At 5:46 A.M. on January 17, 1995, a massive earthquake shook the city of Kobe, Japan, killing over 5,000 people, and leaving 300,000 injured or homeless.5 It measured 6.9 on the Richter scale and was the worst earthquake Japan had experienced in over 70 years. One of the hardest-hit parts of the city was Rokko Island, a manmade island about two miles square that sits 500 yards off the southern coastline, in the Port of Kobe. It’s connected to the mainland by only two bridges. Both of which were heavily damaged by the quake, and completely impassable. So, for several days, people were unable to leave the island, and food and supplies were slow to get in.
Well, the Northeast Asia headquarters of one particular Fortune 500 company is located on Rokko Island, as are the homes of many of the employees who work there.
And during the days after the quake, some of the only accessible food was in vending machines. When a machine was found still working, a line would quickly form until every last item was gone. And at one such machine on this company’s campus, one of the men lined up was an ex-pat manager from the company headquarters back in the states, who was on a temporary assignment in Kobe. Well, when he finally got to the front of the line, he bought four cans of soda—one for each member of his family—and then left. But if he had been more observant, he would have noticed that everyone else in line purchased only one beverage and then went to the back of the line to wait for an opportunity to buy a second or third.
Fairness is an important part of Japanese culture. Everyone in line surely would have preferred to buy several items at once. But out of respect and fairness to the others, they waited in line for each purchase. And while the ex-pat from the United States didn’t notice what the local Japanese employees did at the vending machine, they certainly noticed what he did. Even in this most extreme situation—when a man could surely be forgiven for thinking of his family first—his behavior was viewed as dishonorable. Long before the office was repaired and ready to resume operations, word had spread of his misdeed. His reputation was damaged to the point that he could no longer function as a leader. You can’t lead a group of people that don’t respect you, right?
Within a few days, he was reassigned back to the United States.
The CEO of the company shares that story with her executives today to teach them the importance of understanding the local culture, especially during times of crisis. Because it’s during a crisis that we reveal our true selves. Plus, she couldn’t possibly explain all the things they should and shouldn’t do in each country. But sharing that story teaches them the serious ramifications of not knowing the local culture. Sharing this story in your organization can have the same benefit. It will probably make your audience more observant of how the locals behave as a guide. If that unfortunate ex-pat had done so, he wouldn’t have been sent home in shame.
Alright, in the next lesson, we’ll see how a company responds when the lives of its employees are literally threatened.