May 3, 2007

The Blame Game

How cultural differences between Japan and the United States affect the way leaders are perceived when accidents strike.


In 1985, Japan Airlines Flight 123 flew into the side of Mount Takamagahara in Japan. Five hundred and twenty people died. It was the worst single-aircraft disaster in history.

Soon after the accident, the company’s president, Yasumoto Takagi, appeared on television, apologized, bowed and resigned. Afterward, he traveled the country to offer his personal apology to the victims’ families.

Takagi’s actions are emblematic of how Japanese leaders respond to accidents at their firms. But previous research by Professor Michael Morris had shown that East Asians, compared with more individualistic Americans, are less likely to perceive an outcome as caused by a single individual than by a group or organization. This seeming paradox led Morris and two of his students, Yuriko Zemba (currently of the University of Tokyo) and Maia Young (currently of UCLA), to investigate how cultural differences affect the perception of responsibility. Why would Japanese hold leaders morally responsible if leaders are not seen as causing the outcomes?  

As he further investigated responses to accidents in Japan and the United States, Morris found many cases in which leaders were held responsible by the Japanese public but would not have been by the American public. Morris and his coresearchers proposed that there are differences in the logics of blame in Japanese and American cultures. They designed experiments, run in parallel in Japan and the United States, to test their hypotheses about the different assumptions and inferential steps that guide the assignment of responsibility in the two cultures. 

Assigning responsibility begins with one’s perception of the agent or actor who caused the accident. American cultural conceptions hold that individual persons are the only entities that have agency. Hence, causal attribution becomes a search for the individual person whose actions immediately preceded the accident. “In the U.S., our first intuitive attribution for an aviation accident is almost always ‘pilot error,’ ” Morris says. “This provides a correct diagnosis sometimes, but not always.

“A more exhaustive analysis would trace the chain of causality back further than 10 minutes before the accident. The accident may have been influenced by such factors as the pilot’s fatigue at the end of a 10-hour shift, unclear communication from the copilot, imperfect maintenance of the engine or poor design of the cockpit control panel.” The limitation of the American intuitive logic is the tendency to focus on one individual and miss problems and possible solutions in the larger organization.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill, for example, was widely viewed as the fault of the captain of the oil tanker, a known alcoholic who had consumed more than a dozen shots of vodka within hours of embarking. His erratic navigation wasn’t corrected by his second-in-command, who was working a shift far exceeding federal fatigue standards.

“Our public reaction focused on this individual rather than on the corporation’s standards and procedures, which allowed a drunk and exhausted crew to embark on a challenging route through an ecologically sensitive area,” Morris says. “We’re disinclined to see the corporation as a whole as the actor behind an outcome, and we only see leaders as involved only when their personal actions are directly connected to the accident.”

If the Exxon disaster had happened in Japan, Morris says, the public likely would have perceived the corporation, or a division of the corporation, as the actor who caused the outcome. In East Asian cultures, corporations, divisions, teams and other collectivities are the salient units of society and are seen as causing outcomes. 

Yet how does the East Asian penchant for focusing on collectivities as actors ultimately result in a blaming of leaders? Corporations cannot apologize, receive punishment or atone for wrongdoing in the same tangible ways that a person can. Hence, before the public can move on and renew its trust in the corporation, a leader has to step forward as a symbol or personification of the corporation to accept blame. 

“In a lot of cases in Japan, the CEO apologizes and accepts the blame before the public even initiates it,” Morris says. “In some ways, it’s like a ritual suicide.” In one case Morris studied, when it became known that the Japanese Health Ministry’s negligence caused some of the agency’s blood supply to become contaminated with HIV, the head of this agency took a 20 percent pay cut and apologized publicly, even though he had joined the agency after the acts of negligence had taken place.

American managers working in Asia and Asian managers working in the United States need to understand the implicit logic of their host country’s culture when confronted with a crisis, Morris says. If an accident occurs in a Japanese firm headed by an American, this leader should apologize, regardless of his or her involvement in the events. “A leader who fails to do so might be regarded as shirking his or her moral duties,” he says.

Conversely, Japanese managers in the United States should be wary of offering an apology for accidents they haven’t caused. If it was obvious that the manager hadn’t caused the accident, “the manager would be perceived as not seeing the world clearly,” Morris says. Even worse, “it could be interpreted it as an admission of having caused the outcome.”

Michael Morris is the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Yuriko Zemba, Maia Young, Michael Morris

"Blaming Leaders for Organizational Accidents: Proxy Logic in Collective- Versus Individual- Agency Cultures"

View abstract/citation  Download PDF  

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