May 25, 2017 10:40 pm JST

East Asian workers remarkably disengaged

Managerial changes needed before weak motivation harms performance

KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

Office workers in Tokyo

TOKYO -- Workers in East Asia are much less engaged in their jobs than their counterparts in the rest of the world, a recent survey by Gallup shows. Experts say East Asian companies need to alter their management styles before disengaged workforces harm their competitiveness.

The U.S. pollster asked workers in a range of industries and jobs 12 questions, then categorized the employees as engaged, not engaged or actively disengaged. Questions included, "Do you know what is expected of you at work?" And, "In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?"

The survey was conducted globally from 2014 through 2016.

The results show East Asian workplaces have remarkably low ratios of engaged employees, with Hong Kong at 5%, Japan and China at 6%, and South Korea and Taiwan at 7%. Globally, 15% of workers are engaged in their jobs. In the United States, 32% are, and in the the Philippines, 36% are.

In a recent interview with the Nikkei Asian Review in Tokyo, Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, said employee engagement shows up in company performance. Disengaged workers "drive customers out" and even "try to get others miserable," he said.

Clifton said that for the most part, Japan has kept its old management styles. He added that managers in the country largely fail to understand the needs of young workers, many of whom have a different set of priorities than older workers. Younger workers, for example, might pursue personal growth ahead of pay raises.

"Millennials have an extreme need for development in the workplace," Clifton said. "I think that is where Japanese leadership has failed."

He suggested that managers look for and develop employee strengths rather than correcting weaknesses.

As for China, Shunsuke Nakamura -- a general manager at Alue, a Japanese human resources consultancy that has Chinese clients -- said Chinese people tend to distrust organizations. He says this tendency is due to history: As dynasties change, so too do power structures and bureaucracies.

He also said Chinese people tend to trust only those they are very close to. To gain Chinese employees' trust and improve their engagement, Nakamura said, "employers should clearly establish their company's mission and vision so that they can emotionally appeal to their employees."

Motohiro Morishima, a professor of human resource management at Japan's Gakushuin University, pointed out that low engagement is a sign of weak motivation -- a factor that can result in an organization losing competitiveness over the long run. Morishima also said that the more a worker is engaged, the more he or she will want to work, resulting in higher productivity.

One reason for East Asia's low employee engagement, Morishima said, could be that, in some countries, employers tend to hire workers without clearly spelling out the responsibilities involved. As a result, employees are given little motivation.

In Japan, he said, "most workers are satisfied with their organization but they don't actively look for or have fun at work." He said work tends to be about managing costs, processes and achievements, which have nothing to do with employee motivation.

Morishima said Japanese companies need management schemes to "make work fun."

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