Feb 4, 2015
A Wet or Dry Sayonara?
In most Western economies, a colleague’s farewell is no big deal, just a part of the tapestry of business. If there is some turnover and the recently departed are being replaced, then that is considered the natural order and life moves on. Darwin explained it all a long time ago. Managers applying a typical Western business approach to departures in Japan however, may skip the need to communicate with those left behind. Underestimating the emotional component of colleague separations here is a big mistake.
Most Western enterprises are “Dry” rather than “Wet” ecosystems. Dry meaning logical, ordered, efficient, unemotional, competitive and oriented around the survival of the fittest. Wet on the other hand is more emotional, nuanced, interdependent, harmonious, inefficient and more forgiving of human frailties. After living here for nearly thirty years, carefully observing the differences with my native Australia, I would proffer the unremarkable conclusion that Japan much prefers Wet to Dry work environments.
The unexpected announcement of the coming disappearance of a workmate can cause a degree of consternation amongst the troops, that is probably not anticipated or even sensed by Western trained managers. If there is no alert to the issue, there is no imperative for communication around the departure topic.
Ambushing the quickly gathered Japanese staff one morning and announcing the existing boss is being demoted and introducing the new boss, a total outsider shuffled in from abroad the night before, is the Dry approach. That was the only occasion to explain what was going on. I don’t think too many Japanese leaders would choose something that bestial.
The Finance industry is notorious for rapidly relieving staff of their building access cards, providing a thin plastic garbage bin liner for their personal paraphernalia and a phalanx of security types to shunt them out the door. In the Western work environment, firing people just before important holiday breaks like Christmas or on a Friday is not unusual. Bosses take note - research indicates that Friday firings lead to higher suicide rates than on weekdays, because people have so much time on their hands to dwell on what has happened to them.
Voluntary departures should not be ignored as chances to direct the communication amongst the team. Just because staff departures are no big deal to you, the Japanese staff don’t necessarily share your Dry view of the working world. Don’t let the rumour mill crank up and the information vacuum be filled by negative messaging.
If the departure is voluntary, don’t assume there is no assurance needed for those who remain to know that everything is still stable, safe and predictable. That may not be the broad conclusion reached by interested observers though. I found this when I was running an operation in Osaka. We were growing, but I was very surprised to get negative feedback from our clients about our hiring new staff. The Japanese clients saw the advertising and assumed we were firing people, had high turnover, that the organization was spinning out of control and that we were becoming untrustworthy. I learnt to always advertise the fact we were “expanding”, to prevent that type of scuttlebutt.
Explaining to each person what is going on is the leader’s job. The team want the assurance that they are not also going to be shown the door. They may wonder that the departing colleagues are bailing out early, because they know something the others don’t. Assure them that there are still oodles of opportunity to advance in their careers or your might see good staff leave.
If there has been a poor performance issue that is driving the team member’s departure, those staying need to hear the survivors are valued and why the person’s departure is the best thing for the organization.
In Japan, the group not the individual, is key. In this type of high density environment, too much individualism is thought to be plain dangerous. The herd feels safety in numbers and in the known. The idea that shareholder value comes last, trailing staff and customer happiness, is not a very Western way of thinking. Deep down, this is how things still operate here. Staff happiness includes as little disruption as possible to the established harmonious order.
Leaders, have a key role to play. They need to explain the Why of what is going on. Three factors determine employee engagement levels in companies – our relationship with our immediate supervisor; our belief in the direction being taken by senior management and our pride in the organization. Departures, when not properly handled, negatively impact all three.
The key emotional trigger to getting higher levels of engagement is feeling valued. Those who are left behind need that conversation with their boss that they are valued. Bone Dry leaders won’t get it or won’t bother. They will subsequently wonder why the levels of engagement, commitment, innovation and motivation are so low in their team. To successfully lead in Japan and beat the competition, you need a more highly engaged team.
When its sayonara time, get Wet.
Stop the rumour mill by having a strategy in place for when there is turnover
Coach leaders on the need to communicate the WHY with team members when there are departures
Assure those left behind they are valued