FIELD STORIES: Grave Concerns
In this series, we present narrative case studies drawn from our professional and personal experiences. These vignettes give a snapshot view of research in action, articulating with some dilemma of organizational intervention.
I MET TAKEYA when he was a young man in his mid-twenties. He was tall and thin, with a neatly shaved head, narrow, perpetually half-closed eyes, and a placid face that oscillated between contemplation and near expressionlessness. Takeya described himself as futsū – unremarkable. He rarely raised his voice about a murmur. In social events, he was amicable but preferred to sit back, quietly studying the animation around him. In many ways, and in the opinion of many in his community, Takeya’s was a personality and bearing fitting the role of a Zen Buddhist priest. And that’s what he was.
Takeya came from a long line of priests, at least seven generations by his recollection. These priests served community temples, local institutions charged with performing funerals, mediating neighborhood disputes, and addressing various other wellness needs and concerns as they emerged in daily life. These were not the tourist attractions of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto or Tōdai-ji in Nara. Rather – like Takeya – unremarkable establishments that were nevertheless pillars of community ritual and social life. Takeya’s father was the head of such a temple, taking over from Takeya’s grandfather when he retired. Takeya’s older brother was his father’s assistant, having trained at a college in Tokyo and then a monastery school to eventually succeed his father.
As the second son, Takeya did not stand to inherit the family business. He didn’t particularly want to. Instead, he wanted to be a fashion designer and open his own boutique in Tokyo. Unable to get into a Tokyo college, he went to a regional college and studied design and marketing. He also took some philosophy classes, reading up on Plato, Kant, and a host of theorists from theology and social sciences.
This route led him back to Buddhism and, whether because he found religion interesting, the prospect of entrepreneurship intimidating, or homesickness for his family craft (or some combination), he graduated intent on becoming a Zen priest.
His family was surprised. Takeya had always seemed apathetic to the priesthood. But he was resolved, and they were supportive. As Takeya was finishing up his last semester at the monastery school, his father took him on a series of visits to eligible temples. Because his older brother held claim, Takeya would have to find another temple at which to serve and to eventually inherit. Ideally, Takeya would marry into and/or be adopted by a priest family that did not have a successor, becoming the legitimate heir and maintaining the tradition of passing temples through family lines.
It was through family connections and with this sort of arrangement in mind that Takeya came to his current position. Takeya’s father knew of a temple family farther north that had a 20-something daughter, the youngest of three, who was open to the idea of becoming a priest’s wife and securing her father a protégé. Takeya and Rin were married three months later, and, after a brief honeymoon, Takeya started his new life as Vice-Priest (fuku oshō-san).
Despite his initial apathy, by many accounts, Takeya was a model junior priest. His performance of rituals and recitations of sutras were smooth and confident. He was composed and confident with temple guests and grieving family members. He was also active in the community, attending village meetings and playing right field for the local rec baseball team.
In time, however, less fitting aspects of Takeya’s personality began to show through his calm façade, practices and proclivities that disturbed his adoptive family and community alike. For one, Takeya seemed cavalier about breaking with certain long-held traditions of local priesthood: he drove his own car and he refused to drink alcohol in memory of the departed. Wanting his own space, Takeya moved his small family out of the temple compound and to a neighboring apartment complex. He would often berate temple volunteer staff over minor issues, driving many away and placing the burden of temple upkeep almost solely on his wife and mother-in-law. Takeya was also hostile with anyone who seemed to challenge his authority. He frequently butted heads with the temple steering committee, a confederation of senior parish members from legacy families who felt they knew better what the temple needed than some young out-of-towner. Conflicts would send Takeya into dark spells where he would shut himself up in his apartment or a temple storage room, refusing to communicate or participate in temple functions.
As I came to realize, the temple’s trouble was an open secret in the community. Nearly every villager I spoke with knew there was some trouble at the temple. Parishioners were acutely aware. But, as many including Takeya’s in-laws felt, there was no real recourse. Takeya was problematic, toxic even, but he wasn’t just an employee. He was family, their son-in-law, the father of their only grandchild. Takeya was their future and the future of their temple. Could he be fired? Yes, there was a precedent for that at other temples. But that would almost certainly also entail divorce for their daughter and a scandal for the temple that would make it nearly impossible to attract a future successor.
Yet, the family and the community were not entirely without hope. His mother-in-law was optimistic that once his daughter started preschool next year Takeya would be able to connect with other young fathers in the community and that the camaraderie would mellow him. It might be a stretch, but it was the only option they felt they really had. For better or worse, they were stuck with Takeya.
Reflecting on the circumstances surrounding Takeya’s employment, I find that managing organizational conflict is sometimes not as simple as discharging a toxic employee. While this case is an extreme example, I have observed in my work with small businesses across many industries that there are often extenuating circumstances that prevent organizations from making changes to key personnel. Family connections, sympathy, and other personal obligations and considerations can make employee management more than just dollars and cents. Profits and shareholders may not be the most important metrics for success or even relevant compared to other human factors. How then do you create an intervention when you can’t remove that toxic element? It may come down to restructuring, intensive coaching, or some other less invasive approach. Whatever the case, the approach must be deeply couched in the interpersonal context of the situation. It’s important to remember that organizations are human because they’re made of humans, and those humans may not be expendable, even when they’re tearing the organization apart.