The Spa! magazine in Japan recently released the results of a survey of 1,140 male full-time employees in their forties about what they hated about their jobs. The top three complaints were: salaries have not risen because of decades of deflation; a sense of being underappreciated and undervalued; and a lost sense of purpose.
Apart from not enough money in a time of massive corporate profits, the other issues are all about leadership soft skills. Dale Carnegie Training did a global study of engagement and the results for Japan were consistent with global trends. Japan’s scores were also consistent with every survey I have ever seen on the subject of engagement in this country. The percentages of those who are not engaged are always gob smacking.
Why would staff feel underappreciated? The reason is obvious. No one in a leadership position has shown them any sign that they are important, that what they are doing is important and that they have a future in the organisation.
Part of the reason is cultural—Japanese prefer understatement and subtlety, not passionate expressions of appreciation. A boss coming back from a training course suddenly telling staff how great they are and how much they are appreciated would be viewed with the distinct suspicion that something odious was about to descend and this was some smoke screen before all hell breaks loose.
This says a lot about entrenched ideas and expectations about leadership in Japan. The bar is so low here that any deviation towards something approaching more normal Western management styles is viewed in a negative light. That means we have some work to do.
That global study said the gateway drug to gaining higher levels of engagement was to have staff feel they are valued by their managers. Often, work can become routine and parts of it can be tedious. The lower down the totem pole you descend, the harder it is for those at the bottom to recognise that what they are doing has any great relevance for the organisation.
This is where the boss has to re-connect them to the machine. They need to see how what they do is important and where it fits into the overall picture. The job itself has to be established as having relevance for them to feel they have relevance.
Their work may or may not be perfect, but very few people in life try to do a bad day’s work. They may not be geniuses, but they are usually doing the best they can. If we want higher skills, we need to train them. If we want greater productivity, we need to help them become motivated. How can that happen? Well, telling people “be motivated” won’t do it. This is an inside-out, not an outside-in process.
The boss’s job is to have such good levels of communication that the individual aspirations of the team members are known, and so the work can be related to how this will help them achieve their aims.
For the boss to be able to do that with any credibility takes training in communication skills and understanding people. Barking orders at plebs is not the type of communication skill set about to unleash latent high enthusiasm levels for work.
For bosses, even finding the time to actually speak about these things with their team is difficult. Flatter organisational structures have pushed a lot of work on to the boss’s plate. If the boss can manage time properly (know any?) and if they can delegate effectively (know any?), then this flat structure-ordained busyness will be counterbalanced to some extent. So the effectiveness of bosses in managing themselves sets up the organisation to help them manage others in a more professional way.
Japan needs to address these failures of leadership in the soft skills area and tap into the full strength of the working population. They are not making as many Japanese as they used to, so we have to make sure we allow all of our staff the chance to shine. In this regard, bosses have a bigger responsibility than ever before to get this right.