Oct 13, 2021
Starting something new means we start with a clean slate and can create the culture we want to predominate throughout our organisation. However how many people get that opportunity? We are talking about a miniscule collection of opportunities here and it is much more likely we will be inheriting an existing culture, created over time by our predecessors. That statement in itself may be problematic, because did they actually have a view on the type of culture they wanted or did it just evolve over time or in spite of them.
If we are inheriting an existing workplace culture, that doesn’t mean we cannot change it for the better. However, we should keep in mind that “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and we may be tempted to import the dominant headquarter culture to Japan. Good luck with that and let me know how it is working out for you. Actually don’t bother – I know the answer already.
What Are The Right Questions, Rather Than Right Answers
Our starting point is the most difficult. Japanese business isn’t focused exclusively on the right answers. In the West, we spend all of our energy and time to come up with the right answers to the issue. Japan, however, focuses on “what are the right questions?”. That is very wise, when you think about it. So let’s start with “what are the right questions we need to ask to identify the type of culture we believe is best for the business in Japan?”.
One of those questions could be, “what is already working well?”. This seems an easy enough enquiry. Imagine though what it would look like, if things were in reverse? A foreigner turns up to your company as the boss and they can’t read anything written in English and can only communicate in depth, in their language, with a few of the staff. By the way, they want to create a new culture? That foreigner would be you in Japan, so we should spend a lot of time educating ourselves about why things here are the way they are.
After having spent a lot of time and effort to understand the cultural, work style, linguistic, and values differences, another good question to ask would be how does it all connect together? The existing culture in Japan may in fact be an accumulation of compromises, enabling everyone to work together in harmony.
My Way Or The Highway
In the West, the culture tends to be dictatorial with no compromises. The boss says, “If you don’t like the way we do things around here, you can leave”. And that is what often happens. The new broom turns up and sweeps a bunch of people out the door. That same scenario would be an extremely rare occurrence in Japan. We need to begin by creating our map of the corporate terrain, to understand how the pieces all work together and why? What are the personal obligations ensnaring the senior leaders, as they work with their colleagues. Who owes who and what do they owe? In the West we have a more transactional culture, so these types of obligations aren’t as clearly defined.
Resistance to an idea will arise in Japan for no obvious reason, as far as the new boss can determine. It is a rational, logical idea to institute the change, yet certain key people are against it. But it is hard to fathom precisely why they are opposed. The silken tethers may be almost invisible, but we have to uncover them. We need to know what we are facing and then be able to put in a plan to overcome the opposition. For example, you discover this was the previous Chairman’s preference and his subordinates are loath to insult his memory and change it. Why? They still feel obligated to him. Would that happen in the West? Probably not.
“Yes Boss” Doesn’t Mean “Yes”
The new boss, trying to drive culture change, holds meetings with the team, drives the agenda, observes that people are nodding in agreement and then gets back to work. After some weeks, it becomes apparent that nothing is happening on that culture change project, which “we all agreed on”. But did we agree?
Major decisions in Japan are made through nemawashi or ground work, where idea sponsors talk informally with the other decision makers, harmonising the idea to get agreement. In the actual meeting the idea is rubber stamped. “That isn’t how we do it at home. We get into a meeting room, have a robust debate, agree and get on with it”, you say. Jolly good . “Yes” in Japan, can mean “I am listening to the words coming out of your mouth, but I don’t necessarily agree with any of it and I am not going to do any of it either”.
This isn’t quite the culture change you had in mind. You realise you have to change your cultural bias and start working the system. This system, by the way, has been around for a very long time. Ask yourself, “what do I know, that is so insightful that the whole country of Japan should drop their way of doing things and do it my way?”.
Counterintuitively, the culture here favours execution speed, once the decision is taken, because all the resistance has been removed. So which is better - slower decision-making and fast execution or fast decision-making and slower execution?
To change the workplace culture of organisations in Japan first requires a big breath to be taken and then gain a thorough understanding of the existing culture. Once the boundaries are clearer, then the better questions can be asked about, “why do we need to keep doing it like this around here?”.