Leading in Japan: 4 simple ways to boost your communication effectiveness

Next year will mark my tenth year living and working in Japan, this time (my first was for two years in 1995, and I returned for a second time in 1999 for a one-year assignment). Living abroad has been a wonderful experience for me, and the benefits abound. From developing better decision-making abilities to developing a clearer sense of self and other career-related benefits, there is no shortage of rewards of living and working outside of our home countries.

Living abroad is not without its challenges. One of the most difficult can be adapting ingrained behaviors to be successful in the new culture. Reflecting on my past nine years in Japan, I have found that making four style switches have boosted my communication effectiveness with Japanese colleagues.

Style switch 1: From bold to subtle communication.

Where I grew up, yes means yes, no means no, and we had little expectation that listeners had the responsibility to read between the lines to fully understand the speaker’s message and (unspoken) intent. Not so in many situations in Japan, where preserving harmony, saving face and the art of subtlety are more highly valued. Compare that with my home culture, where it’s the speaker’s responsibility to talk assertively and concisely to make sure they are accurately understood.

The challenge in switching to indirect communication, especially when emotions are involved, is that people from home cultures like mine might worry whether we will be understood unless we say exactly what we want others to understand.

I’ve learned, for example, that when a colleague asks me to take on an assignment during a week where I’m struggling to keep pace with my own workload, a simple “I have other deadlines to meet this week, so taking on this work might be difficult” usually delivers the same impact as a direct, forceful and more detailed response I might have given otherwise.

Nine times out of time, I receive an “Ok, understood” type of response which settles things.

Style switch 2: From asking “why” to asking “who?”

One of the most common frustrations I hear from expats working in Japan is that they feel stonewalled when challenging rules or “how things are done around here.” I’ve been there, too. When expats says to a Japanese colleague “I don’t see the benefit of this company policy. Why do we have it in the first place?”, the answer all too often is “well, that’s just what’s been decided.”

This type of response is a far cry from the two things I look for in an explanation response. Those two things are logic and a recognition that the question is valid and that as a fellow employee, I have a legitimate right to ask the question in the first place.

What I’ve realized over time is that in more hierarchical and relationship-oriented cultures, finding out who was involved in creating or approving a policy can give clear insight into the context and rationale for the policy. More importantly, asking “who” can provide a map for deciding if and how to challenge a decision that’s already been made.

Style switch 3: From asking “when” to asking “what?”

It’s common in results-oriented work cultures to include concrete who-what-when action checkpoint during team meetings, with all three questions asked almost simultaneously: “Stephanie, are you going to do the usage analysis? Great, can you send that to the team next Friday? Thanks.” While I hear more of this kind of conversation much more in 2021 than I did just five years ago, I still work with many Japanese who tell me they feel flustered when asked abruptly and directly to commit to a completion timeline.

So, I’ve learned to separate asking who does what from asking when it needs to be done. As I’ve written about before, it’s often effective to ask, “What is a realistic time frame for completing this milestone?” And if the timeline doesn’t meet what is needed, follow up by asking for the reasons why and their thinking behind it.

Style switch 4: From saying “no” to “thank you.”

When I worked in New York City, it was common to have a morning meeting where a colleague would tell me her top three reasons why my suggestion would be a bad idea. She’d say, “no, I cannot support that idea, and here’s why.” Then at noon, she and I would walk down the street to have lunch together. No so much in Japan. I still remember nine years ago when a colleague pulled me aside after a team meeting to ask why I embarrassed her so badly in front of the others. I had no idea what she was talking about. Realizing how clueless I was, she explained that I had said, “I don’t support that idea, and here’s why.” Imagine my surprise!

Relationship-oriented cultures, like Japan, often require us to deliver differing opinions subtly and diplomatically – while making sure we preserve harmony and face for others.

So, I’ve learned techniques to meet Japanese culture expectations. Expressing appreciation for someone’s ideas and the thinking that went into it is one way. Sometime a sincere “thank you” followed by a second or two of silence is enough to convey disagreement. If a more “forceful” response is appropriate, saying thank you and then restating the goal or the goal criteria that is not fulfilled by a suggestion can be more effective: “Thanks for the idea. I see the value of that approach. Will that make it possible to implement the solution in less than three months, as the client asked?” 

Thanks for reading this article. You can find a list of my other posts by clicking here. I invite you to join people from 30 other countries around the world to the latest episodes of Humans At Work, my podcast that gives you fresh perspectives and actionable ideas for making working with other humans better for everyone.

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