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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan

Dec 27, 2017

The Foreign Leader In Japan


We know leaders who are friction magnets. They upset those working with them on a regular basis. They are quick to point out their opinion and their view. Their rights are paramount and we are soon informed of them. They are highly driven, powerful, even intense individuals. They are upwardly mobile and have sharp elbows. Basically they are a pain in most countries, but they are a disaster in Japan.


Crash or crash through sounds cool, but it is not a great formula for getting change embedded in the organization. Often Japan can drive everyone nuts because it is so hard to introduce change here. This is not just the frustration of Western leaders sent to Japan on assignment. Japanese leaders are also frustrated that they cannot get the changes they want implemented fast enough.


The forceful expatriate leader in Japan soon discovers that their will is not everyone’s command. At some point they find that force of status won’t work here. Japanese employees have a social contract with the company, such that just firing some of the troops for insubordination isn’t so easy.


Japanese business people value their relationships and so the command to damage those because of the whim of the newly arrived boss is met with stiff resistance. The staff know that in three years or so, this new foreign boss will be winging their way to another assignment, but they will all still be here to pick up the pieces.


The idea of waiting out the new guy or gal is well established. A rear guard action is inaugurated to slow down the change, hide as many facets which no one wants to change as possible and to control how much the new boss finds out. What looked like “we crashed through” actually turns out to be just a “crash”.


There are better ways to do things here, but they involve diplomacy and tact on the part of the leader. Temper tantrums are a part of some Western leader’s management tool kit. Exploding in anger and venting rage at things that they thought were being done, but actually aren’t being done, is part of the package. Venting here doesn’t change things much. People are people everywhere and nobody enjoys being forced to do things against their will. The local staff see themselves as the business experts in Japan. The new boss is seen as so ignorant of how things work here, that they are a danger to the business.


Losing one’s temper is seen as childish and demonstrating a lack of control. A serious business person stays in control and uses their communication ability to persuade others to follow them. They are very tactful when listening to ideas they think are stupid and useless. They control their body language so the other person cannot gauge their animosity to the proposal. Japanese language is a big help here because it is so circuitous and indirect, it is genius at disguising what is really being thought. English and most western languages are much more clear and direct.


Rather than telling everyone what they need to do, to fly straight, which is the usual Western boss proclivity, it is a good idea to ask people’s opinions. Asking for them to volunteer their thoughts is not going to get very far though. Japanese people are hesitant to volunteer that information for fear of getting it wrong. It is probably easier to ask why what you think should be done is going to be difficult. That is a great word “difficult”. In the Japanese context it means “impossible”. The critique ability of Japanese business people is pretty well honed and so they will find the thousand reasons why this suggestion of yours is a bad idea.


The more taxing part is getting everyone to think how to get it done anyway. This is where listening skills and encouragement are major assets for the leader. There needs to be some persistence applied here. The typical first blush replies will be half hearted, superficial answers about how to make it work, with no real belief that any of this effort is even worth it. This is where the boss needs to be dogged, but in a polite, non-aggressive way. Ask them to work on it further. This process needs to keep repeating itself until the project team actually start taking it seriously. This won’t happen in a hurry which is a problem. The Western boss is always in a hurry.


Moving the needle here is a time heavy activity. The consensus building process and the involvement of many stakeholders slows the process down. On the flip side it really speeds things up once the decision is agreed upon. That is a key word “agreed”.


Hearts and minds have to be won over and trust is the key to that process. This obviously isn’t going to happen for quite some period of time. The HQ expectation of a major turnaround in Japan’s results is based on pure fantasy and no understanding of Japan at all. The new boss is caught in the vice of pressure from above and resistance from below.


Just when they start to sort it out and look like they may be making progress, HQ requires their vice-regal presence in the next country and off they go. Their legacy here in Japan is zero, their real impact on the business is still a work in progress that will never be brought to fruition.


Welcome to Japan.

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About The Author

Dr. Greg Story: President, Dale Carnegie Training Japan

In the course of his career Dr. Greg Story has moved from the academic world, to consulting, investments, trade representation, international diplomacy, retail banking and people development. Growing up in Brisbane, Australia he never imagined he would have a Ph.D. in Japanese decision-making and become a 30 year veteran of Japan.


A committed lifelong learner, through his published articles in the American, British and European Chamber journals, his videos and podcasts “THE Leadership Japan Series”, "THE Sales Japan series", THE Presentations Japan Series", he is a thought leader in the four critical areas for business people: leadership, communication, sales and presentations. Dr. Story is a popular keynote speaker, executive coach and trainer.


Since 1971, he has been a disciple of traditional Shitoryu Karate and is currently a 6th Dan. Bunbu Ryodo (文武両道-both pen & sword) is his mantra and he applies martial art philosophies and strategies to business.