Human behavior is hard to predict. Yet, in a group setting in the workplace, the people who make a substantial effort typically feel resentful towards so-called "free-riders". The "doers" often want to punish the "non-doers" in order to fulfill the external part of peer pressure, which is shame. Others members of the group will cave into internal pressure, or guilt, by adapting their choices to their peers' choices.
A natural question asks how different cultural contexts deal with peer pressure. For example, what happens when you subject the team-oriented, Eastern culture of Japan to a strong dose of social interaction? In the paper "Peer Pressure and Inequity Aversion in the Japanese Firm", Gianandrea Staffiero, a post-doctoral research fellow at IESE, shows that the Japanese prefer equality and, in a complex way, use peer pressure and mutual monitoring to encourage cooperation in their business environment.
Scholars have underlined peer pressure as a relevant and distinctive aspect of life within Japanese firms in comparison to their "Western" counterpart. Japan has a communitarian culture that generally prefers to organize production in teams. Western societies, by contrast, are typified by a more individualistic orientation that drives towards a system of incentives and control based on hierarchy and individual performance evaluation.
Staffiero's study explains the reasons behind the high frequency of team production and the high level of peer monitoring found in Japanese firms. The Japanese have an aversion to "unfavorable inequality"; they are willing to exert effort to monitor peers and to punish those who contribute less. "Free-riders" are put into place.
Yet, the paper also explores somewhat contradictory evidence, related to "cross-cultural experiments", that casts doubt on the general idea that Japanese people share a higher "cooperative attitude" when compared to Westerners. This seems odd, given that the Japanese prefer to work in teams. Staffiero explains the mixed messages.
It is true that the Japanese prefer a more level playing field. The "higher group orientation" that exists in Japan has strong cultural roots. Japanese individuals tend to develop strong ties in their life, in the family and in their firm, and they are not accustomed to trust others when the ties are weak. Their egalitarian tendencies also foster cooperation within and among villages. Historically, the Japanese have been willing to engage in bloody clashes in the case of violation. For instance, one village would attack another for the control of water cultivation that is necessary for the cultivation of rice.
These cultural nuances also express themselves in the workplace. When faced with conflict or a dilemma, Japanese workers are willing to exert peer pressure to find a cooperative equilibrium. When confronted with uncooperative behavior, they are more willing to punish. This explains the ambiguity surrounding their "cooperative attitude". The experimental evidence in the paper shows a higher tendency in Japan to punish free-riding behavior which can be regarded as "exploitative".
Staffiero also argues that long-term employment, a distinctive feature of Japanese business, also makes a difference in the effectiveness of peer sanctioning. If an individual earns the reputation of being a free-rider, the damages he is going to suffer on a daily basis are obviously greater than what he would experience if he were given the possibility to leave the firm at a low cost. Yet, long-term employment also makes it harder for the Japanese to form trustful relationships with strangers.
The organizational practice of horizontal job transfers in Japan is also common in Japan. Job rotations between departments enable employees to work in various departments, offices or factories, so there is little chance - particularly in a large firm - that employees will work together in the same place for an extended period of time. As they move around, peer pressure shifts.
In summary, the Japanese tendency to exert peer pressure and to mutually monitor co-workers springs from its egalitarian, communitarian culture and from organizational aspects observed in Japanese firms. The Japanese prefer equality and would rather punish non-productive co-workers than let them have a free ride - even if it affects social interaction and implies extra effort related to monitoring, a task often thougth to be restricted to hierarchical relationships.
Staffiero concludes with a cultural observation: "... the differences among Japan and western countries could resist for a very long time. However, if some sort of 'cultural convergence' occurs as societies are increasingly less isolated, things may change."