Personal Responsibility vs Personal Honor

The impetus for this would be just some observations that came together from my decade plus experience working with people from Asia and the west.

Naturally these are generalizations and there are exceptions, also, these are just my experiences. I could be experiencing a minority subset but again, these are just my thoughts on what I experienced.

The one thing I noticed is that Asians seem to have a lot of personal honor when conducting themselves, a lot of them have the Ganbatte or its Chinese equivalent, "die also I will get it done for you" thing going on which are indicative of the stereotypical Asian work ethic. The westerners can seem a bit more tepid and will only have similar levels of commitment if things are stacked their way. When I asked them why, it was because they felt that it is wrong for them to promise things they cannot deliver and it goes against their personal responsibility. Now, I am only talking about people who work in the operational level, not leadership where Westerners tend to have much more grandiose ideas.

Before writing this piece, I watching a documentary about aircraft as I am an enthusiast of finely tuned machines, in this case, about the [Japanase A6M Zero]( and The Battle of Midway 1942: Told from the Japanese Perspective (1/3).  I won't get into the finer points of how the Japanese A6M, its aviators, and all that as that is not the point here. What made me fascinated was that I saw things I could relate to in the workplace, regarding Asian personal honor and Western personal responsibility.

The Japanese did the Ganbatte thing taken to its extreme which is the Banzai Charge and Kamikazi. It is shown by their cavalier attitude towards not using parachutes, reliance on personal skill rather than coordination that made them not use nor fix their aircraft radio communications and suicide attacks if the attack failed. The issue the Japanese flying units was that their pilots are unlikely to disengage from an unfavorable fight and would rather die than live to fight another day. The Americans exploited this by drawing them into fights of attrition where superior American co-ordination, defensive tactics and manufacturing power would just bleed the Japanese air forces dry of experienced pilots. The Japanese blatant disregard their responsibility over their own honor cost them the air war because the Japanese were losing pilots faster than they could replace them and were left with inexperienced pilots who will get consistently defeated by the Americans who retained their experienced ace pilots. That resulted in them using more and more suicide attacks as they will die anyway when fighting experienced pilots. Contrast this with Americans who were only engaged in favorable terms and press the attack only when the situation is dire or if there is a chance of winning. American commanders were willing to withdraw to fight another day while Japanese commanders will not back down from a fight as it will be a stain on their honor and that of their men. The former understood their responsibility to their family, their unit and their country while the latter was so consumed by their personal honor that everything came second. There are cultural, social, economic and political aspects as well to this but, I believe its fair to say that, in a nutshell, the Japanese obsession with personal honor was one of the driving factors that cost them their pilots, which were at the time, the best of the best in the Pacific, far superior to their American, British, Russian and Australian counterparts.

Now, that was a rather extreme example but this can also be seen in the workplace. The stereotypical Asian hard worker puts his heart and soul into what he does and that is indoctrinated into Asians by what can be called tough love where failure to succeed is met with varying levels of spanking and shaming. What happens is that when an authority figure gives them a task, they will do what it takes to succeed because, deep inside, the fear of being seen as not good enough is great. On one hand, this can be very good where you can be assured that things will get done, where it is not so good is that, the person will try to win or die trying which can set the guy up to fail. It is not seen as positive to say, I cannot, especially in the older generation in the workforce. It will be admitting defeat. However, that is not fair to those around the person and that of the organization.

I always tell people I work with the following:

I understand that getting face is great but does getting face in the here and now bring food to the table or will losing face make you die a horrible death? You have a responsibility to not only yourself but those around you. Stop it with this imagined hurt and move on.

I am not saying the west is better in but sometimes we need to get over ourselves and understand that we have responsibilities to others and not just be a slave to the scars of our upbringing and our personal honor.

This also means that in Asia, we cannot readily adopt the model that was successfully adopted in the west where small teams of self-organizing autonomous teams are used. Those successful teams that we hear and read about, especially from Silicone Valley work under a different set of societal rules where failing is not immediately seen as a dishonor but something that can be dealt with and learned from.

We need to do a better job at making it okay for people to say, I am not yet ready for the job or at least, learn how to read people better. We also need to make it such that if one falls short, that it is a learning and instill that you can feel bad about yourself but get over it and get our ass back up and do better next time and be rewarded.