I have a friend from the U.S. who was recently touring Tokyo on foot. He had an expensive camera that he was carrying around his neck, but as he entered a museum, he was told he couldn’t take it in. He looked around for a locker or some guarded place to put it, but the man taking tickets motioned for him to put it on a shelf across the room that held several other cameras. He was reluctant to leave it there because nobody was guarding the shelf and it would have been easy for exiting museum-goers, or even someone off the street, to stroll past and pick up his camera. But he left it there as instructed, and was pleased when it was in exactly the same spot when he came out.
What is it about the culture in Japan that makes this scenario commonplace, whereas in the U.S., the museum would have had to supply lockers or a guard to monitor the shelf? The answer reminds me of the culture of an IT group that I used to lead. One of our tenets was “Trust people to do the right thing without the need for lots of rules”, and unlike other organizations I had worked in, we had very few rules guiding the behavior of employees. Instead, this group of about 200 people had a shared commitment to get the job done, and a belief that they were being trusted. As a result, we didn’t experience the bad behavior that I’ve seen in so many other groups, such as people showing up late for work or meetings, and needing to be prompted to put in extra hours to complete a project on time. Contrary to common practice in many corporations and nations, we knew that trusting people compels them to be trustworthy.
Why does this work? It’s easy to understand just by observing how trust makes you feel. When someone trusts me, it’s an indication of respect, and I feel a strong conviction from the core of my body to be worthy of that respect. Contrarily, when a boss or organization imposes rules and restrictions on me, I take that as a sign of lack of trust and respect, and I feel resentful and indignant. This gives me no motivation to act in their best interests. What does this have to do with Japan?
Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and anthropologist, states that the Japanese and other collectivist nations are far less likely to have explicit rules written into laws as compared with nations such as the U.S. He also points out that Japanese business contracts are much shorter than American business contracts. This implies that the Japanese culture puts more implicit trust in people, and it follows that the Japanese people have responded with a conviction to be worthy of that respect.
This calls into question the practice we have in the U.S. of being quick to introduce new legislation. Between 2000 and 2007, Congress created over 450 new crimes, with the total number of Federal crimes as of the end of 2007 exceeding 4,450. If the purpose of legislation is to provide guidelines to citizens so they understand and exhibit acceptable behavior, the U.S. clearly has less effective legislation than any other rich country. About 2.4m U.S. citizens are behind bars, which is roughly one in every 100 adults. In comparison, as a proportion of its total population, the U.S. incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and twelve times more than Japan. If the purpose of legislation is to keep immoral people off the streets, the U.S. fails this measure as well, as each of these countries has homicide rates that are significantly lower than the U.S., and clearly unguarded cameras are much safer in Japan.
This points to a good leadership practice that some people will find counter-intuitive. If the group you’re leading isn’t exhibiting the behavior that you desire, think first about how you can increase trustworthiness by reducing the rules and restrictions.
As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.Share