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Why do Japanese Wear Facemasks During the Winter?

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 24/02/2016 Great Work Cultures

Who you are and where you grew up seems to make a difference also in relation to the type of workplace culture you may embrace, contribute to develop or try to destroy (especially if you feel it may destroy you).
The amount of literature developed to prove the point is ample and ponderous and I will make no attempt to challenge that.
At the same time there are some fundamental things we all carry inside that make us move "regardless" of the culture we belong to, pretty much in the same way newborns are naturally drawn toward their mom's breast for feeding.
You may call it instinct but I see something deeper and more organized to it. Let me explain why.
Over the years I developed and used a very simple tool to help teams align around one common objective. The tool is part of a workshop in which participants (they tend to be extremely heterogeneous groups with the only common element being that everyone is somehow connected to realizing the objective) build up together the context, the definition of what is valuable in that context, identify the activities creating the value, recognize the functions carrying out those activities and map out cross points between activities and functions in a way it simply represents the process/processes that, once completed, will allow the team to reach its objective. It is way more complicated to explain than to do and the real beauty of it is that it is a completely self-managed process. The role of the facilitator is simply to ask questions, as it is participants who keep each other "in check" and sort through the inevitable nonsense that tends to emerge every now and then.
I used the tool at every possible latitude (from China to Africa, to the US, Italy, Argentina, Germany and even in France), within top notch, extremely structured and well-educated teams in multinational companies all the way to a 10 people start - up, a law firm trying to revamp its business or a sport franchise with a great team on the field looking for a way to structure its business arm.
Group dynamics and outcomes have always been the same and it was the process of building the whole thing up from scratch that made it easy to navigate for the participants.
We never started our workshop by presenting or discussing any intention of changing the rules of the game, we never talked about creating a culture of participation and sharing, we never presented principles or values. We very simply dove into the thick of the matter and came out of it.
I should say that the simplicity of the tool sometimes creates resistance, especially in the most "sophisticated" environments. The pace of the exercise on one side and the unbearable power of the mass on the other, always takes care of that.
Sometimes someone feels excluded or tries to checkout unnoticed by simply sitting silently. If he or she is truly connected to the value-generating process the group is trying to look at, they will come back to life as soon as the conversation reaches their corner of the table. And even though they may show little interest in the discussion, at one point the discussion will start being extremely interested in them.
Why this long story?
Because when I was discussing this approach with my Partners and with the Clients the questions were always the same: "Do you really believe that in this environment this approach will work?" For the large Italian media conglomerate the resistance was to the idea to mix top managers with an MBA with lower level hands-on shipping clerks (we tend to be extremely hierarchical in our thinking), for the Ethiopian foodstuff company the issue was how to win through the natural shyness and modesty of the local Managers who - out of fear or respect - never come forward in the presence of the man from Europe (there is still a lot of sensitivity from the old colonial days). In the Chinese tannery it was the assumption that no member of staff would dare to speak their mind in the presence of the CEO (here again the cultural and social model calls for blind respect of any figure perceived as an authority) while in Argentina it seemed no one would have been interested in even listening to what the others had to say (there is always a great abundance of testosterone and ego when you walk into a board room in Buenos Aires).
As I wrote before, the workshop always yields its results and organizations grow fond of it to the point that, after familiarizing with the mechanics, they manage to run it of their own and naturally move the approach deeper and deeper into the organization.
Is this impacting the culture of that particular workplace? You bet! You may not see value trees or pictures of reversed icebergs in the canteen but at a deeper level things start moving in a new direction.
The lever is always the same: providing for an opportunity to get things out before we try to push things in.
As consultants we love it every time we manage to close the loop and the organization gives us a sign that what we are doing was worth their money and our time. For me the epiphany came a few years back in China when the GM of the company I had been working this process with asked me to work with him on a new organization chart that would represent what came out of our workshop - the "real country" as he called it - instead of using the picture of an "imaginary world" (his words again) as they had done up to that day.
Back to the initial question: why do Japanese wear facemasks in the winter?
If you are European or North American you may think they wear a mask to get some protection from disease or pollution (this is why we may wear one). In their culture they wear a mask especially if they have a cold or a cough and their worry is about protecting the rest of us.
These cultural differences (what drives the Japanese is within and what drives me comes from the outside) help explain certain things and we should always pay attention to the subtleties of the culture we walk in when we try to bring change about. Nonetheless the culture of the "locals" does not appear to be a limiting factor in changing the ways in which an organization finds common solutions to universal problems (this is - after all - what culture is about).
I feel that sometimes we spend too much energy trying to figure out why it may not work (and the local culture may very well be one of the reasons) but at the end of the day what works tends to survive and what we may need to do is very simply to start tackling the issue at a very low, practical level instead of basing everything on the outcome of a "culture assessment".
Or, even better, let's do both!
Massimo Gilmozzi is a management consultant and entrepreneur based in Italy and working internationally across a number of industries. His main areas of interest are strategic development and cross-cultural organizational alignment. Before becoming a consultant in 2002, he spent more than 20 years in the medical-biotech arena first with J&J and later with WL Gore & Associates. Contact Massimo at, via Linkedin, or Twitter.

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