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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan

Jul 26, 2023

Japan is a unique country where underperformance is not considered a legitimate reason to terminate someone’s employ.  Leaders new to the country will often run into this issue.  They arrive with a mandate from HQ to “fix” Japan and get it up to a required performance standard.  As soon as the new broom brings in changes to achieve the HQ revenue targets, the trouble starts. Change is never an easy thing for Japan to deal with because the same old, same old is a known commodity and therefore a safe choice.  New represents risk and everyone here has been raised to avoid mistakes and errors and new things are inevitably going to be difficult to execute perfectly from the start.  Ergo, don’t do new things.

The new boss will have religion about the changes they want to see and in short order they discover that despite all of that head nodding agreement in the room, no one is executing the agreed changes.  The answer is simple.  As far as the Japanese leaders are concerned, they have not agreed but they have chosen not to raise their concerns in the meeting where they were discussed.  This is the western way of doing things – get everyone together, debate, then decide.  Japan doesn’t do it that way.

The nemawashi or groundwork method requires a lot of consensus building, so that the meeting is only there to rubber stamp something which has been worked out behind the scenes over a long period.  Every angle has been studied, every correlation considered, every impact divined.  Once this has been agreed to everyone’s satisfaction, then it will be raised to the top of the tree for a decision.

The new boss just raising this at a meeting before the proper due diligence has been undertaken is not considered the professional way of doing things and that is why the follow-up doesn’t get done.  People just haven’t agreed yet.  The boss remonstrates with his or her executive team but cannot get a handle on what is going on.  Some people are more resistant than others and these people get marked for removal, as individuals who are not aligned with HQ’s direction nor the new boss’s strategy. Who is right and who is wrong isn’t particularly clear, but resistance and non-performance are clear and that is how people are ejected from the team.

To the new boss, these resisters need to be dealt with ruthlessly or the mandate will never get done.  There is no tolerance for a perceived lack of loyalty.  The irony is often that the resisters are often super loyal and are trying to save the machine from itself.  They are usually super loyal to the clients and always take their side in any contest between what is good for the client and what is good for the organisation. A bunch of outside HQ ideas being forced on Japan is not seen as having the right amount of depth of understanding of the market and the customer base.  Not doing what HQ suggests is seen as the smarter move because the people sitting in HQ have close to zero understanding of Japan and how things really work.  The newly minted boss has been given their marching orders and they will be removed if they don’t follow them to the letter.  The new boss is therefore resisted as a clueless plant from HQ, doing the bidding of people even more clueless than they are.  It is a head-on collision just waiting to happen.

After a couple of years of experience gained in Japan and a better understanding of client needs, the new boss starts to open their eyes and become a lot less rambunctious.  The resisters have been canned or calmed.  Those who left have moved on to the next company and they won’t be coming back.  They took all the client relationships with them too, as the new boss slowly discovers to their chagrin.  This happened for one of the senior Japanese staff at an organisation I know well.  The new broom got rid of him and without knowing it, had just destroyed decades of deep relationship build with the buyers, once a market leading jewel in the crown for that organisation. That new broom was arrogant and clueless, so I am not sure if he ever appreciated what he had done.

New leaders have their marching orders from HQ but they would be wise to take their time trying to implement them.  Get to know the people first, especially the key clients.  It is much easier to educate HQ idiots about Japan, than to find people with decades of relationships and deep knowledge of the area.  Of course, there will be underperformers who should be removed, but make sure they actually are underperformers first before taking any drastic action.