Most people who have worked outside of their home country realize they need to adapt aspects of their default work style to succeed abroad. How we build trust, gather information, give feedback, make decisions and resolve conflict are just a few examples of where leaders find the need to flex their styles in order to work successfully in new corporate or country cultures.
When it comes to making informed decisions and managing communications with stakeholders and managers outside of Japan, one common challenge for leaders in Japan who do not speak Japanese is figuring out whether they have been given the full picture about a particular issue or situation. Fortunately for me, I’ve experienced firsthand how being able to work with Japanese colleagues and clients in Japanese has played an indispensable role in overcoming this challenge.
Many expat leaders I work with here in Japan discover, within a few months after arriving, that having a local team of strong English speakers isn’t enough to overcome cultural differences. Common sense the leader brings from her home country about how to build and lead a strong team too often doesn’t translate well into Japan’s culture. This can lead to weak team performance, frustration for local staff, eroding self-confidence for the leader and headaches for the HR professionals who support them all.
Compared with many Western cultures, Japanese culture tends to be more interdependent and status oriented. This can mean that junior people will likely avoid giving their own opinions to a skip-level leader, especially when their direct managers are in the room. And if you are looking for complete and candid info about the cause of a specific issue, keep in mind that Japan’s preference for relatively indirect communications means that sensitive information and differences of opinion might be expressed subtly or through nonverbal means. Japan’s strong orientation toward valuing relationships could also mean that your colleagues or direct reports might not feel safe sharing information until they feel you have earned their trust. All this is a lot to think about.
So, what can you do when you need to get the info you need with Japanese teams? Here are a few suggestions:
In my own experience learning to work across cultures, Japan’s included, one of the most effective ways I have found to do this is by asking a willing, successful and locally well-respected colleague to be a business culture mentor. Having a reliable confidant to help me interpret communication when I can’t fully understand others’ messages to me or their expectations of me has been a key factor not only in my successes but also in my high level of satisfaction working abroad. Fortunately, with time and constant practice (and I am still learning!), I’ve picked up enough to be able to help others who are less familiar with Japanese work culture.
You can take a look here if you are interested in learning more about how myself and my colleagues at PFC help unite diverse teams and personalities from within an organization to communicate more effectively, focus more clearly and act with common purpose.
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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