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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan

Sep 20, 2023

Japan is excellent at being two faced.  In the West, this has a pejorative air, but in Japan this is how harmony can be maintained and everyone plays their part in keeping the public and private faces far apart.  This means that a typical western approach of getting the two warring individuals into a room and thrashing out a solution usually doesn’t get very far.  In that mediated meeting, no one talks and they certainly won’t publicly voice their opinion of the other person or flag the issue of their disgruntlement.  Japanese society has learnt that some things are better not surfaced, because they can lead to an explosion from which there may no backing out.  Bringing things to a head could go nuclear and better to let the problem drift along.  Keep the issue underground and everyone will smile on the surface through gritted teeth and maintain a facade of teamwork on the surface, diligently applying two faces to the problem.

The issue though is the problem never goes away and we have individuals who don’t want to cooperate with each other and this makes teamwork especially hard to achieve.  They may choose to look the other way but the boss doesn’t have that option.  The warring  individuals cast a negative influence over the team and two camps can quickly arise, making the issue broader than just two people who don’t like each other.  Left to its own devices this conflict can become inflamed and a rift can be created within the team.  As the boss you have to take action, but what action should you take?  Talking to them together isn’t a formula for success in Japan, so private, individual, one-on-one conversations are required. 

Yes, this elongates the perceived time investment, but actually it saves time.  Trying to wrangle them together at once, will suck up a lot of time and build immense boss frustration and ultimately lead to no workable solution.  Meeting privately allows more frank talk, especially from the boss.  If the leader says something tough in the meeting when they are together, then one side will feel they are being picked on and the boss is favouring the other side, whether that is the case or not.  That is certainly what they will tell the rest of the team 

In that private conversation, the boss can draw some red lines which they must not cross.  Very strong behavior boundaries can be articulated and made clear to the individuals.  This is a delicate path to traverse though, because the risk is that one of them will quit and we have to waste a lot of time and treasure to replace them.  Going too hard, could even see both quit.  That does eliminate the issue, but just raises others around finding replacements and spending a year to educate the newcomers to get them up to speed. 

If we go too soft, nothing changes, so where is the magic demarcation line?  We really have to know the individuals as to how far we can push each one, before they crack.  In this type of situation, we usually have to push it fairly hard to get them to work together and not destroy the organisation.  This is especially the case if it is a small company, but generally even in large corporations, the section sizes are not that large, so the same problems remain. 

Th two faced nature of Japanese society is an advantage in this regard.  Holding two opposing positions - one public and one heartfelt is easier for Japanese people maybe, compared to westerners who say things like, “It is my right to speak up and speak my mind” and then drill everyone about their position, why they are correct and the other person is wrong, wrong, wrong.  What we are looking for in Japan is to keep the feud private and not bring it into the open, enflaming the situation or have them start recruiting supporters into a war between factions.  If those supporters start to assemble, then we have to have a word to them too, telling them to butt out of it and to not get involved in any factionalism within the organisation. 

With the main protagonists, we need to get them focused on what they can control.  We need to get them organised to do their work.  We need them to cooperate with the other person, through gritted teeth if necessary.  We want no public voicing of their unhappiness with the other person and it is for them to keep a lid on how they feel. 

If one of the two cannot follow the rules you have set down for cooperation and teamwork, then they have to go.  It is going to be a big pain to replace them, but if they won’t play ball then they have no place in the team. If there is one you want prefer to keep, then maybe the other one has to go instead, but one will definitely have to leave.

None of this is ideal, but trying to keep people together and strike a balance in the team is what the boss has to figure out and there are no good roadmaps for this type of thing in Japan.  Be very clear with both of them about what you won’t accept.  However, don’t expect that they will come to a healthy resolution, just because you have an interest in having them work together harmoniously. As the boss, you will need to monitor the situation constantly, for deviations from the behaviour guidelines you have set down.  These will need correcting immediately, so don’t hesitate once you perceive the problem.