Beer and Philosophy: Engagement Japanese Style

In the UK business community there is a growing interest in the topic of employee engagement, sparked by a government-commissioned report in 2009, Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement. In November 2012 the report’s authors, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, established a group called Engage for Success  (EfS) which describes itself as a “movement committed to the idea that there is a better way to work, a better way to enable personal growth, organisational growth and ultimately growth for Britain by releasing more of the capability and potential of people at work.

Anything linked to higher performance, productivity and profit (and making companies more recession proof) is going to interest business leaders.   Not surprisingly, how to engage staff in the workplace is making waves in many organisations big and small. It’s also becoming an important topic in positive psychology (for example see the work of Wilmar Schaufeli at the University of Utrecht or the chapters devoted to employee engagement in the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work).

But are we over-intellectualizing engagement?

As is the case with many management-related topics, much has been written about employee engagement by various gurus, consultants and HR practitioners which isn’t necessarily evidence-based. A recent discussion in the EfS LinkedIn Group started with the question, “Are we intellectualising employee engagement too much?” Perhaps, it was suggested, it’s a management capability that some managers ‘get’ because they’re naturals at people-related stuff. And maybe there are other managers who just don’t get it, no matter how compelling the business case?

The question was prompted (not entirely tongue-in-cheek I believe) by a BBC article about the turnaround of Japanese Airlines Company (JAL), which had filed for bankruptcy in 2008 with debts of $25bn, yet by 2012, was back in profit and relisted on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. How had it re-engaged employees and achieved this remarkable turnaround in such a short space of time?

JAL’s remarkable recovery, it seems, is to a great extent attributable to the actions of its Chairman, Kazuo Inamori, who was appointed in late 2009. Leaving aside the fact that, had JAL been a Western company, Inamori would never have got the job on account of his age (80 years old) and lack of aviation experience (prior to joining JAL, he had precisely none), I’m not sure his management techniques would have been endorsed by many Western leaders either. According to several news reports, what Inamori did to re-engage employees and lead JAL back into the black was to insist on compulsory philosophy sessions for all staff, washed down with free beer.

I was so intrigued by this story that I wanted to delve a bit deeper. Having recently stumbled on Honda’s connection with positive psychology, I hoped Kazuo Inamori’s business philosophy might yield some positive psychology gems too.

In a section on his website entitled ‘philosophy keywords’ Inamori outlines his approach to running a business with employee happiness at its heart. Although he doesn’t use positive psychology language, there is a great deal which is based on its principles, for example:

Kazuo Inamori (centre)

Kazuo Inamori (centre)

Passion and Meaning

In a section called ‘aim high’, Inamori talks about the need for passion, keeping energy levels high, and having a cause at work to elevate us. Whilst not referring explicitly to flow or strengths, this section captures the essence of performing meaningful work, which we now know is linked to increased well-being.

Optimism and Pessimism 

For effective business planning he recommends the following: Conceive optimistically, plan pessimistically, and execute optimistically“. According to Inamori, it’s essential that we master the ability to switch viewpoints, from optimism to pessimism, and back again to optimism. I really liked this advice; it reminded me of Philip Zimbardo and Ilona Boniwell’s research into time perspectives which suggests that a balanced time perspective (the ability to move between future, past and present orientationsis linked to greater well-being.

Leading a Wonderful Life

In a section on elevating our minds, Inamori suggests  the following behaviours:

  • Having an open mind
  • Being humble, thankful and cheerful
  • Acting with a loving, sincere, and harmonious heart

Again, although there’s no overt reference to positive psychology, what springs to mind are the VIA character strengths of open-mindedness, humility, gratitude, optimism and love.

Japanese Airlines

Japanese Airlines

It All Comes Down to Employee Happiness

In an interview earlier this year Inamori told the Wall Street Journal:

When I first came to JAL, I told executives that we have to state the management’s philosophy and share that with everyone at the company. I also told them we don’t need many statements. One thing we need to say is that the management’s goal is to pursue the happiness of all employees, both physically and mentally…That was what it all came down to.

It wasn’t for shareholders, and it wasn’t for executives. It was for all the employees working at the company. We put that at the very beginning of our philosophy statement. ‘This is your company, and its goal is to make all of you happy.’

To share the idea that the company’s goal is to make all employees happy is a prerequisite, before sharing any other ideas. The whole philosophy wouldn’t work without this prerequisite.

Going back to the Engage for Success question about whether we’re over-intellectualising employee engagement, positive psychology’s answer is definitely ‘no’. Although positive psychology didn’t exist as a science for the larger part of Kazuo Inamori’s career, the roots of much of what he recommends can be found in its research and evidence base. I’ve no idea how many of the UK’s business leaders will read Inamori’s management philosophy, ask their managers to study it or apply it to their companies, but they probably should. They might opt for handing out free bottles of beer though.  Despite some considerable time searching, I’m afraid we still don’t know what brand he supplied!



MacLeod, D. & Clarke, N. (2009). Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement. Department of Business, Innovation & Skills.

Bakker, A. B. & Leiter, M. (2010). Work Engagement: A Handbook of Essential Theory and Research. Psychology Press.

Linley, P. A., Harrington, S. & Garcea, N. (Eds.) (2009). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. Oxford University Press.

Zimbardo, P. & Boyd, J. (2009). The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.


1. Beer and Cherry Blossom courtesy of timtak

2. Narita Airport courtesy of jpellgen

2. Kazuo Inamori courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation

3.  Japanese Airlines courtesy of  double-h


This article was originally published here on Positive Psychology News. com on 7th January 2013


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