Lucifer Effect in the workplace: Different working cultures between the UK and Japan

Author: Yasuhiro Kotera

Associate Professor at University of Nottingham

I live in Derby in England. Derby is located in the middle of England, about a 2 to 3-hour drive away to North from London. Because the UK’s Toyota Motor Manufacturing is located in Derby, there are a good number of Japanese employees and their families living in Derby, who work for Toyota and other collaborative companies such as Kawasaki, Hitachi and so on. Because of this, there is a weekend Japanese school in Derby for those planning to come back to Japan in a few years. There is also an authentic Japanese sushi restaurant run by a Japanese chef, who came to Derby because of many Japanese business people and their families living or visiting there. At an apartment we lived in before, there was one person working for a Japanese company, transferred from a Tokyo office. In the common area of the apartment, he saw my son and I talking in Japanese, so he talked to us. “Are you Japanese?” in Japanese. Then we started to get to know each other.

One day we were talking about our work, and what he said was interesting. “People here don’t work much. In Japan, when someone tries to have a good work-life balance, that means they reduce your work time, but in the UK I feel it’s opposite. They need to increase their work time to have a good work-life balance.” He said it jokingly but coming from a long working culture, I can totally relate to what he said. Working cultures between the UK and Japan are very different.

In Japan, I worked for a major advertisement company, Recruit, having a typical salaryman life. I started working before 9am and finished working around 10pm on average, so came home a bit before midnight. Then I had dinner and went to bed. Mondays to Fridays, my life was like this, then on weekends, I often had a few calls with my clients. These clients tended to be difficult clients, so these calls were often unpleasant, which totally broke the relaxing time of my weekends. When I tell this to my colleagues or friends in the UK, they are often shocked, but I’m sure for many Japanese readers who are reading this now, it’s not shocking at all.

But what may be shocking to those Japanese readers is my current working condition at an UK university, which has improved from that of my previous university. Especially in my current role, the flexibility and autonomy I have for how I work are enormous. Apart from meetings, I can basically do whatever I want to, as long as I produce results. I feel trusted, respected and supported by my line manager, and feel that I want to contribute to my team as much as possible. You don’t have to come in before 9am for no reason, and don’t need to stay in the office until your line manager leaves. You can leave the office whenever you are done with whatever is necessary to be done in the office on that day. For example, on Thursdays, I tend to come in at 9:30am after dropping off my children at school/nursery, then leave the office at 3pm to pick them up from school/nursery. It is totally acceptable, and people are open about those life duties outside their work. It is in the UK law that employees are allowed to request a good work-life balance, and the employer tries their best to meet the request. I feel I am seen as a responsible and independent professional contributing to my team.

Having experienced different working cultures, I often witness the Lucifer Effect. This was introduced by Professor Philip Zimbardo, who is known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, where participants were randomly assigned a role of “Prisoners” and “Prison Guards''. These labels impact on how others treat them, but more importantly impact on how they regard themselves too. Prison guards started to behave more authoritatively towards prisoners, and their aggressive behaviours escalated so that this 2-week experiment had to be terminated on the 6th day.

Likewise, how you feel you are seen by your line manager or organisation influences how you work. In my professional experience, there was a time I had to work under a micromanaging manager, who seemed to believe all her staff were betrayers who would stop working if she didn’t constantly monitor them and would lie to her. We had to be in the office from 9 to 5, even if we did not have any reason. My colleague came in at 9:15, and was severely told off in front of everyone. If you cannot be in the office 9 to 5, you would need an approval from her in advance. Even if you worked from home because of a medical appointment etc., you had to demonstrate what you had done on that day in detail. We felt we were treated like a criminal and were not trusted, losing motivation to work. Many people left the university, and micromanagement intensified. The Stanford Prison Experience, taking place at a UK university. I compared this with my work experience in Japan, and felt better about it. That was how I coped with that time.

The Lucifer Effect exists in the workplace. How you feel you are treated or perceived by your line manager or organisation is really important, and can influence your wellbeing and performance at work. Having worked in Japan, US and UK, I witnessed unique features of working culture in each country but this may be consistent across cultures. Now because of the pandemic, more various working styles have been introduced. I hope many workers’ wellbeing will be supported in their organisation.

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