This is the fourth of a four part series examining management theories and how they can help us understand our own personal productivity.
William Ouchi was born in 1943 and raised in Honolulu. He earned his Ph.D from the University of Chicago and is currently on faculty at the University of California.
Ouchi studied the different work cultures of America and Japan. In America, he found the “Cowboy” culture, where people are rewarded for their individual efforts and employees are acting out of what is good for themselves in the short term. Americans tend to value people who are mavericks and accomplish stuff even if they work against the “system” to do so. In America, it is common for someone to be admired because they buck corporate culture and do things their own way, if it leads to good results.
In Japan, people often work at the same company for their entire lives. Because of this, they take a long term approach. In Japan they tend to reward people for long term allegiance to the company. Workers are rewarded, not as individuals, but as part of a team. Japanese value people who conform to culture and are solid predictable members of a group that can be counted on to work just like everyone else.
Ouchi thought that the best approach was to combine these two cultural approaches to work. He felt that creating an environment where people work as part of teams over long periods would produce stability for the workers and efficiency for the organization. At the same time, he felt that individual achievement should be rewarded to encourage everyone to achieve their maximum performance.
We can apply these lessons to our personal work by recognizing the following: There is only so much that can be done by one person. To make a large impact, we will need to develop a team of people around us. Regardless of who makes up the team, we must be aware of the importance of having this group of people.
There are some advantages to having people on “your team” for long periods of time in keeping with the Japanese work culture. For example, if you use the same tax accountant for 15 years instead of jumping to a different person each year or going to H&R Block, the accountant will develop a deeper understanding of your situation and be in a unique position to advise you in ways that wouldn’t be possible with a short term relationship. Longevity is valuable, especially with a highly skilled team.
Also, recognize that your skill level and methods of working are, in a large part, determined by the culture in which you live. (See post: Social Glass Ceiling) If you feel that you aren’t achieving your potential, make sure your social context isn’t holding you back. Don’t be afraid to move on if the social context and culture is holding you back. This may mean finding new friends or looking for a new job. Don’t spend years of your life in a situation that is going to prevent you from developing. Take the “Cowboy” risks to maximize your potential.
Originally published October 30, 2005.