How to fail spectacularly at leading in Japan

I recently talked with a European senior manager who came to Tokyo nine months earlier to take on an expat assignment leading a large, predominantly locally staffed subsidiary of a global company. At one point, I asked him, “So far, what’s the impact of cross-cultural communications on your work?”

“Nothing,” he answered. “It’s really not much different than back home.”

Hearing that was a big surprise for me. If it was for you too, you might find it even more surprising that I hear comments like this with slow but steady regularity from fellow expats in Japan.

Reflecting on the conversation reminded me of two people I knew when I worked in New York. They left their respective former companies to work for competitors across town. The new companies’ cultures were significantly different, especially when it came to expectations for delivering results through other leaders. Despite a degree of success early on, they both failed spectacularly at their new companies because both managers underestimated the importance of adapting to their new cultures. Both had rigidly stuck to the leadership styles that had worked for them at their previous companies. The result? Both left their new companies within eighteen months of being hired.

If failing to adapt to cultural differences between two NY-based companies located just across town can derail two talented American leaders, imagine what can happen when you move abroad and need to navigate a wider variety of cultural differences.

I’m sure you would agree with me that few people set out to fail in their careers. But just in case you are one of the few who do, here are eight tips, couched with humor but written with sincerely positive intent, to help you fail spectacularly at leading in Japan.

  • Assume that people will speak up if they have something to say. You are correct to believe that all competent professionals understand and practice the principle of “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” And since speaking up helps us stand out, you can feel confident that the personal benefits of speaking up far outweigh any need to be aware of or sensitive to dynamics between others in the room. Remind yourself of the pivotal episode earlier in your own career when you spoke truth to power in a team setting and how well you were rewarded for it. Expect the same from your Japanese colleagues.
  • Accuse direct reports of lacking initiative and ownership if they wait for you to give directions before they take action. Use the company’s global leadership competencies to justify your view that it is each employee’s individual responsibility to show personal initiative. The fact that you’re in Japan is beside the point. If your direct reports ask you for clearer, more detailed direction, explain that they need to take more responsibility. Make it clear that it’s their job to figure out how to execute against the team’s strategic goals. 
  • Work from 8:30am to 5pm every day, and don't mention anything to the team about how they are in the office more than you are. After all, we all have the freedom of choice, and it’s their choice to stay at work so long. If you must say anything when people tell you they are tired, explain that “work-life balance is a personal choice. You can work whatever hours you like as long as you get your work done.” Don’t pay much attention to people who tell you that they usually work from 8am until 9pm daily. They’re merely sharing information, so take these comments at face value. Refer to tip #1 above if you are tempted to read into the comment to find a deeper meaning.
  • Expect your team members to manage up the same way you did in your home country. Feel reassured by the fact that your team doesn’t give you direct, constructive feedback. It just means you’re doing a great job of leading them, and they have no improvement points to offer you. What’s that you say? The team is dragging its feet on rolling out that new pricing policy global HQ is driving? Not to worry. Your team most certainly isn’t trying to give you a subtle message. They just need to improve their cross-functional coordination and prioritization skills. They can do it with your help!
  • Don’t show an interest in Japanese culture or language. Sure, it would be nice to learn a few phrases and business customs, but really, who has the time for that? Just stay focused on delivering solid business results because this helps the local team as well as your career prospects. Be sure to offer your candid analysis of the culture whenever you have the chance. No opportunity is too small. For example, it’s fine to give a full-throated negative critique of the Japanese restaurant your colleague picked for the team dinner, even though the other people on the team seemed to enjoy it. Since you’ve been to a better place with your circle of expat friends, suggest going there instead for the next team dinner.
  • Complain that your Japanese supervisor is a habitual micromanager. Don’t they realize that you had three times the budget signing authority with half the time spent in regular meetings with your manager back home? Double down on your efforts to showcase your strong sense of ownership and your savvy decision-making abilities by working even more independently. Resist requests from your management for detailed analysis and background. If they truly trusted you, they wouldn’t be asking you to get into the weeds for each initiative or budget proposal you want approved. Finally, hold firm in your belief that offering to share detailed information with management is not only a poor use of time, but could also potentially get you labeled as an overly dependent and indecisive manager.
  • 7. Hold Japanese direct reports accountable for escalating issues to you as quickly as direct reports did in your home country. Experience has taught you that employees who don’t escalate issues to you early enough for you to give them the direction necessary to resolve the issue are either lacking in skills or are untrustworthy. Don’t waste time overthinking patterns of who is escalating and who isn't, or what type of issues are coming to you and which are not.
  • Don’t worry about reading the room. Sure, you’ve read a book or two about the difference between high context and low context cultures. But, there’s no real need to adjust your direct style. After all, you work for a big, western company. And, at your HR-sponsored leader assimilation, you explicitly told the team that you have a highly direct communication style, so others should feel free to talk with you equally as direct. As a result, there should be little need for you to have to consider what, how and when to disagree in a meeting or otherwise use time-consuming indirect speech to maintain others’ face or social credibility within the team. So, if you ever find yourself feeling isolated because people around you aren’t sharing information, you can seek comfort in the fact that you’ve done nothing wrong. The real problem lies in others’ interpersonal shortcomings and their unwillingness to adapt to a global work environment.

So, remember to use as many of these eight “tips” as you can if you have your heart set on failing big in Japan. Otherwise, if being a successful leader in Japan matters to you, I encourage you to ignore all these tips. Or better yet, try doing the opposite!

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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