This section explores how the meanings of gong qi evolve into six main virtues of gong qi and how they are implemented at SONA. The corporate motto of SONA is ‘Corporation is society’s gong qi’ (企业是社会的公器), hence gong qi is the essence of the corporate philosophy, influencing policies and practices in every SONA subsidiary across the world. The meanings presented in Table 1 are represented here in more concrete, specific usages which are evidently influencing organizational thinking and practices at SONA.
As Table 2 summarizes we identified six main virtues derived from the multi-layered meanings of gong qi in SONA. These are: (1) Being useful for society, as one of the virtues of gong qi, is derived from the allegorical meaning which regards gong qi as a sacrificial vessel containing offerings. Its function as a containing vessel implies a sense of efficacy and its purpose for the common good; (2) Also, gong qi is seen as public goods, which cannot be obtained and should not belong to any individual. Hence, being public goods suggests a corporation should share its interests and contribute back to society; (3) As Mozi (Book 12, Gong Meng) argued that righteousness is the greatest qi (virtue) in the world, having a sense of righteousness in the context of the society is therefore being seen as virtuous. Righteousness implies doing justice for society, with a sense of loyalty and dedication which are often advocated in Japanese corporate philosophies (Dollinger 1988); (4) Gong qi symbolizes a sacrificial vessel used in ceremonies and rituals, which indicates a deeply embedded sense of connectedness and interdependency among individuals and society, suggesting that people are inherently social. Such connectedness, as indicated in its ideograms, constitutes the gong qi; (5) qi addresses the efficacy of virtue that can be used to act and even govern (Chapter 28, Daodejing). Its efficacy lies in its function and suggests such agency can be used to initiate and act; (6) As one of the key features of gong qi, the emptiness of sacrificial vessels comprises the virtue of gong qi. The vessel is intentionally not being filled, yet full of potentials and space. The inherent emptiness and inclusiveness implied by gong qi are elaborated further in the Discussion section.
Being Useful for Society, Producing Good Products to Solve Social Problems
SONA’s corporate motto was translated in Mandarin as ‘the Corporation is to contribute to society’, often promulgated by top managers such as the CEO, Mr. Dragon.
Researcher: “How do you understand the corporate motto ‘the Corporation is to contribute to society’”?
Mr. Dragon: “Originally in Japanese it was ‘the Corporation is society’s gong qi. Have you heard of the term ‘gong qi’”?
Researcher: “Yes, just wondering why it’s the corporate philosophy”?
Mr. Dragon: “Essentially, what is a corporation? Just like asking what human being is. There are many answers to the question ‘what is a corporation’, such as, a company is for continually making profit, or doing business is for people etc. But if we conclude everything with one term, that is gong qi. Our corporation does not just belong to the shareholders, or employees, it belongs to the society. It’s not just returning profit to society, but it’s also about facing and solving the current problems within that society. That is one of the functions of gong qi”.
[Interview with the CEO]
As the CEO of SONA China, Mr. Dragon’s voice was influential. Many SONA colleagues tended to refer to Mr. Dragon, instead of SONA’s founder, as the originator of the corporate motto. He kept emphasizing the profound meanings of gong qi. As a system of abstract values and management ideologies, corporate philosophy is considered very important in many organizations, especially Japanese companies (Ledford et al. 1995).
Our department is called new business department, mostly to explore the new market demand in environment protection. This is what we do. Then, what we mainly hope for, is a mission [for this department], which is located in SONA’s corporate philosophy, to contribute to the society, to continuously explore social needs and satisfy them. Along with all the other SONA businesses here in China, contributing to the Chinese society, our goal is to explore other social needs. With the fast development in China, what are the new social problems, what are the new social needs? Then how we could use our advanced technology to help Chinese society to solve these problems. We started as a project team, to explore what the society really needs at the moment, what can be solved. So we are looking at areas such as health and safety, environmental protection, energy saving, and new energy.
[Interview with the Head of New Business Department]
The Head of the New Business Department emphasized the purpose of her department, as well as many SONA businesses, is being useful for society by identifying social needs, producing good products or services for the purpose of solving social problems, and thereby to make SONA a more competitive and sustainable organization. As Mr. Dragon put it, “that is one of the functions of gong qi”.
To Contribute to the Society, to Share Interests
Our founder talked about the characters of gong qi. Actually, there are two parts of gong qi, one is the social side of gong qi, the other is the business side of gong qi. The business side of gong qi is producing good products like what I said earlier, the social part of gong qi is about sharing interests, such as paying tax, making donations, and having CSR events. It is about contributing to the society. Another classical example, we have a few factories especially for employing disabled workers, to hire disabled people who would like to work.
[Interview with HR Director]
Many people in SONA referred to gong qi when talking about CSR and ethics. As the core value of SONA’s corporate philosophy, it seemed to have a deep influence of how the organization members think of ‘what a corporation should be’ as a moral ideal in society. Gong qi includes the Western conceptions of CSR which consider that corporations have responsibilities and social obligations. Some examples are described here by the HR Director, ‘paying tax, making donations, and having CSR events’, and employing disabled workers who would like to work. Yet, gong qi transcends these ideas of responsibility and expresses it in a fundamentally different way that employees can understand.
Our company… essentially is to contribute to the society, like the statement said. It is quite special here. [We] often clean the surroundings, [we] visit this place where mentally disabled people live… how to say it… at first it is to show the character of a company, to make people think this company is quite friendly and inclusive. Then it is to protect the environment. If you all waste resources, what are we going to do in the future? Right? If we don’t care about those disabled people, leave them alone… that doesn’t seem to fit… just not right. Also, if the company has already got the profit as it wants, it must make its contribution back to this society.
[Interview with a newly promoted headman of first line workers]
When talking about gong qi, people can associate the image suggested by its ideograms (of an embracive and communal vessel) as inherently part of the society. Gong qi thereby incorporates two senses of responsibility (Rämö 2011): it includes those CSR practices often seen in other MNCs such as paying taxes and charity donations (ex post); and it also affirms that corporations are essentially part of the society, with an original purpose of contributing to it (ex ante). According to the conception of gong qi, CSR is no longer an obligation that is perhaps optional for businesses; instead gong qi introduces a new way of seeing the relationship between corporations and society: as an inclusive and immanent vessel of the society. Being useful for society, including making and sharing profit, is effortlessly insisted by gong qi and is promulgated to everyone from top managers to production workers: Embedding its corporate philosophy extends from the morning ceremony every day, the magazines sent out to every employee, to posters on the walls of every subsidiary in the world.
To Behave Righteously
As Mozi says, “righteousness is the greatest qi (virtue) in the world”. Righteousness is embedded in Japanese traditional thinking and is often advocated in Japanese corporate philosophies (Dollinger 1988). It implies doing justice for the society, with a strong sense of loyalty and dedication. The importance of righteousness has been emphasized in SONA as well. The slogan “to behave righteously” often appears in internal magazines, and corporate posters in subsidiaries and factories. The HR Director described it as a ‘strong belief’ to do good things for the public good, as well as for the harmony between human and the nature.
Contributing to the society, to the world, we believe we can contribute towards the harmony between human and the nature. This is a strong belief. As SONA, we will never do something to ruin that; we will be righteous, do good things, and go towards the right direction. No matter what we produce, and what kind of influence we bring to the society, they are all going towards that direction.
[Interview with HR Director]
Righteousness, as one of the virtues implied by gong qi, is suffused into everyday practices and how people make difficult decisions. During an interview with the Head of a Subsidiary Business, she gave an example of how she would deal with stakeholder conflicts based on righteousness.
The researcher: “If different stakeholders’ interests are conflicted, how would you choose?”
HoD: “Stakeholders, although they are all important, if their interests are clashing… I think we should evaluate it (the situation) according to the socially acceptable moral and ethical values, as well as the righteous value. For me the most important stakeholders are employees. They are indeed very important, because everything is done by employees. So we should treat them rightly. So, we protect their interests, offer them training and opportunities for career development.”
[Interview with the Head of a Subsidiary Business]
As she put it, the righteous value is aligned with “the socially acceptable moral and ethical values”, which could act as a guidance when people must make difficult decisions in SONA. Although these values and virtues remain ambiguous, when she talked about what could help in making tough decisions, she referred to the ‘righteous value’ as a moral guide. With hundreds of workers in the subsidiary, a sense of righteousness can guide managers like her to make justifications among various interests.
This shows how gong qi contributes an alternative perspective on ethics as it permits complexity and ambiguity when making difficult, but ‘right’ decisions. On one hand, it offers SONA’s employees and managers moral guidance by reference to the value of righteousness. On the other hand, gong qi’s inherent ambiguity (see also Point 6) calls for in situ judgement from employees and managers. Rather than providing a formulaic list from a code of ethical conduct, the righteousness implied by gong qi offers the flexibility that employees and managers could adapt to and interpret. For example, here the HoD interpreted righteousness in relation to her specific role; hence she opted to give priority to the employees: ‘so we should treat them rightly. So, we protect their interests…’ The value of righteousness lies in the fact that it is active in shaping people’s ethical priorities when balancing various stakeholder interests, and both includes and transcends the use of codified values in ethical decision making. In the end, the CEO might still choose to close a subsidiary, the HoD might have to fire some employees. However, it is the indecisiveness they experienced while the righteous value implied by gong qi occurs to them that shows the efficacy of gong qi.
Being Part of Society, Interdependent Relationship
The theory of gong qi was proposed by the founder of SONA. He believed a corporation exists as one part of society. A corporation can only sustain if it has demonstrated its value for society. As a gong qi of society, a corporation is a public platform for society; it is just a part of society, a member of society.
[Interview with HR Director]
The HR Director described a corporation as merely ‘a member of society’, nothing more than ‘a part of society’. The concept of gong qi emphasizes a sense of connectedness and calls for a new way of understanding the relationships among individuals, groups and society. It also demonstrates how a corporation is positioned as if a communal vessel that cannot be truly obtained by anyone (Daodejing, Chapter 29), which suggests a corporation does not truly belong to shareholders or top managers. Instead, a corporation is a ‘public platform for society’. The development of a society relies on organizations, and an organization would not even exist without the support of society.
Why we are saying a corporation is to contribute to society. I think we are all members of society, including corporations. It’s like a unit, one molecule, it exists on the foundation of society. Therefore, a corporation should certainly contribute to the society. It is actually an interdependent relationship, between the society and the corporation, both interdependently living in harmony.
[Interview with the Head of a Subsidiary Business]
This view represents another contrast to the Western mind: “because for most in the West the conscious, intentional individual is the ultimate building block of society”, whereas for the East, “the individual is only a secondary effect of social relations and not the basic unit of society (Chia 2003, p. 969).” As indicated by this interdependency between corporation and society, one cannot simply exist without the other; it certainly would not sustain if it has not demonstrated its usefulness to society. Without the sense of connectedness and attending to the social relationships, such interdependencies would be lost. The virtues implied by gong qi are inherently social. It connects individuals with organizations, and immerses organizations within society; it describes a nexus of social/individual without deliberate separation.
An aspect of usefulness to society, one reference to gong qi indicates “things that can be used to act and govern” (see the last row of Table 1), like an uncarved wood block being carved into something functional. As an example of taking actions and being useful, challenging spirit is referred to as a key idea of SONA’s corporate philosophy to encourage employees to take initiative and actions. The ‘challenging spirit’ also relates to the ‘5S’ (namely, sort, set, shine, standardize, sustain) Japanese management system (Gapp et al. 2008) which is also widely implemented in SONA. Such ‘challenges’ include the very small, incremental, and even slow improvements that every employee can act upon.
As one of the key points from the corporate philosophy, challenging spirit is hard to let people (in other subsidiaries) understand. A challenge is not something that has to be on the top level, so it counts as a challenge. Something small as well—something you haven’t done before, but then you take the challenge and act on it—I think this is the spirit of challenging. First of all, you need to have that mentality, like a positive mindset, which is very important; then you can act on the basis of that.
[Interview with Corporate Culture Executive]
As such an embracive and inclusive notion, challenging spirit is nicely described by many participants as ‘a positive mindset’, a kind of ‘mentality’ that drives people in SONA to overcome difficulties, to take actions, to fight against the impossibilities. Such is the nature of spirit, this speaks to the essence of organizing at every level of enactment, as it is more an attitude of being, which prompts action and doing, rather than an instruction to be done.
Emptiness, Intentional Absence
From the moment of walking into SONA to the countless discussions in meeting rooms and offices, gong qi seemed everywhere and could mean many different things. The first encounter with gong qi was at the induction, where we were told it featured in the corporate motto proposed by the company’s founder many years ago. Field notes of that first induction meeting record the Corporate Culture Executive saying to the researcher:
You don’t understand what gong qi is? It is very normal! It needs time to be cultivated by our corporate culture! It takes time to really understand such a deep meaningful word that our founder proposed decades ago. You need to experience that word slowly and gradually, not everyone can truly understand the meanings of that term. But our job is to let more people to understand that word. It’s not easy, it’s very hard, but we have to do it. You will do it with us.
[Induction Meeting, Field note]
Here gong qi is identified as an essential but mysterious trope symbolizing authority on behalf of the SONA HQ in Japan. Its frequent usage did little to reveal the extent to which SONA members understood the corporate philosophy, though the ambiguity appeared to be tolerable, maybe even intentional. A new department of ‘Corporate Culture’ was set up to promote the concept of gong qi, but not to define it.
The translation work (we do) is part of communicating the corporate motto (gong qi), it is a necessary part. Things like that is quite difficult to be quantified, or to describe its form. It’s more like a kind of spirit I think. Quite often people ask me what you guys are doing every day, it is very difficult to summarize what on earth I’ve been doing. I can only tell them what the actual tasks I’ve been doing, this and that.
[Interview with Mika, Corporate Culture Assistant]
The ambiguity of the everyday terminology is also evident in group interactions. During a meeting in ‘our’ Corporate Culture Department, everyone experienced an arresting moment of emptiness when Michi, the Chief of Staff of the CEO, proposed doubts of the goal of an event we were planning.
“Um… what is this for? What is the goal? Why are we planning such a big event that’s going to cost a lot of money?” Michi asked.
The whole conference room went to silence.
“Encouraging our SONA spirit of challenging? I think.” Someone said.
“I think nothing will be wrong if it relates with the stuff of Corporate Culture. So, we are doing this for corporate culture promotion.” Another one said.
Emi considered for a moment, “then what part of the culture?”
The whole room went back to silence.
The whole department was embarrassed by Michi’s question, yet no one could give a clear and simple response even though we all knew the answer was there somewhere. It had little to do with one’s capability or experience, but this episode captured the experience of emptiness with substance, the inherent difficulty to clarify the richness and the complexity. Eventually, the event was named as a ‘corporate culture festival’, in effect declaring to others that ‘we’, as the newly established ‘corporate culture department’, would be mainly responsible for events like this, as well as grounding its purpose in relation to ‘corporate culture promotion’. Although there was an effort led by Emi to specify ‘what part of the culture’, the reluctance and difficulty to define corporate culture and gong qi, once again, appeared to be an almost impossible, yet necessary task. Everyone seemed to have implicitly agreed that corporate culture cannot be simply explained, and that it works better when felt and experienced by employees.
There is a sense of ‘strategic ambiguity’ (Christensen et al. 2013; Eisenberg 1984) that gong qi entails, which creates a sense of disruption from more instrumental thinking and encourages employees to take charge and make sense of it. The first author was part of organizing similar successful corporate activities during the fieldwork: from visiting elderly people, sweeping nearby streets on the Founder’s Day, to having a staff badminton contest among SONA’s subsidiaries. These efforts went beyond merely ‘promoting’ SONA’s corporate culture as a top-down approach, which is often seen in other organizations.
As Jullien (2004, p. 93) succinctly writes, “the virtue of immanence, [it] has nothing to do with the oppositions drawn by morality, as virtue is in the sense of efficacy.” In spite of the effort going into interpretation, and the recalcitrant difficulty in clarifying terms such as ‘culture’ and ‘gong qi’, it does not stop SONA members achieving the tasks effectively: “You go for the admin, I’ll take care of the logistics”, “if it’s something to do with culture, shall we prepare some corporate philosophy materials?”. Everything seemed to be running perfectly in the SONA machine, every moment full up with meaningful activity… Until a voice comes in from outside: “Um… what is this for? What is the goal?”
This is one of the most unforgettable moments in SONA, a moment in which self-evident meaningfulness of activity seems to evaporate, leaving an emptiness which makes us question the seemingly obvious but hard to clarify terms in organizations. Gong qi appears to be a representation of intentional ambiguity and allows this experience of immanence when buried in the fullness of everyday tasks—a communal (and inclusive) vessel elaborately decorated on the outside, composing its essential and necessary emptiness.Footnote 2
This section has presented findings to show how gong qi is interpreted in SONA and the practices that express the belief that the corporation should be an inherently virtuous gong qi for society. The analysis of gong qi evokes perspectives on inclusiveness and emptiness, of form and flow, and speaks to contemporary organizing experience as well as hoped for futures. Gong qi’s inclusiveness is seen through the various virtues implied by the rich meanings of the term, contrasted with the ambiguous interpretations and intentional absence experienced and expressed by employees at SONA. Both inclusiveness and emptiness are embedded within classical philosophies. They are not static, bipolar distinctions, but feature as two intrinsically paradoxical and interdependent potentials. Gong qi (as perhaps a communal vessel) contains many aspects that are obscure and insubstantial, which transpires to be valuable because the emptiness provides the ambiguous space to be embracive, allowing local interpretation and situational adaptation.