Categories: cultural dexterity

The power of being a “Gaikokujin” in Japan [Part 1]

by Anna
Published on: January 16, 2021
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[ Written by Anna Pinsky and David Wagner ]

The name says it all:  Outside (外 ), Country (国), Person (人) – Outsiders.  That is how non-Japanese are often viewed in Japan.  And that is the mind-set many Japanese have when it comes to non-Japanese. 

People who come from outside Japan are certainly welcome to visit, but even now, with a persistent labor shortage, the idea of non-Japanese as partners in prosperity is challenged by centuries of isolation and doubts about long-term devotion to the country.  Compared to Europe and the United States, immigration numbers speak for themselves.

So how does this play out in the workplace?  How can team synergies develop and grow among people who may not expect “gaikokujin” to stay long-term?  How can organizations achieve long-term targets if relationships are not nurtured at optimal levels?  

In the first in this series, we look at how “gaikokujin” can be catalysts for change towards  more effective workplace environments and working relationships in Japan through the lens of culture and hierarchy.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast…..

There are many desirable aspects of society that make Japan much more attractive as a place to live and work compared to other countries: be it group orientation of “shuudanshugi”, consideration for how one’s behavior impacts others (such as that expressed in the concept of “meiwaku wo kakenai”) or even just the ability to sit with silence and not feel the need to push in with self-promotion.   

However, these aspects of the culture which cultivate a more productive and collaborative working environment can also have the opposite effect when paired with traditionally hierarchical Japanese organizations.

The Japanese language and traditional structures in Japanese society foster organizational structures that are hierarchical and rigid. This creates an environment in which it can be very difficult to challenge assumptions through questions towards those positions of power or higher up the hierarchy.   

This is observable long before one joins a company.  Take, for example, the kohai/sempai concept (“junior”/”senior”) in Japanese education.  Even these terms are difficult to translate into English because they are imbued with assumptions and expectations of what can be done or said depending on your position in the hierarchy.

The same unspoken rules apply in organizations depending on whether you are the boss (“joushi”)  or more senior in position, versus being a subordinate (“buka”) or in a more junior position.  Cultural rules based on position in the hierarchy often mean that a question interrogating an existing approach or disagreeing with an opinion can be seen as attacking or threatening when directed towards someone in a more senior position in the hierarchy.  

Such behavior is the exact opposite of what is required for a productive and effective work environment based on research by Amy Edmondson into psychological safety which describes an environment in which “people feel they can speak up at work without fear that their manager or colleagues will think less of them” *

…. and gaikokujin eat culture for lunch

However, this is where a gaikokujin employee can have magical impact!  Being non-Japanese means that a gaikokujin can sidestep the unspoken expectations of behavior embedded in the hierarchical relationships and ask a question to individuals across the hierarchy more easily than a Japanese colleague. In fact, there are numerous times when we’ve found that as a non-Japanese, we can ask the question to someone senior that might be on everyone’s mind but they are afraid to ask. This is because as non-Japanese, we are not necessarily held to the same cultural expectations as Japanese.  Thus, there are less assumptions and fewer expectations made about how we should or should not behave.

In addition to the hierarchy of relationships there is also the minefield of saving face (mentsu wo tamotsu).  For anyone who has taught classes or run meetings and conferences in Japan, you’ll relate to being met with silence when you ask if there are any questions. Then as soon as you step out of the room, you are bombarded with questions from people who were too afraid to ask for fear of “losing face” in front of colleagues. 

Gaikokujin – a license to cultivate effective organizations 

While saving face may be a universal human trait, asking questions through assertive initiative is not the norm for many in Japan.  Yet using what we call “gaikokujin menkyo” – a “foreigner license” – permits us to do many things Japanese either cannot or will not do freely or unconstrained.

The ultimate question faced by long-term non-Japanese in the workplace, whether Japanese or non-Japanese owned and operated, is how well the organization promotes integration.   That is a leadership issue.  We have both worked in Japanese traditional and non-traditional firms as well as non-Japanese companies.  What is clear is the corporate culture varies.  Being a “gaikokujin” is no different than Japanese in so many organizations.  Where the rubber meets the road is company leadership, values and role-modeling of behaviors that support a culture of clear, open and inclusive communication for all employees.

*https://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/hr-must-build-psychological-safety-so-employees-feel-safe-speaking-up

Anna Pinsky specializes in organizational development and transformation with 15+ years experience advising global organizations in Japan and across Asia.  

David Wagner is a 35 year veteran of achieving behavioral adaptation inside 550+ organizations across Japan, Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East. 

Early morning at Dentsuin Temple

On More Meaning and Less Passion [Today’s Kizuki 2]

In my last blog post, I wrote on the topic of my first “Kizuki” around emotional granularity and how some organizational cultures could run the risk of causing us to disconnect from ourselves and diminish our own skills in self-management through the social pressure to use certain words to express our feelings.

The other day I happened to come across a discussion on a related theme when listening to one of  Adam Grants new episodes of Work Life* which was a very rich and engaging interview with Esther Perel . The topic was on relationships but, by its very nature, delved deep into the topic of emotions. 
At about 50 minutes into the podcast the topic of “passion” and its more recent usage in relation to work contexts.

Emotions and mismatched perceptions
It reminded me of one time when I was interviewing for a role at an international company. I’d received feedback that the initial interview had gone well but there was just one thing: I was told that I wasn’t being perceived as passionate enough about the role and opportunity.

Wow! This was a shock for me because I WAS very excited about the role and in line with the cultures that have influenced me the most – Scotland and Japan – I thought I was showing up as keen and enthusiastic.  However, in this organization’s culture, apparently i needed to show up in a different way for them to interpret my body language and words as meeting their definition of looking like someone who feels “passionate” about a topic.

Is too much “passion” getting in the way of you hiring the best people?
Adam Grant and Esther Perel continue their discussion into the topic of  work and motivation for work, reaching an interesting conclusion around the difference between meaning and passion (starting at about 53 minutes into the interview/discussion).

I have  often heard the word “passion” used to describe the degree of interest in a role or project when it seems like the terms “meaningful” or “engaged” would be a better fit.

Furthermore, taking into account the fact that “passion” could alienate individuals from cultures that are less extroverted, it makes me wonder how many organizations may be missing out on hiring individuals who would bring value to a team: Because over-reliance on a word like “passion”, which is not only an emotive and subjective term,  gets in the way of the interviewers trying to understand what “meaning” and “high engagement” would look like, or be defined by, from the perspective of the person being interviewed.

I feel this is particularly relevant for less extroverted cultures or cultures which are lower on the self-promotion, assertiveness or enthusiasm spectrums**.  If interviewers and hiring managers are using their own organizational culture as the main reference point and using difficult-to-define words like “passion” as a shortcut to rate suitable individuals, then, not only could they be missing out on hiring individuals who could make a significant contribution to the organization, but they could also be unintentionally reducing the diversity of their organization over time.

What other terms do you see being used in cultures that might unintentionally be short-circuiting a deeper conversation to better understand how another person feels or thinks about a topic?
Where else might we be unintentionally excluding others because we are relying on only one cultural context as our measure of fit or suitability?

Sources & Endnotes:
Molinsky, A. (2013). Global dexterity: How to adapt your behavior across cultures without losing yourself in the process. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press
Molinsky, A. (5 September 2017). Want to Boost Your Cultural Intelligence? Do This 1 Thing First. Inc.com. https://www.inc.com/andy-molinsky/want-to-boost-your-cultural-intelligence-do-this-1.html

*Worklife with Adam Grant: A TED original podcast: https://feeds.feedburner.com/WorklifeWithAdamGrant
** Professor Molinsky in his book “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures” set outs six dimensions of cultural difference – 1. Directness, 2. Enthusiasm 3. Formality, 4. Assertiveness, 5.Self-Promotion, 6. Personal Disclosure

Spring flowers found in the city
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