Home All Beer and Philosophy: Engagement Japanese Style
Beer and Cherry Blossom

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

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, organizational 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 organizations 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 intellectualizing 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:

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 behaviors:

  • 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.

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-intellectualizing 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


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Amanda Horne 7 January 2013 - 9:58 pm

Thanks Bridget – great article and well-timed. I will forward this to a few people. Happy New Year!

Oz 8 January 2013 - 3:50 am

Bridget – perhaps it was just the beer?

Judy Krings 8 January 2013 - 9:56 am

I sucked up this concise and upbeat article like a starving hummingbird on his last thirst-quenching mission of the day. A company with happy and engaged employees? Beer or no beer, how inspiring. More over Pixar and Zappos, as JAL deserves a standing ovation, too. Great article I am forwarding to several clients. Thanks!

Jeremy McCarthy 8 January 2013 - 10:20 am

I spent a summer in college working for a division of Apple and our office had a free beer cart come through every Friday afternoon. Loved it. And loved this article, thanks Bridget.

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 9 January 2013 - 10:08 am

Hi Amanda

Happy New Year to you too.

Glad you liked the article. Let me know what feedback you get from your contacts.

Warm wishes

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 9 January 2013 - 10:10 am

Hi Oz

Yes indeed!

I guess we won’t know about the effect of the beer unless a researcher can be persuaded to carry out a study….

Warm wishes

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 9 January 2013 - 10:55 am

Hi Judy

Thanks for your comments. I loved the metaphor by the way!

I had the good fortune to meet Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, last year. What an inspiration, he’s such a breath of fresh air in the business world. It’s funny, you wouldn’t pick him out in a crowd and yet he stood head and shoulders above other speakers on the same platform. There are similarities between him, Ken Keir of Honda (https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/bridget-grenville-cleave/2012120324787) and Kazuo Inamori.

It’s great to come across these companies who really get engagement – I’ll be looking into Pixar now!

I hope your clients like the article too.

Warm wishes

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 9 January 2013 - 11:13 am

You’re welcome Jeremy! Glad you liked the article. In response to Oz’s question, was it just the free beer at Apple?

I used to work in the food industry; we sometimes got free product handed out, especially when a new one had been launched. It wasn’t a frequent thing though, which is interesting considering the cost was relatively low. People really appreciated it though!

Warm wishes

Judy Krings 9 January 2013 - 11:47 am

Thanks for your link, Bridget. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when you met Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO Love your description of him. Hope you have fun with Pixar!

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 9 January 2013 - 12:10 pm

Thanks Judy

I don’t know if you have come across Zappos Insights? http://www.zapposinsights.com/

What I found really interesting about Tony Hsieh is that he wasn’t worried about giving away his competitive advantage (in Zappos’s case, in customer service). He knew that, whilst there are some general ‘Dos and Don’ts’ , organisations are made up of people, all unique individuals so each organisation (and each leader) has to work out for themselves what works best for them.

I think what Positive Psychology shows us is that the difference is in treating people as people (Chris Peterson’s adage ‘Other People Matter’ springs to mind again). That takes a combination of confidence, courage and humility.


Jeremy McCarthy 9 January 2013 - 12:55 pm

Bridget, the beer does go a long way!

Also check out Chip Conley (author of Peak) “the most neglected fact in business is that we are all human.”


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 9 January 2013 - 2:08 pm

Thanks Jeremy

Lovely Chip Conley article – a man after my own heart! He sums up what I was trying to say much better. It is all about relationships.

As I was thinking about this, I was reminded how often managers and leaders forget that recruiting more employees into their organisation, even a small number, adds huge complexity, because of the number of new relationships that are formed and need to be managed effectively. The assumption is that getting new staff will make things easier, when the reverse is often true.


Judy Krings 9 January 2013 - 3:33 pm

Hi, Bridget,
Love your take on leaders and all employees have uniqueness that is like making a tasty stew. One ingredient does not make for a creative, savory recipe for success. Just this morning I was coaching the CEO of a medical practice who was going to fire one of his employees. By the end of the call, he realized he had allowed her to take a different position in his firm that did not all at play to her strengths. She had told others she was unhappy there, but not him.

He decided to talk with her in a non-defensive manner and remind her of the talents he had seen her display in her previous position, when she always added to his company and customer service before she took the different job. After a quick focus on jacking up his social and emotional intelligence, his awareness got a wake up call. She still as a valued employee.

Time will tell, but he said he had forgotten her strengths and was focusing on all that was wrong, not right about her performance. He was so pleased to remember that SHE MATTERED. You have to love AI in play here, too. My gut tells me both will be relieved and heartened after their talk. Don’t you love a win win?

And yes, Bridget I am so happy you brought up hiring new employees and have adding those new ingredients can add to the stew of perhaps spice it up too much! Not to mention the time and energy it takes to train a new person and see if she/he is a good fit.

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 9 January 2013 - 7:57 pm

Lovely article! I got to hear Marshall Goldsmith talk a couple of years ago about employee engagement. He alluded to a book that he was working on (with his daughter, I believe) about how employees can “engage themselves” and not wait for the employer to do it. I thought this was a fascinating perspective – employees don’t have to wait for the metaphorical beer cart to come around. While the employer can certainly put certain practices and policies into place to increase the chances of employee engagement, certainly some amount of engagement must come from the employee’s choices and initiatives too?
All the best,


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