Tags: Japanese culture

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

by Anna
Published on: January 16, 2021
Comments: No Comments

[ 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

Working From Home as the “new normal”: how “emotional granularity” could help with self management. [Today’s Kizuki 1*]

Emotional granularity had caught my attention from before we had even heard of COVID19 having recently read  “How emotions are made” by Lisa Feldman Barrett and it seems particularly pertinent and timely as so many people adjust to working from home on a daily basis.  Reflecting on her Theory of Constructed Emotion and the concept of “emotional granularity”, emotional granularity “isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary. It’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely” as Feldman writes in her 2016 article from The New York Times 

Decreasing emotional granularity and a diminishing connection with self

Feldman stresses the benefits of emotional granularity on psychological and physical health. Specifically, how email and the short interactions that social media channels, such as Twitter, encourage and nudge us into using a more restricted and limited list of vocabulary over time.  Also, the extent to which there is a tendency to use more words that inflate meaning. This resonates with my thinking and seems a skill that is more important than ever as “Working From Home” demands us to develop a more highly attuned ability to self-manage.

How often have you sent a response to someone in email and, instead of responding “thank you, that response was (useful/helpful/informative/interesting), you simply wrote “perfect” or “awesome”? Really? Can a simple response to a question truly be said to be “awesome” or “perfect”?

Reading Dr Feldman’s work leads me to consider what the unintended consequences could be of this more limited and repeatedly used set of phrases. Yes, one could argue that by using similar terms or vocabulary, we are creating some connection with the reader, some way to signal we are in the same group or kinship. However, Feldman’s argument also helped me understand that we are also diminished along the way.  For instance, if our granularity in expression declines then so does our ability to be more attuned to our emotions with a finer degree of clarity (e.g. awesome/great/good/fine).  Aren’t we then also losing a connection with ourselves? Isn’t our ability to understand and translate in finer distinctions about how we are really feeling or responding to a situation also affected?

Emotional granularity in high-context cultures

Such questions may also be asked in multicultural work environments.  When, for example, the only common language is Japanese, the concept of emotional granularity and the difference between working in languages and communication in a low context culture or high context culture is stark: Japanese is a high context culture – hence in many situations what we say is not actually about how we are interpreting our feelings or thoughts about a situation, but what the situation dictates. For example, when you visit someone’s home for the first time, the expected response as you walk in the door is “ojamashimasu”** not, “hey, I like your shoes” or “wow, that’s a lot of umbrellas you’ve collected”.

Does this high-context aspect of the culture disconnect me momentarily from what I really think or feel and could this be a good thing – in the same way that being on autopilot can help us conserve energy so that we can use our thinking energy on low context situations?  Or could it be detrimental because we skim through interactions and become less aware of ourselves and others and less able to pick up on indicators. 

A few years ago I was visiting a Japanese friend with small children. I hadn’t seen my friend for almost a year and so when I visited my mind was on making sure I brought an appropriate gift for her children, and that I followed the usual protocol on arriving – especially on spending the time to say “ojamashimasu” and the usual pleasantries although I really wanted to get to the bit where i could just sit down with her and hear her news.

However, in my effort to follow the “process” dictated by the culture I barely looked at her on entering her home and it was not until several minutes later that I realized there were tears in her eyes and that something upsetting had happened that morning. Thankfully we were able to find some quiet time before the end of the visit so that she was able to share what was really going on for her.
It made me wonder if not only am I missing these important opportunities to see and sense what is really going on, but also if in some way, the more I am in these interactions, that I am dulling my senses and losing emotional granularity.

At the same time, I think about if the opposite could be true: maybe the high-context process of following the expectations felt like an extra mental load to me and depleted my energy and focus because Japanese culture and language are not my “native” culture: If I been been raised in a high context environment from a young age would the process have taken up less mental load and freed up my energy to focus on what was not being said in the ritual interaction of entering someone’s home?

There is added irony to this as I think of the Japanese phrase “reading the air” (kuuki wo yomu which refers to the finely tuned skill of being able to perceive what is not said).  Is ‘reading the air’ simply a result of the high context culture in which so many situations dictate what can or cannot be said, or is it the other way around?  Or is the focus perhaps on being able to “read the air” that allows the high context formal interactions to persist in the first place?

  • What is your experience? Do you think certain cultural contexts make it easier or more difficult to connect with what you and others are feeling?
  • And, more importantly,  whether you’re working in a high-context or low-context culture, what strategies are you experimenting with to stay attuned to your own emotional state while working from home as the “new normal”?

Sources & Endnotes
Feldman Barrett, L (2016)  : The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization.Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 12, Issue 1, January 2017, Pages 1–23. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712?inf_contact_key=50e37481c31399c8dfafa5200768fca0680f8914173f9191b1c0223e68310bb1
Feldman Barrett, L (3 June 2016) The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/05/opinion/sunday/are-you-in-despair-thats-good.html
Feldman Barrett, L (2018). How emotions are made: the secret life of the brain.London: Pan Books 
Feldman Barrett, L (2020). Interview with Ezra Klein: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/vox/the-ezra-klein-show/e/64657463

* “kizuki” (気付き) is a noun in Japanese which means something you notice or become aware of.
**a formal greeting which has a literal meaning of excuse me for being a bother, or getting in the way

Bunkyo-ku in April
A calm and quiet spring morning perfect for new “Kizuki” or “noticings”

Building a Successful Team (BCCJ Acumen)

(Originally Published in BCCJ Acumen Magazine September 2014 Edition)

Building A Successful Team

by Anna Pinsky, BCCJ Vice President

As part of our plans to increase the accessibility and transparency of the work of the BCCJ executive committee (excom), you will see more articles over the coming months from different members of our 2014–15 excom. In this issue I am taking the opportunity to share some insights from my own 15 years of experience working and living in Japan.

I am an organisational development specialist. My first experience of Japan was at the age of 17, when I worked as a volunteer in two Leonard Cheshire Disability’s homes for the handicapped, located in the Kansai region.

A scholarship from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology provided an opportunity for me to return to complete a Masters degree.

I have spent most of my professional career working with British organisations, often during their start-up stage in Japan. This has given me the opportunity to observe some of the common pitfalls experienced by new market entrants.

It is well known that Japan is one of the most difficult countries in which to recruit the necessary quality of talent. In fact, ManpowerGroup’s 2014 Talent Shortage Survey of over 37,000 employers in 42 countries cited Japan as the most challenging market for filling job vacancies.

Securing quality bilingual staff is usually one of the first priorities in setting up an office in Japan, but the limited availability of experienced bilingual talent means that finding the right candidate can be fraught with difficulties.

The eigoya problem
Part of this challenge relates to eigoya, a term used in the local HR community to describe candidates possessing excellent English skills but lacking basic business knowledge.

An eigoya-type candidate could be an individual who has spent most of his or her career focusing on developing close-to-perfect English language skills to the detriment of gaining business knowledge and expertise.

He/she may come across as eloquent and persuasive in an interview context but, once hired, struggles to build rapport with others and fails to develop the working relationships necessary to carry out the role.

The accidental hiring of an eigoya candidate is not uncommon. This type of poor hiring decision usually is made when the interviewer does not speak Japanese and is lulled into a false sense of security by the candidate’s high level of English, forgetting to thoroughly check their experience and track record.

Richard Boggis-Rolfe, chairman of recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson, emphasised the danger of hiring based on one’s gut feeling, at one of our BCCJ events earlier this year. He mentioned the importance of preparing a clear and prioritised list of requirements for the role and using this list in a disciplined way.

This helps ensure that candidates are compared and selected based on objective criteria, and that the final hiring decision is not overly influenced by other subjective or emotional factors.

For particularly crucial positions, one way to better grasp candidates’ people skills is to arrange for them to take part in a simulated work project.

This could entail a short role play, in which the candidate has to address an issue relating to a subordinate’s poor performance, and would offer a more precise indication of the candidate’s communication skills and ability to develop rapport.

Look for potential
Another way that some firms have overcome the hiring challenge is expanding the list of acceptable candidates to include individuals who have 80–90% of the English language skills required for the role.

I have seen some firms successfully build a strong team by identifying individuals who may not have the necessary standard of English at the time of the interview, but who have the right attitude and level of motivation to improve their fluency in a comparatively short time upon entering the organisation.

There is no one right solution to finding and developing the best talent for your business in Japan, but I hope these hints and tips will help your business avoid one of the common difficulties.

Source: http://bccjacumen.com/features/excom/2014/08/building-a-successful-team/

Why being “global” in Japan is not just about English language skills

by Anna
Published on: March 8, 2014
Categories: Japan
Comments: No Comments

Why being “global” in Japan is not just about English language skills

I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on global talent development two years ago in Tokyo.  “Global Talent Development” or “Guro-baru Jinzai Ikusei” (グローバル人材育成) has been the business buzzword for the last couple of years among Japanese companies struggling to find a way to help their businesses successfully expand globally against the background of a dropping birth rate and a Japanese economy slipping behind its Asian neighbours.

“Global personnel” or “globally-minded personnel” tend to be defined in Japan as individuals who, (a) are able to communicate effectively in an environment of diverse views, (b) can demonstrate effective leadership in order to achieve a mission as part of a global strategy and, (c) have the knowledge and ability to manage overseas offices outside of Japan. (*1)

There is a tendency in some Japanese businesses to interpret “global personnel” simply as individuals skilled in English language and with experience working in different cultures.  This has resulted in most Japanese companies being quick to set up English language training and increased international assignments for Japanese staff.

In addition, Japanese companies are also hiring more non-Japanese staff but are struggling to understand how to successfully bring non-Japanese employees onboard.  Although Japanese companies are shy about revealing figures on retention rates, my informal chats with HR managers at Japanese companies and some publicly available information indicate that high turnover rates are becoming more of a concern.(*2)

My belief is that Japanese businesses are struggling not simply because of employees with lack of English language skills, but rather because traditional Japanese culture works against the characteristics that are required for a company to adapt in a global environment. That is, in order to adapt to a more rapidly changing international environment, Japanese organizations need to be able to develop a workforce that is better at learning and adapting to new circumstances quickly.  This means that organizations need to be better at becoming “learning organizations”(*3)

So what does being a learning organization mean? In short it means,

(a) Creating a supportive learning environment that allows for appreciation of differences and openness to ideas.
(b) Development of processes that support learning and experimentation,
(c) Demonstration of leadership that supports learning (*4)

However, traditional Japanese culture can make it difficult for some organizations to put in place these fundamental aspects of a learning organization.

I’ll be writing further on this topic and expanding on the specific aspects of Japanese culture that are obstacles to creating a learning organization and practical steps to take to overcome these obstacles.  I look forward to sharing ideas and hearing how your organization is addressing the challenge of global talent development in Japan.

References
In case you are interested in reading into exploring this topic in more detail, I have summarized the main resources I used for this article below.

(*1) Akisato (2008) Kyuumu no kadai: Nihon kigyou wa guro-baru jinzai wo donoyouni ikusei subeki ka. [An urgent task: how to help Japanese businesses develop global personnel] Kigyou to Jinzai, December 2008. 4-9. Link to original document in Japanese here: http://www.global-jinzaiikusei.com/img/0406.pdf
(*2) Japan Society for the Promotion of Machine Industry – Economic Research Institute. (2010). Monozukuri kigyou ni okeru gaikokujin kenkyuukiahatsusha no senryakuteki katsuyou [The strategic application of foreign researchers in the manufacturing sector]. Kikai Kougyou Keizai Kenkyuusho H21-32A. Link to summary of paper in Japanese can be found here: http://111.68.148.178/HP/H21_houkokusyo/jspmi_21-3-2A.pdf
(*3) Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. (rev. ed.) New York: Doubleday
(*4) Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C. & Gino, F. (2008c). Is yours a learning organization? (Interview with David A. Garvin & Amy C. Edmondson) Harvard Business Review Magazine March 2008. Link to original article can be found here:http://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization/ar/1

Opportunities and Challenges of Working in Multicultural Contexts (ASTD Blog)

by Anna
Published on: January 26, 2014
Categories: Uncategorized
Comments: No Comments

Originally Published: January 13, 2014 – by Anna Pinsky

I am originally from the United Kingdom, and have been living in Japan for 15 years. Even after all this time in Japan, I still find myself coming across unfamiliar territory and having interactions that challenge my views and assumptions.

Working in multicultural contexts and teams are an excellent opportunity for development. Exposure to diverse people and experiences can uncover that you might be making incorrect assumptions or missing out alternative perspectives due to overreliance on your own cultural background.

Common mistakes

A common mistake in multicultural training or development is making generalizations and assuming that national cultural norms are the same as the organizational norms.

I’ve worked with various companies in Japan, both domestic and international, and in every case, the company culture has been different. More important, the internal culture has challenged my preconceptions on “western” or “eastern” working practices.  In fact, over time I find it increasingly difficult to make general statements about organizations in Japan, the United States, or the United Kingdom.

Indeed, one of the first Japanese organizations I worked for seemed to fit what I had read about in books on Japanese culture. Everyone was very polite, individuals rarely shared their honest opinions in a formal context, and the relationships were very hierarchical.  It was an organization with a long history and an industry in which change was notoriously slow.

However, later on I had the opportunity to work in a Japanese organization in which communication was quite direct. The communication was so direct, in fact, that individuals could come across as quite rude at times. In addition, tasks were carried out by individuals with little reference to their official title or history within the organization. This was a “younger” organization, with a more entrepreneurial, individualist management style.

 Check mutual expectations

When delivering training or development projects for an organization, especially in a different international cultural context, it is always best to check that you understand your counterparts’ expectations. This includes not just the expectations of your role, but also their understanding of the purpose of different tasks and activities.

For example, in some Japanese organizations, formal meetings are primarily spaces for sharing information and decisions are often made outside of the formal meeting. However, in other organizations, the meeting is the place for decisions to be made and information sharing is seen to take place prior to the meeting.

It is always best to check mutual expectations and the perceived purpose of different channels and contexts for communication when joining a new organization or team—and even more so when working in new and unfamiliar international contexts.

Foster multiple methods of inquiry

I had the opportunity to talk to a successful managing director in a western subsidiary of a Japanese-owned company recently. Her advice on working with colleagues from different cultures, such as Japan, was to ask the same question in several different ways to check that you have really grasped the core issues.

In high context cultures, such as Japan, sometimes an individual’s first reaction is to answer questions in line with what they think you want to hear, rather than what they really think. In this respect, the ability to inquire about the same point but using a wide variety of questions is a useful skill to develop when working in international contexts.

Find a trusted informal adviser or mentor

When working in new and unfamiliar cultural contexts, it is very worthwhile trying to find individuals who you can provide you with another perspective or “interpretation” of specific behaviors that you come across in the new working environment.  This doesn’t have to be someone in the same organization, but it should be someone who can help you view the behavior through a different lens and understand what unconscious assumptions you may be making based on your own cultural background.

If you know that you are going to be working on an international assignment for more than a few weeks, it is worth taking time to find out about possible networking opportunities, either within your own industry (such as international ASTD networking groups) or on cross-industry topics, so that you increase your chances of coming across someone who could be a potential informal adviser.

These tips are just starting points. What additional advice would you give people on working in new or unfamiliar cultural environments?

Ambiguous Communication leading to low retention rates: Dissatisfied employees in overseas branches of Japanese companies

Another example of how the traditional style of ambiguous communication is not helping Japanese companies retain staff in their overseas offices.

Mr Toshimasa Akisato from Global Jinzai Ikusei Juku reveals the low scores that Japanese managers receive fromd locally hire staff in overseas offices in terms of gaining trust and providing support.

The original post in Japanese from Toshimasa Akisato copied below:

▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲=====================
【グローバル人材育成塾】よりメルマガ配信のお知らせ(2012年11月号)
このメールはメールマガジンにご登録頂いている皆様にお届けしております。
▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲======================= 

今月のテーマ「アジア人部下から見た日本人マネジメントの評価は?」
==========================▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲
アジア諸国の拠点に出向している日本人社員は現地社員からどのように思われ
ているか、その調査結果の一部を紹介します。
この調査は2008~9年にかけ中国、アセアン6カ国、インドで2192人
を対象とした非常に大がかりな調査を早稲田大学政治経済学術院 白木三秀教
授のグループが行ったものです。
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
アジア人部下から日本人ミドルマネジメントが高く評価される項目
・高く評価される項目は無し。比較的高く評価されている項目として;
A.自分が犯したミスは素直に認める
B.規則を尊重し、適切に行動をする
C.顧客を大事にしている
D.他部門の悪口を言わない
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
アジア人部下から日本人ミドルマネジメントが低く評価される項目
1.部下を信頼している
2.部下に対する気配りや関心を示している
3.部下の成果を客観的に評価している
4.部下の経験や能力を考慮し、権限を委譲している
5.部下を効果的に褒めている
6.部下が問題に遭遇した際に、適切な手助けをする
7.部下に対する評価を具体的にフィードバックしている
8.部下に自律的に学べる環境・時間を与えている
9.叱るべき時は部下を適切に叱っている
10.部下の育成のためのチャンスを与えている
(以下抜粋)
13.目標実現のため各人の役割を部下に自覚させている
15.部下に明確な業務目標を示している
19.業務上の時間管理が効率的である
21.仕事の優先順位が明確である
25.指示や説明が分りやすい
32.上から高く評価されている
39.将来部門の進むべき方向をはっきり示す
42.人脈(社内・社外)が広い
45.上の人が間違っていたら、はっきり指摘する
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
結論として、アジア拠点の日本人マネジメント層に対する現地社員の評価は、非常に厳しいものがあります。
その根本原因は何でしょうか?
日本の職場が正にこれと同じ現象(問題)を伝統的に抱えている事に加え、日本と同様のマネジメントを海外拠点で行っている事が根本原因ではないでしょうか。
つまり、日本では長年一緒に仕事をしている上司、部下、同僚が阿吽の呼吸で人間関係を大切にしながら、評価に不満があっても、役割分担が不明確でも、部門のミッションが曖昧でも、皆それなりに一生懸命仕事をしています。
この曖昧且つ不透明なマネジメントシステムが職場の協力関係を築き、一体感のある企業文化の醸成に繋がっている長所でもあります。
しかし問題は日本特有のマネジメントをそのまま海外拠点に引きずって、人や組織をマネージしようとすれば、当然ながら上記の様な現地社員の低い評価、不満を招きます。
アジア諸国でも一般的に日本企業より欧米企業の方が人気があります。
欧米企業は報酬が高いだけでなく、上記項目の評価が高いからです。
日本人にとって国民性も価値観も異なる海外でのマネジメントは決して易しい事ではありません。
それだけに日本人海外派遣者は日本流では通用しないことをもっと自覚する事が大切ではないでしょうか。
その上で上記項目の評価を上げるにはどのようにすれば良いかを真剣に対応する事が現地社員のモチベーションアップ、定着率の向上、優秀人材のリテンションに繋がると思います。
△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼△▼
グローバル人材育成塾
塾長 秋里 寿正
 〒542-0083 大阪市中央区東心斎橋1-15-25
リッツビル 4F
電話/FAX: 06-6271-4060
e-mail: akisato@global-jinzaiikusei.com
URL:http://www.global-jinzaiikusei.com/
▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲ ▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲▽▲△▼△▼△▼△▼

Ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture and why it can be an obstacle for companies trying to internationalize

by Anna
Published on: September 30, 2012
Categories: Japan
Comments: No Comments

Following on from my previous post, I’ll be highlighting here one aspect of Japanese culture that can work against the conditions necessary to become a learning organization.

Learning organizations and psychological safety
As outlined in last week’s post, learning organizations comprise three basic components, one of which is a Supportive Learning Environment.  A supportive learning environment can be described as an environment with the characteristics of psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to new ideas and time for reflection (*1).

The first element, psychological safety, as described by Professor Amy Edmondson, is an environment in which team members “feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings”; individuals feel that it is safe to ask questions, request help and share ideas without fear of humiliation (*2).  This, in turn, means that for psychological safety to exist, there must be the conditions to support mutual clarity and clear communication.  In other words, in such an environment it is safe to ask direct questions and exchange opinions in order to check assumptions or expectations and reduce the occurrence of misunderstandings.
However, in contrast, if we look at traditional Japanese culture, we see that ambiguous communication is often encouraged, making it difficult to take a directly inquiring approach to gain clarity.

“Reading the Air” and ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture
On a visit to a city such as Tokyo, Japanese culture superficially appears to be have become westernized but in reality it has adapted certain western concepts while still retaining aspects of the traditional culture.  In a similar vein, Japanese organizations may appear western on the surface, but are said to have comparatively less-developed mechanisms in place to encourage diversity as a result of the historical company structures based on guaranteed lifetime employment, intra-company unions and age-based remuneration.

Japan is commonly known as having a high-context culture. This means that there is an emphasis on implicit, indirect and ambiguous communication. The Japanese language itself points to the emphasis on ambiguous communication with expressions such as “kuuki wo yomu” which literally means “to read the air” and refers to the ability to understand a situation from the atmosphere without access to explicit information.  Another expression “ichi wo kiite, juu wo shiru” literally means “know one from hearing ten” and refers to the ability to infer details when only given part of the story.

A further Japanese concept, “sasshi” also reflects the emphasis on developing knowledge without inquiring to gain further detail: One academic, Haru Yamada, interprets the concept of sasshi as “The process of anticipatory guesswork required to fill out each other’s communication … a strategy where players try to understand as much as possible from the little that is said”. (*3)

Psychological safety, clear communication and globalization
For Japanese organizations trying to expand globally in order to survive, a culture based on “reading the air” is no longer an efficient way to help employees work together to respond to the increasingly frequent and unpredictable changes in the international marketplace.

In particular, for Japanese organizations hiring more non-Japanese people in their main offices in Japan, conditions supporting psychological safety and clear communication make new employees feel that it is safe to inquire in order to better understand the company culture and ways of working. It also facilitates the open discussion of mutual expectations and, hence, reduces inefficiency arising from misunderstandings.

Psychological safety as an approach to reduce high turnover rates
Given that some Japanese organizations are reporting concerns about the low retention rate of non-Japanese employees, one solution may be to start from the point of increasing psychological safety and encouraging open and clear communication.

If you are interested in finding out how well your team scores in terms of psychological safety and other characteristics of a learning organization, why not try the free and anonymous Learning Organization Survey developed by Harvard Business School?  You can access it here: http://los.hbs.edu

The next post will provide some examples of Japanese companies that have come up with some simple ways to overcome the problems of ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture.

 

References
(*1) Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C. & Gino, F. (2008). Is yours a learning organization? (Interview with David A. Garvin & Amy C. Edmondson) Harvard Business Review Magazine March 2008. Link to original article can be found here: http://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization/ar/1
(*2) Edmondson, A. C. (2012). Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate and compete in the knowledge economy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Link to this book on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Teaming-Organizations-Innovate-Compete-Knowledge/dp/078797093X
(*3) Yamada, H. (1997). Different games, different rules: Why Americans and Japanese misunderstand each other. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.  Link to this book on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Different-Games-Rules-Americans-Misunderstand/dp/0195154851/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1348388582&sr=1-1&keywords=Yamada+why+americans+and+japanese+misunderstand

Why being “global” in Japan is not just about English language skills

I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on global talent development last week in Tokyo.  “Global Talent Development” or “Guro-baru Jinzai Ikusei” (グローバル人材育成) has been the business buzzword for the last couple of years among Japanese companies struggling to find a way to help their businesses successfully expand globally against the background of a dropping birth rate and a Japanese economy slipping behind its Asian neighbours.

“Global personnel” or “globally-minded personnel” tend to be defined in Japan as individuals who, (a) are able to communicate effectively in an environment of diverse views, (b) can demonstrate effective leadership in order to achieve a mission as part of a global strategy and, (c) have the knowledge and ability to manage overseas offices outside of Japan. (*1)

There is a tendency in some Japanese businesses to interpret “global personnel” simply as individuals skilled in English language and with experience working in different cultures.  This has resulted in most Japanese companies being quick to set up English language training and increased international assignments for Japanese staff. 

In addition, Japanese companies are also hiring more non-Japanese staff but are struggling to understand how to successfully bring non-Japanese employees onboard.  Although Japanese companies are shy about revealing figures on retention rates, my informal chats with HR managers at Japanese companies and some publicly available information indicate that high turnover rates are becoming more of a concern.(*2)

My belief is that Japanese businesses are struggling not simply because of employees with lack of English language skills, but rather because traditional Japanese culture works against the characteristics that are required for a company to adapt in a global environment. That is, in order to adapt to a more rapidly changing international environment, Japanese organizations need to be able to develop a workforce that is better at learning and adapting to new circumstances quickly.  This means that organizations need to be better at becoming “learning organizations”(*3)

So what does being a learning organization mean? In short it means,

(a) Creating a supportive learning environment that allows for appreciation of differences and openness to ideas.
(b) Development of processes that support learning and experimentation,
(c) Demonstration of leadership that supports learning (*4)

However, traditional Japanese culture can make it difficult for some organizations to put in place these fundamental aspects of a learning organization.

I’ll be writing further on this topic and expanding on the specific aspects of Japanese culture that are obstacles to creating a learning organization and practical steps to take to overcome these obstacles.  I look forward to sharing ideas and hearing how your organization is addressing the challenge of global talent development in Japan.

References
In case you are interested in reading into exploring this topic in more detail, I have summarized the main resources I used for this article below.

(*1) Akisato (2008) Kyuumu no kadai: Nihon kigyou wa guro-baru jinzai wo donoyouni ikusei subeki ka. [An urgent task: how to help Japanese businesses develop global personnel] Kigyou to Jinzai, December 2008. 4-9. Link to original document in Japanese here: http://www.global-jinzaiikusei.com/img/0406.pdf
(*2) Japan Society for the Promotion of Machine Industry – Economic Research Institute. (2010). Monozukuri kigyou ni okeru gaikokujin kenkyuukiahatsusha no senryakuteki katsuyou [The strategic application of foreign researchers in the manufacturing sector]. Kikai Kougyou Keizai Kenkyuusho H21-32A. Link to summary of paper in Japanese can be found here: http://111.68.148.178/HP/H21_houkokusyo/jspmi_21-3-2A.pdf
(*3) Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. (rev. ed.) New York: Doubleday
(*4) Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C. & Gino, F. (2008c). Is yours a learning organization? (Interview with David A. Garvin & Amy C. Edmondson) Harvard Business Review Magazine March 2008. Link to original article can be found here:http://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization/ar/1

Anna - September 17, 2012 - (0)
page 1 of 1

Welcome , today is Tuesday, October 26, 2021