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!) evening drink.
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:

  1. Patronizing model: superiors make their superiority felt, inferiors chiefly aim at avoiding collisions with superiors, even if they know that the option chosen for the purpose is not the best for the targets of the organisation ("better do nothing than do something wrong", "if necessary to keep your boss off your chest, just do the wrong thing"). Atmosphere of distrust. No sharing of problems and solutions. This is the basic attitude of workers under communism, and other totalitarian states and businesses.

    Why, a Polish joke goes, policemen always go around in groups of three? The answer: one can read, another can write, and the third is to monitor these two intellectuals....

  2. Military model: superiors make their superiority felt, inferiors not supposed to do any thinking, not informed about how their particular orders fit in a general strategy. You "keep your mouth shut and your ears open". Sofar it is like the patronizing model. The difference: often soldiers are deeply loyal to both fellow soldiers and superiors and agree to the necessity of this type of operation af a military organisation. You are "proud to be shouted at".

    In a military exam, one of the questions was: What does the soldier have and of which? The answer, everybody new was: the soldier has two pair of shoes, one pair of which should be under his bed....
  3. Family model. Steep hierarchy ("pecking order": father, oldest son/daughter , second oldest etc.), but atmosphere of trust. Everybody talks. Discussions are free, superiors act as referees and if necessary, final deciders after having heard the voices. After decisions are taken you fully and wholehartedly conform. Whatever your rank in the hierarchy, you are basically loyal, you feel safe, protected and appreciated. You will defend your group in all circumstances.

    In Tombura, Southern Sudan, there was the usual refugee camp: isolated to prevent further migration and contact with the local population, international aid organisations systematically kept the refugees dependent on food flown over to Africa by Western business well paid by their own governments. It was a good time for the Western aid industry. But.... the war came to close. Aid officials got scared and fled. Then, refugees and town people started to talk intensively to one another. The first thing you talk about in Africa is your family, ancestors, clan and  tribe. Within a few days, all kinds of family relations to fourth, fifth or sixth degrees were discovered. Refugees got clothes, food and shelter from their newly discovered relatives in town (though due to war everything was very scarce) and the "refugee problem" took a quick ending (Haumann, Thieu, Vrede langs het oorlogspad, Heeswijck/Utrecht: Dabar-Luyten, 1998, p.22).

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