Bert hamminga Page title: Cultures and Hierarchy
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Sony Distribution Centre Utrecht (free according to a true story from one of my friends).
"I lived in a house with a number of highly
sympathetic non standard people, ranging from flopped musicians to drunkards and
combinations of both. Our common problem was debts and no money. We though we might as
well call ourselves an employment agency (that way, we needed to give only one real name)
and started working at the floor of Sony Distribution Centre. There was a clear and steep
hierarchy. Our boss was Dutch. Terrible guy. You know, the type who wants to have his
power felt. Licking upwards, kicking downwards. We called him Nitwit. At first, his lust
for power was focused on me. When his own task required even the smallest manual labour,
like taking a TV out of a box and putting it on the table, he called me to do it for him.
He hoped I would get irritated, but of course, I did not! With the brightest of smiles, I
did all services he asked, afterwards giving winks to my fellow workers, who were very
amused. We had a lot of fun talking about Nitwit during our heavy (fresh money available!)
But these Japanese directors, they were very surprising. Many times they came down chatting with everybody. They would approach you and bow for you as if you were a king. You really started to feel you were important for the company. They were very interested in all your thoughts. Not only your view of the organisation of the work, but also in your private interests, hobbies, and family circumstances. They really took the time to talk to you. One of them, I still remember his Japanese name!, really felt like a friend. But he was high staff! Nice guys these Japanese.
One day I swiftly drove my fork lift close along the TVboxes piled up. Nitwit said: "don't touch them, you would not want me to slap your face wouldn't you?" "I would advize you to do so only if your are in for a surprise", was my answer. Everybody laughed. The Japanese looked curiously through the windows of their little offices. Nitwit just sat, did not know where to look.
That event changed Nitwit's behaviour. He now even started to take TV's out of boxes himself, and when he really needed somebody, he started asking people whom he saw were free at that moment, and not only me.
At last the Japanese discovered that the employment agency they hired us from was really our own phantasy. How could you do that!, they asked us sadly. After this discovery we were invited to become regular direct employees of Sony. But that was to much for us, we had different ambitions in life. It was a sad goodbye, and I still feel good when I remember these Japanese."
Question: Why do you think the Japanese liked so much these people that they wanted
them to be regular employees, even though they seem to be heavy drinkers, and sloppy
managers of their own budgets?
My answer (I am of course not sure): Because they lived in one house, sharing a common problem, looking for a common solution, they displayed a high degree of emotional openness, mutual acceptance and confidence among each other and thus unlike normal Dutch workers acted like family members. As I gather from his reaction to the "surprise" answer, even Nitwit started to improve. I feel very sure that the Japanese have informed themselves in detail on that incident and appreciated its result.
Hierarchy and Pathology: what constitutes a Nitwit?
Nitwit is a character we often find in the lower parts of Western hierarchies: it is a
person who lacks self esteem, "treats his inferiors "patronizingly", often
because he himself is treated "patronizingly" by his superiors. Patronizing is
meant here as making your superiority felt, making others feel their inferiority.
Since in lots of Western organizations, hierarchies are identified with patronizing,
hierarchy has a negative meaning and hierarchies are made as flat as possible.
The "Asian" (mind the quotes!) idea of hierarchy does not involve patronizing: every worker, high or low in the hierarchy is granted his own value and self esteem. Therefore, those who are down in the hierarchy do not feel "inferior". This makes them motivated to contribute to the common goal of the organisation. They naturally communicate and share their practical work problems and feel sure any ideas for improvement are taken seriously. They do not fear that their ideas for improvements will be "stolen" by the superior, just because there is no such thing as "your idea" for which you are going to be rewarded individually.
The paradox is this: many Asian firms are internationally competitive and viable on the markets of free international competition because the employees are not viewed upon as little "businesses" selling their "service" to the firm. The labour market is not seen as a free flexible competitive market where employers freely "buy" what fits their needs best. The family model implies steep hierarchy, but at the same time also security and freedom to express your feelings. In those respects the typical Asian organisation is closer to an African community than to a Western company (see "Epistemology from an African point of view" : New proposals, the role of communication).
Types of hierarchy:
We discern here three basic types of hierarchy:
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