Training March 2016

Desire, dreams and guts

Sakaiya Taichi, a well-known author, economist and futurist, made an interesting observation about a current trend in Japanese society. He referred to Japan’s current lack of yoku (desire), yume (dreams) and yaruki (guts).

What does this mean for business if firms are staffed by young people who lack these three Ys? As leaders, how can we reverse this trend and produce more engaged teams? Is it too late already?

Diligence has a strong pedigree in Japan. In samurai society, retainers were trained to be ready to die for their lord anywhere, anytime.

In the pre-war period, the majority of people lived in rural areas, where agriculture was the main pursuit. This required pulling your own weight as part of a group effort. The harshest punishment was ostracisation, meaning no cooperation from the group, which might possibly result in death.

In the post-war period—following the firebombing of cities and industrial centres—Japan had to drag itself up from the ashes of defeat, and a strong national unity was thus formed.

As Japan’s GDP grew, salarymen sacrificed time with their families for the firm, proudly counting off the leading economies the country surpassed as collective notches on the belt of a resurgent Japan.

The 1985 Plaza Accord—signed to intervene in currency markets—triggered a surge of the yen and the biggest global shopping spree possibly ever seen: Japan was coined number one. Then the bubble burst, Japan went into decline and has been lurching along the bottom ever since.

The Lehman Shock in 2008 and the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear core meltdown in 2011 have further underlined Japan’s fragility.

In business, the social contract has been broken, and firms now prefer to hire part-time staff, to enjoy greater flexibility in response to future downturns. Profits are soaring but employee wages are not moving. Abenomics seems to have run out of steam. The root causes of a lack of these 3 Ys are not hard to find.

Demographics will create more pressure on firms to focus harder on recruiting and retaining workers, as the supply of young workers steadily falls. But the stimulus to desire, and dream of, a better future will only arise if company leadership recognises there is an issue.

The expectation that this current generation of young people will fit into workplaces—as has every preceding generation—is Leadership Japan’s geriatric illusion.

The young will need a lot more conversations about their future prospects in the firm than their ageing bosses ever received from their superiors. They want praise and feedback to give them confidence to step up and take responsibility.

The old style luxury of screaming at staff when they make a mistake will not be possible. The young will simply leave and get a job elsewhere.

Not delegating—and thereby not enabling young staff to gain experience so they can position themselves to step into higher levels of authority—won’t cut it either. Disorganised, time mismanaging bosses who think it is “easier if I do it myself” will find it is not, as they have to spend time and treasure to replace a more mobile workforce.

Coaching and mentoring skills are going to be at a premium as leaders are sought who can develop future leaders, retaining the best talent and leveraging the ideas, insights and innovations of those at the bottom—those closest to the action.

Key drivers of engagement in staff, apart from the obvious relationship with the immediate supervisor, are a belief in the direction in which senior management are taking the firm and pride in the organisation. These last two are communication necessities. If current leaders think they are obvious truths, in no need of elucidation, they are in for a sad business future, as the young depart for competitors in droves.

Take a good hard look at your middle managers and senior leaders—do they get it? Are they able to encourage the young to see a future with the firm, showing the young that they do not have to leave to advance in their career? Are they able to get across the key messages required?

If they are not fully capable, we had better get busy re-training them for the brave new world just around the corner. Their primary job is to create a culture of yoku, yume and yaruki inside the organisation.