Is Kodawari the enemy of diversity?

I was enjoying listening to Ken Mogi talk to Nick Kemp on the great Ikigai Tribe podcast this morning and I had such an epiphany I nearly stopped running (fun fact: having epiphanies is Ken Mogi’s Ikigai!).

Firstly, what is Kodawari?

“Kodawari is a personal standard, to which the individual adheres to in a steadfast manner. It is often, though not always, used in reference to a level of quality or professionalism to which the individual holds. It is an attitude, often maintained throughout one’s life, constituting a central element of ikigai. An approach whereby you take extraordinary care of very small details.”  –

Ken Mogi

The two men were talking about the apprentice model. Mogi san shared a few anecdotes about how Kodawari influences on the job training and learning of a skill or craft. At around the 21 minute mark, they begin to discuss Jiro Ono, the famous Sushi restaurant owner. Mogi san describes the lack of feedback as the “default way to learn…observe your master and steal it”. In many traditional Japanese crafts, sports and hospitality settings, “nobody teaches you from a theoretical point of view”.

Nick goes on to comment, “It draws out the best in the apprentice or the student and I guess that it draws out the best apprentice”. Nick highlights the need for mindfulness and persistence to continuously observe the master and steal from them. No feedback, constructive or positive to give you guidance, just continuing to watch and learn.

And it was at this point I had my epiphany! I reflected on the way that this spirit of kodawari is still very much at large in the modern white collar workplace. Companies still retain some of the practices of a “jobs for life” culture. In this long term employment scenario, I have plenty of time to “observe and steal”. My manager is not required to fast track my learning and I can continue along the apprentice path at a slow pace, with plenty of overtime built in to continue this in depth learning journey. My manager also learned in this way so is merely using a tried and tested way to pass down information “Observe and Steal” and “the hidden thing to be discovered” a common trope in Japanese literature according to Mogi san.

And this is why kodawari can be seen as an enemy of diversity.

Not all talent has the luxury of the time required to “observe and steal”

If I’m a woman, I don’t have the flexibility to “observe and steal”.

If I am planning a family, I need to move up the organisation as quickly as possible before I face the maternal wall. I need to accelerate my learning so I don’t fall behind my male peers if I take any type of childcare leave.

If I already have caregiver responsibilities, I can’t keep watching to find the mystery revealed, to stay late every day only to be told “You might end up being a good manager one day” (To paraphase the Jiro example from the podcast)

If I’m a foreigner, my limited time working visa does not allow me the luxury of this type of apprentice path. I need to grow and to prove my competence and usefulness to the organisation before my visa renews. And depending on my cultural dexterity I also have to shift through many layers of what may seem to be “atarimae” (common sense) before I can understand the nuances of what are being taught.

So when kodawari is tied up with an OJT, apprentice style power dynamic, it can really exclude those who do not reflect the lifestyle of the “master”.

What can you do about it?

If you want to develop yourself as an inclusive manager then take a look at how you develop talent.

Giving direct constructive feedback is really helpful when delivered in a timely, specific and growth oriented manner.

And start practicing how to give positive feedback, catch them doing something good and reinforce that behaviour.

According to a Harvard study, the average employee ideally needs 6 positive pieces of feedback for every negative review received

How about in your team? In your relationships? What are your ratios looking like? I often ask this in Feedback training for Managers and am usually met with some sheepish grins. I raise my own hand and admit my ratios could be better too. I’ve been trained to focus on the negatives and overcome my weaknesses. It is still an ongoing reprogramming for myself to look at how can I double down on my strengths and use those for growth.

Go out and have a go. See what giving a 6:1 ratio feels like. How does it change you? How does it change your relationships?

So what do you think? How might “kodawari” spirit be limiting opportunities for diverse talents in Japan? What can you do about it in your organisation?

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