improve.

This theory is, always and everywhere, torpedoed by Human Resources. Every Human Resource department in the country insists that their company hires only extraordinary individuals, all of whom are above average. Therefore, in every company I've had the pleasure of representing, an annual review of "average" or "meets expectations" is considered to be a devastatingly bad review.

Try explaining that to a jury.

August 18, 2006 8:19 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Also, it's time to update the old resume when you hear the boss make a speech about how the employees are the company's most important asset.

August 18, 2006 8:48 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Which is why striving to improve one's marks on a perf review is a task for Sisyphus. The coveted "exceeds all expectations" is the proverbial carrot that the horse will never reach.

As Brit pointed out, everyone knows it is bullshit, yet we continue the charade. I'm thoroughly happy with the high side of "meets expectations" and have neither the ambition or desire to earn a promotion or shine out as an example of excellence within my peer group. I did the promotion route, adn it is just a slightly higher and steeper spot on the Sisyphusian hillside.

I just wish they'd drop the pretense at personal improvement. Personality traits are not very flexible. Women can't mold their husbands, and companies can't mold their employees. The type A guy probably hears "could be more diplomatic" in every review, and after awhile knows he isn't going to change either. Yet we both get our jobs done in our own fashion.

August 18, 2006 8:49 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck: You're still not being cynical enough. Your first review with a new company must be relatively low, because your manager needs to impress his bosses with how much he can improve new employees over time.

August 18, 2006 9:02 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. My experience has not been like that at all.

First off, back in the old, stagnant days both my father and my grandfather managed to get blacklisted. Though I despise (for the most part) the chirpy MBAs, they did not introduce savage excisions into the American economy.

Second off, one reason corporations keep employees, despite the real psychic costs of staying, is that they pay WAY better than small business, and the bigger the corporation, the better it pays.

Third off, while I agree completely that 'Machiavellian careerist types within large organisations are just insufferable,' the Eagar family experience (mine, my brother's, my father's) has been that the most insufferable aspect of working in large organizations is the low-level criminality. We all had to quit jobs to avoid working with thieves.

August 18, 2006 11:32 AM  

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