Bushido in the workplace, or handling others’ mistakes

by Jon

In Yamamoto Tsunetomo‘s Bushido text Hagakure, we find many examples of the behavior expected of samurai; several of which I find apply well in the workplace.

For example, when someone comes and rudely interrupts you, implicitly insisting that their business should be given priority, Tsunetomo suggests not becoming flustered:

At such times, the etiquette of a samurai is to calm himself and deal with the person in a good manner. To treat a person harshly is the way of middle class lackeys.

We all deal with minor annoyances at work, things too petty to bring to anyone’s attention. In another passage, Tsunetomo suggests letting those minor annoyances slide:

It is a fact that fish will not live where the water is too clear. But if there is duckweed or something, the fish will hide under its shadow and thrive. Thus, the lower classes will live in tranquility if certain matters are a bit overlooked or left unheard. This fact should be understood with regard to people’s conduct.

As if to emphasize the point, he even suggests lenient sentencing for criminals:

At the time of a deliberation of criminals, Nakano Kazuma proposed making the punishment one degree lighter than what would be appropriate. This is a treasury of wisdom that only he was the possessor of.

By sparing the worse sentence, a person is given the chance to redeem themselves. Later Tsunetomo says:

When intimate friends, allies, or people who are indebted to you have done some wrong, you should secretly reprimand them and intervene between them and society in a good manner.

You should erase a person’s bad reputation and praise him as a matchless ally and one man in a thousand. If you will thus reprimand a person in private and with good understanding, his blemish will heal and he will become good. If you praise a person, people’s hearts will change and an ill reputation will go away of itself.

I find this concept very useful, and in practice it comes up fairly often, especially in cross-team collaborative work. Every team has its ups and downs, times when some work harder than others. And there’s always a time when somebody, for whatever reason, just isn’t pulling their weight. What Tsunetomo is saying is, the way to correct that behavior is to give feedback in private, and give praise in public. Give the individual the chance to get back into alignment with the rest of the team, without damaging their reputation.

In cross-team endeavors, I remember this as “don’t air your dirty laundry”.  It doesn’t benefit anyone to complain about your team, or specific members of your team, to the other teams you’re working with. Deal with the problem internally, and always give others the impression that the team is doing just fine. A negative team image is not going encourage anyone to do their best work.

Similar advice is given to job seekers as “don’t complain about your last boss.” A potential employer will think twice about hiring someone so willing to throw others under the bus.

Of course, all of this is easy to follow if you yourself always pull your own weight. It’s even easier if, as a leader, you step back regularly and let the group take its victories. People, especially within your team, will recognize who did what, and if everyone follows the same philosophy, it’s only natural that you too will be recognized for your contributions, both within and outside of your team.

A samurai doesn’t let others’ self-importance fluster him, lets others’ small mistakes slide, gives leniency when the mistakes are large, and uses public praise with private reprimand to  straighten out those under him. So too can we use this as a model for how we handle others’ mistakes in the workplace.

An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 29, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.