While we watch the tragedies of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis unfold in Japan, we cannot grasp the depth of pain and despair.
This disaster is becoming a catalyst for, what many sense, will be a sea change for Tokyo’s working environment. Management and employees have battled a 20-year recession, which worsened over the last two years since the Lehman Shock.
From my perspective, this may well be the final straw to an already battered corporate and employee environment and extensive change will ensue for organizations, the employee and government response (see a related article on managing a company in a time of crisis).
Today is different from what my firm experienced following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. The economic recession had not drained personal resources to the level we’ve seen in the last two years; this crisis is bigger and the radiation factor shakes all to the core because it speaks to long-term survival. Lastly, this disaster is more graphic in visual impact, driven by recently emerged social networks.
As a result of mulling over some issues around the employment environment the last two years and especially the crisis of the last month, I have put my ideas to paper. The foundation for identifying these issues is 30 years in Japan working with firms and thousands of professionals.
Employees in Crisis
Reacting with anger & fear: Anger and fear have ballooned in the last two years and this disaster enhances that response. For an economic downturn, culprits can seemingly be identified, but with a natural disaster, there is no one to blame, so the expression of fear and anger has no target, enhancing a lack of focus as to where anger and fear are spent.
Firms are experiencing increased negative behavior in the following ways:
• Legal action by individuals who do not seek justice, but who want revenge (one out of two firms we deal with have legal issues)
• Aggressive, radical labor union activity
• Harassment and physical threats: I personally was physically threatened and intimidated in the office three times over three years.
These actions arise from feeling out of control and are attempts to regain control. Compassion for fellow workers is weak or non-existent.
Reacting with despondency: Culturally, Japanese more typically respond with despondency and passive aggressive behavior. For Japanese, the expressions of “shoganai,” “shigataganai” and then “ganbarimasho” or” gambatte kudasai” give a feeling of meaninglessness, implying hopelessness in the face of fate, making individuals numbed with little energy to move forward. The weight that is being carried is shown by the current slowness of walking on Tokyo streets. This numbness turns into depression, becoming isolating and destructive to corporate and personal performance and well as it does to life in general.
Career frustration: The economy has altered the careers of many professionals. Firms have closed. Corporations and jobs are moving to other parts of Asia. Some employees are tired as they are working two jobs because of staff cuts. Some have not received promotions. Many have given up on career goals and want to just be safe, even with a decrease in pay. Many jobs are going begging because they are seen as “too hard.” Also, with frequent transitions of professionals, it is harder to find professional support among colleagues.
Increased detachment: There is less personal support for professionals. There are more single professionals with less support for their careers from a personal source. There is also an increase in the ”spouse factor.” Some spouses are more demanding and put stress on the career of the other spouse (more money in hard times/let’s leave Japan now!). In times of adversity, the weaker support system makes solutions at work more difficult.
The current professionally maturing generation is one of entitlement: Instead of working through issues and finding solutions, it is easier to change or quit work and defraud the employment insurance system. One little girl on an NHK program said it well: “ I want a job where I get lots of money and do little work.”
Management in Crisis
For management the challenges to deal with the changes in the working environment are enormous:
• How to neutralize negative behavior and motivate positive actions.
• How to provide a normal and stable environment, building effective teams and morale.
• How to respond to increased mental illness: Dealing with mental illness is an ongoing issue in Japan, but it is now intensified and there are few corporate resources to solve the issue and little governmental understanding about how mental illness negatively impacts commercial operations.
Taking the blame: CEOs receive a lot of blame as they are seen as comfortable and rich while others are suffering; some of this is deserved and some is scapegoating. Those who take leadership in times of crisis can neutralize this tendency.
Foreign management in time of crisis: Many foreign managers are committed to Japan and have done their best to support their employees during the disaster, demonstrating grace under pressure. But, some managers abandoned their responsibilities and left Japan.
Life-altering decisions were made in a flash moment based on inadequate information. It will be a long time before Japanese will stop remembering this panic and regain respect for management in those firms. A few managers have already paid with their jobs.
Corporate management and professionals have an opportunity to be a catalyst for change, defining new future directions and building on the strengths of the Japanese work place (team work) and bring resolution to these issues. With action, the economy will more quickly return to growth.
The author is CEO of Oak Associates KK, a company that provides consulting and coaching for senior management in time of change and employee programs to motivate positive actions in times of crisis. For information, call 03-5472-7072.