Categories: global dexterity

The power of being a “Gaikokujin” in Japan [Part 3]

by Anna
Published on: January 25, 2021
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How Gaikokujin can help balance tradition and innovation

[ Written by Anna Pinsky and David Wagner ]

In this segment, we feel it is worth calling out an often overlooked benefit of having gaikokujin work alongside Japanese in organizations:  balancing tradition with innovation.

It is precisely because of the “outside” perspective that “gaikokujin” bring that means they can find a way forward by challenging long-held traditional organizational assumptions while unearthing what aspects of the past stories and rituals have untapped potential to help the organization grow and adapt in the future.

Readers who have lived in Japan already know how different the “real Japan” is compared to the image portrayed in the media with segments on sumo wrestlers or geisha.  Indeed, typical Japanese employees these days are more likely to have an interest in football or baseball than sumo wrestling or karate.  

This may seem like a glib point but there is a more serious angle for organizations – for anyone wanting to create a workplace that takes advantage of both tradition and innovation, it may well be the non-Japanese employees who can speak with equal credibility about observed customs.   

Take the sphere of sports or well-being as one example. You will find that it is non-Japanese who are increasingly likely to dedicate themselves and espouse the values of traditional Japanese martial arts.  Then there are individuals, like Alex Kerr with his initiatives to restore traditional Japanese housing, who have played a significant role in revitalizing interest around different aspects of traditional Japanese culture. (In addition, Kerr’s decades of longevity in Japan garner deep respect by many Japanese for his willingness to learn, accept and integrate Japanese tradition. )

Translating this to aspects of tradition in organizations, there is the example of the ritual of the “chorei” or “morning corporate recitation” still practiced by many traditional Japanese firms.  Starting at 9:00 a.m. sharp, it is done not only to remind everyone of the organization’s values but also an opportunity to work together as a team as purpose and meaning are confirmed.  It is an important aspect of unison and commitment and an opportunity to see and be seen.  

It is easy to discount practices such as the “chorei” (reciting the organization’s values together at the start of the day) as outdated or an inefficient use of resources, but the value of rituals has increasingly been recognized as a way to help individuals and organizations handle the challenges of the pandemic – “The Power of Ritual” published this year by Casper Ter Kuile is just one example.  Another is George Kohlrieser who specifically highlights the benefits of ritual in Japanese organizations in his article “The Hidden Perils of Unresolved Grief” (published in the McKinsey Quarterly in September 2020): “Japanese organizations are known for rituals when there are senior-leadership transitions, giving space & time for the organization to recognize the past & move into the future.” 

Patience with change through internal promotion leads to predictable leadership shifts:  As is the norm in many long-standing Japanese organizations, gradual promotion of long-time devotees who know the company deeply is the safe way to go.  Decades of experience among trusted relationships is a safe recipe for continuity.  As a result, “outsiders” are often not the first preference of choice when it comes to top positions of leadership.  This becomes another challenge for non-Japanese in their quest to integrate and become accepted over time.  But this, too, is gradually changing particularly in non-traditional organizations and Japanese companies seeking global growth.

In short, it’s all about adopting and adapting.  This is in line with the cross-cultural communication theory of “style shifting” in order to accommodate cultural norms and also lies at the heart of managing tradition with innovation.  How does a non-Japanese “fit in” to a traditional environment where innovation needs to thrive?  How can non-Japanese integrate tradition and rituals to adapt to different ways of getting things done?   It is precisely because of the “outside” perspective that “gaikokujin” bring that means they can find a way forward by challenging long-held traditional organizational assumptions while unearthing what aspects of the past stories and rituals have untapped potential to help the organization grow and adapt in the future.

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.

View from Yamadera (山寺) in Yamagata Prefecture in the autumn

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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