From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Spring and Autumn Roles (2)—Japanese-American Characteristics

Click here to go to section one of "Spring and Autumn Roles."
Click below for the other "Spring and Autumn Roles" posts.
1         2         3         4        to be continued
 During the autumn months I will be posting new segments of The Emperor's Teacher (the big business book that will rock the world). Chapter three is (provisionally) called "Spring and Autumn Roles" and forms (along with three more chapters that will follow) the "middle" of my management book—part two of three.
If you have read The Art of War, you have arrived at the doorstep. Still, no one ever managed anything in China having just read Sunzi (Sun-tzu), but don't despair. You are now ready for what comes next in leadership. Compiled nine-hundred years ago, it is the greatest management book ever written, and there are only two problems: (1) it is in "medieval" Chinese; (2) it is 10,000 pages long. No worries, though. That's what I am here for. I have been studying this stuff for thirty years, and I have been waiting for you.
Welcome. 歡迎.
Let's begin to study real Chinese management together.
[a] Character RF
After reading chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel," you will have some acquaintance with Sima Guang and the Comprehensive Mirror (資治通鑒). If you have completed chapter two, "Living and Learning," you know a good deal about various "learning strategies" in ancient China, and some of the ways that they were employed in later times. You are now ready to tackle the big themes at the heart of the greatest management text of all time. It is time to consider how managers managed in Chinese history, and how you might use these lessons to think more clearly about managing yourself, your family, and all under heaven. 

Don't worry too much about the order at this point (these are blog entries and not a book...yet).  If you want to start here and loop back to part one (Chapter One: Breaking the Vessel and Chapter Two: Living and Learning) in due time, that is fine.  This chapter should stand on its own as a way of thinking about the multiple roles that shape life and work at any time and in any place.

Japanese-American Character(istic)s

[b] Conflict (not theory) RF
Our roles and relationships are never perfectly “equal.”  No stretch of social ground is ever perfectly "flat." Some people seem to understand this better than others. Among those who fail to grasp this, many go by the name "American." We'll discuss this matter more thoroughly in the next post, but suffice it to say that much of the world understands social life as something of a rolling terrain, even in the reasonably smooth stretches between peaks and valleys of stratification.

It is a matter of attunement to the notes and chords of social life that play on—whether or not we are paying attention to them. The undulating tune is always there, even if it is hidden in the background, like elevator music.

But many Americans are tone-deaf when it comes to interpersonal relations with even a hint of unevenness. So ingrained is a very particular version of the democratic spirit that it is hardly unusual for, say, members of a discussion group to send subtle signals that everyone is on equal footing. If it sounds as though I dislike this feature of American life, you would be wrong. I was raised in the United States, and go out of my way (so I think to myself) always to be on an even-footing in any conversation I have. Most Americans I know act in similar fashion, and (moreover) will not go out of their way to assert their own statuses if, by chance, a member of the group cannot help but trumpet his or her "superiority." Some people do things like that, of course. I was taught to regard it simply as "bad manners," and feel sorry for the ignorance of someone so assertive as to break the bonds of decorum. I would venture to say that my "reading" of this situation is not terribly unusual in much of the United States.

Here's a big problem, though. This is not the image many people (stereotypically or otherwise) have of Americans abroad. I am not sure what to make of it. Alexis de Tocqueville did, though. Consider the following observations:

          The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but 
          from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through.[1]

          Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery 
          than unequal in freedom.[2]  

Harsh? Perhaps, but read the juxtaposed quotations "against" each other. I find them striking, and can see shades of both in almost every meeting, political event, or large gathering I attend. It appears to me as something like an easy set of dance steps that have been made so intricate that no one can quite remember what to do. How can we waltz if no one leads? Echoing his time, Tocqueville might well have said that Americans are fighting their natures. I am not sure what to do with words such as "nature," but I will say that Americans make social interaction much more difficult than it needs to be.

Relentlessly trying to level rolling terrain will do that, and it does not take a conflict theorist to see that uneven ground lies at the heart of social and economic life. To the extent that American businesses have ignored this point, they have made life (and commerce) much more difficult than it needs to be. It is just one of the reasons why, these days, Chinese business is eating America's lunch.[3]

***  ***
Can we even imagine a world—other than ridiculous caricatures of hierarchy—in which the social terrain looks different? Certainly. Just get on a plane and head toward Narita International Airport. If you are an American citizen, you won't even need a visa for the first thirty days. The world looks different, and it is not just the rice fields and large Eiffel Tower you see on the bus ride to Tokyo.

[c] Bento modesto RF
Everywhere you go, groups look (and act) differently. It starts on the street corner or in office cubicles. I have always been intrigued by the subtle “dance of hierarchy” that takes place whenever I am introduced to someone in Japan. It is almost like an elaborate form of thumb wrestling, but with respectfully clasped hands and the clear goal of “losing” and getting to show deference to someone. In many cases, the relationship is clear, as in the classroom when I am the teacher and someone much younger is the student (or, to reverse the matter, if I am talking to the chair of my department or the dean of the division). Those are simple; you just "fall into" the role that has been seemingly waiting there for you to fill. However in situations in which statuses seem relatively "equal" to an American, there are still many ways to forge order from chaos. I choose these words with care.

Roles and hierarchies are so thoroughly internalized in Japan that even two people whom outsiders might call “precise equals” (imagine people of the same age, gender, and status in their company) still will find a way to attribute seniority to one of the members and junior status to the other. It is not going too far to say that in these situations people are uncomfortable until a kind of rank order is established. Yes—discomfort and uneasiness prevails until disorder can be quelled by creating hierarchy.

Think about that—a room full of fidgety people feeling apprehensive and out of sorts because everyone is “the same.”  The Japanese terms are instructive, and they work their way into just about every relationship from the time a child carries her first bentõ box of lunch treats to school. Even if you don’t read Japanese, you will be able to see a pattern:


The second character in each phrase is identical. 輩 can be translated as “generation” or even “age-rank.” The first character in the top phrase (先) means “before”; in the bottom phrase (後) it means “after.” These two simple, little phrases form the working machinery—the well-oiled levers—of social order in Japan. It is not hard to see how this fits into yesterday’s discussion of roles. You are either a senpai (higher age-rank) or a kõhai (lesser age-rank) in every relationship in your life, all of the time—now and forever. If you doubt the ability of evenly-matched people to sort themselves out according to relative rank, just watch a community (or faculty) meeting in Japan. It is a thing of social beauty—melodic strains on a vertical scale—that brings roles and statuses into alignment in the relational orchestra that is Japanese life.
[d] Greeting RF
If you have been reading just a little bit too quickly, you are likely to have decided that I am saying something along the lines of "Japan good; America bad." I would like to make clear that no, that is not what I am saying at all. Both American and Japanese "social sortings" are rich, cultural traditions with long histories of contingencies, overlapping patterns, and ideological assertions. I am not speaking of "good" and bad." I am a child of American democracy, after all, and come from an era that still had a few "civics" class left over from an earlier, and less-contentious (pre-Vietnam War) era. I get the appeal of equality, for Jefferson's sake.

Here's the kicker, though. Roles are all about (relative) inequality. Teacher-student; mother-son; father-daughter; foreman-worker; dean-professor; secretary-undersecretary; general-colonel-private. How hard is this to see? Roles are all about unevenness of terrain. Yes, to be sure, there are also roles such as the all-important one called "teammate." Think about it, though. How important is "leadership" on teams? Uh-huh. Teams require roles, too, and "tight end" is not the same as "wide receiver," "right guard," or "quarterback." Differentiation is everywhere, and we ignore it (and the expectations that surround it) to our peril. American business and academia had better (re-)learn this, and fast. The rest of the world, which seems to "get" it, is pulling away.

Roles—They're What's for Dinner. They're the main course, and we'll start examining them in earnest from here on. Just watch out for the signs that say: Bumpy Road Ahead.

That's (social and business) life, after all.

[1]  Alexis de Tocqueville., Xplore Inc, 2011., accessed October 7, 2011. 
[2] Alexis de Tocqueville., Xplore Inc, 2011., accessed October 7, 2011. 
[3] I am indebted to my colleague, Professor Warren Palmer, for this memorable phrase. 

Click below for the other "Spring and Autumn Roles" posts.
1         2         3         4        to be continued
Flatness in America
American business has been overcome by a "flatness" craze that threatens it from within.The trendy work is "the flat organization," and—although it speaks to both desires and practicalities in the workplace—it gets it just about completely wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment