Of White, Black, Gray and Brown Companies

I have another typhoon aftermath story. It ran also in the Japanese news, but I’m not sure if it was translated somewhere or otherwise broadcast. After the typhoon 15, which happened on a Sunday night / Monday morning, there was huge train chaos in the greater Tokyo area due to tracks having to be checked for damage, cleared of debris and so on and so forth. More or less all trains of the greater Tokyo area were delayed a bit or a lot. Trains are the main form of commuting to work here, luckily! Other countries can only dream of the incredible train network that we have.

So Monday morning, millions of people were trying to get to work somehow in the post-typhoon chaos and someone tweeted the following, which was then retweeted more than 20,000 times it seems. “White company: You can take off”. “Black company: Get to work!”. “Gray company: No instructions.” “Shit company: Decide by yourself”.
It should be noted here that the “white” company that says you can take off, of course means “you can take one of your precious few annual leave days today.” It does of course NOT mean, that you get a day off “for free”.

What struck me about this message though, and I have discussed and confirmed this with several Japanese colleagues, is that let’s say 15 years ago, there have been only two kinds of companies. Black = get your ass to work! Or gray = no instructions (which also means, get your ass to work).

Society is changing! Yeah! There is now more than black and gray, there is also white and shit! lol. The white needs to be given a hug though and a pat on the back, despite the worker having to take a day of his/her annual leave, because it does mean a slight shift towards taking off becoming more acceptable. Some companies (like the one I work for) are even so white that they have a home office system. My boss actually emailed everyone of his team on Sunday night, that we can take off or work from home. Trouble with that is you need a computer, and me idiot left it in the company on Friday night (I did this before, I’m not learning from lessons learned! Well, it’s because the computer is still quite heavy and I’m not dragging it around with me if I can avoid it).

The “shit company”, means that they are shifting responsibility from management to staff and many don’t like that. I suppose the person who tweeted that little story works for what he/she perceives as a “shit” company, which leaves the decision to him/herself and loads of people are quite allergic against responsibility as I have experienced in my working life on countless occasions.
Nevertheless, I want to see this positively. First of all I am lucky enough to work in a white company and second, hallelujah, there are now white and “shit” companies in Japan! We can to be proud of that emerging bit of work-life balance and the existence of white companies! 🙂

What You Can Do for Your Company

There is a famous quote from JFK: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. Recently I have been confronted with this idea in a more mundane fashion: ask not what your company can do for you – ask what you can do for your company.
We always have expats in the Japanese branch of the company I work for. The original idea of these expats is that they bring the expert knowledge of the headquarters into the regions and go home again after about three years. Such expat contracts are very sweet = the company pays a lot of money to these expats. They also bring other privileges with them, most notably their 30 days of paid annual leave in contrast to the 20 days of paid annual leave we get here as locally hired staff.
It happens that at the moment we have two extremes among our expats in my department, one of them is 100% doing everything for the company and nothing for himself, and one of them is doing 100% for herself and nothing for the company.
As usual, extremes are unhealthy. The 100%-for-the-company guy works like mad, he has a hundred overtime hours per month, doesn’t take all his vacation days and he is bursting with a sense of duty, a sense for helping others, a sense for “I have to save the company”. I’m always telling him to slow down and to not work so much and enjoy life a bit more, that there is more to life than work. He doesn’t really listen because it’s in his nature to want to save the world 😉
But there is also the other extreme, a woman who is 100% about herself and 0% about the company. She always looks for her advantage, her rights, her “career”, her vacation days, her workload, it’s always about her her her. Sorry to say so, but she comes across as an arrogant, egoistic bitch. It doubly vexes me, because she is a woman in lower management and does not shed a good light on women in management in general. She kind of undermines everything I fought for in my company here in Japan during the past ten years or so, since I decided to aim for a moderate career. This is the kind of expat that we really don’t need in Japan. I encountered one more person like her, another egoistic bastard some ten year ago whose arrogant guts I despised and now he got competition.
In Japan the general tendency is to do more for your company than yourself. I personally think my balance is 60:40. 60% for the company, 40% for myself. I take all my 20 paid annual leave days and I have fought a nearly 20 yearlong battle against overtime. I have always managed to stay under 10 hours of overtime a month and get a moderate career despite that. I’d say I’m taking care of my interests, but I am also well aware that it is my company that provides me with a relatively luxurious lifestyle.
The Japanese colleagues around me are mostly 70:30 I would say = 70% for the company, 30% for themselves, sense of duty and also group pressure are generally very high. There are also plenty with 80:20 or 90:10 and some with 100% for the company like that one expat colleague. The lower end: more for myself and less for the company is very rare in Japan. That’s also why that expat woman sticks out so negatively. While I have encountered one or the other 50:50 Japanese colleague, I have never encountered a Japanese colleague who is all about him or herself and zero about the company.
With the worldwide economy declining now, I think it becomes even more important to ask yourself what you can do for the company, because without it there is no bread on the table and no Norwegian Fjord cruises (I’ll do one in August). And if people like me cannot go on Norwegian Fjord cruises anymore, those people who work in that industry will get no bread on their tables and so forth, it’s all connected and egoists who think only about themselves are not what we need. 

Attitude

At work I recently encountered another example for why I prefer living and working in Japan rather than living and working in Europe. In the company I work for we have a highly regulated workshop where the staff can give feedback to the manager who is supervising them. The staff fill out a questionnaire anonymously and the result is displayed via a point system. The manager fills out the same questionnaire in a self-assessment. His/her result is compared to the result of the staff people and focus points are jointly agreed between staff and manager. Then the manager leaves the room, and the staff discuss what the manager could improve concerning the focus points in question and presents them to him/her at the end of the workshop in form of suggestions that the he/she is supposed to listen to. The manager does not have to commit to picking up those focus points but most managers going through this process do so in the end.

I moderated such a workshop for one of our managers last week and thought it went pretty well. After the workshop was done I asked one of the participants, a Japanese guy in his fifties, what he thought about this workshop and his first and spontaneous comment was, “man we’re working in a good company. In Japanese companies such a feedback of the staff to the manager does not happen, at least not that I would’ve heard.” Five minutes later I asked a 35-year-old European expat the same question (who earns more than the mid fifties Japanese colleague) and got the answer, “well, the result was a bit meager for spending four hours on it.”
My spontaneous gut-feeling reaction hearing this was: you spoiled ungrateful brat!

I’m living too long in Japan now maybe, but I totally agree to the Japanese colleague who said, man, we’re working in a good company.
Yes, we are. It is not a matter of course that a company offers such a feedback opportunity, paid, during working time.
I think the attitude of the European colleague totally sucks. (The person is not German but from another European country). Europeans live in luxury and yet they are complaining, complaining, complaining. It’s always “but”… Instead of being grateful to be given the opportunity for feedback, that high earning expat whines about the result. And then, you were participating in creating that result, if you had wanted more result, you should have contributed to it!

I think that the “western” individualism is also a factor in the constant complaining about everything. “Westerners” have the tendency to look more for personal gain. The much more group oriented “Easterners” have often a more positive attitude towards the things happening around them and appreciate more what they have. What a difference – what does the Japanese colleague see: a good company. What does the spoiled expat see: we “wasted” four hours on something that is supposed to improve social interaction.
Needless to say, which attitude towards life and work I prefer.
Of course there is a lot of stuff that need improvement in Japan also, but man, Westerners: stop complaining about stuff that is in principle positive and work on your attitude.

Too Much Work

I missed a couple of Saturdays’ blog entries due to too much work and not enough energy left to write for the blog. People are too busy these days. I would very much like to know what life was like before TV and Internet, when you had nothing but a newspaper to read. Also working life has become too busy with global telephone conferences where the lucky Europeans get away with having the conference during midday, but the poor East Asians have to sacrifice their evenings and the poor North Americans their early mornings.
In private life there are too many distractions and also too many obligations “to keep in touch” thanks to the modern forms of communication at our disposal.

Then I hear about a sad case of a co-worker and that puts the busy and hectic business life into perspective again and that reduces its importance and the amount of emotions invested. My colleague has two sons and the older one has a mental health problem. He is 17 but has not attended school for the past year. He dropped out of high school after the first year and has not returned to school since. I don’t know what kind of mental health problem he has, but if he was and is unable to attend any form of schooling for a year, it must be bad. Compulsory education is until the age of 16, so luckily he made that, but all in all the kid’s future looks quite bleak, since he is missing some very important years of his education. One can only hope that he gets back on track soon and finds the energy to resume learning. Even if he does not return to school, he will have to learn some trade to support himself one day. I cannot imagine what it’s like for the parents to see their kid struggle so much.
Things like that put life into perspective again and make the personal bit of stress smaller.

Especially, since in a week from now I will be on the southern hemisphere of our one and only planet because it’ll be “golden week” in Japan (an accumulation of holidays) and I booked a week of getaway to New Caledonia. I will report about my island adventures as usual 😉