//[Article] How To Work With Japanese Organizations: 7 Tips For A Better Understanding

[Article] How To Work With Japanese Organizations: 7 Tips For A Better Understanding

Steve Crom, CEO & Partner (Valeocon Management Consulting) & Nobuyuki Ota Partner Asia-Pacific (Valeocon Management Consulting)

When international teams work together, leadership has to consider the local characteristics and differences. This article outlines some critical factors to consider and provides practical recommendations when working with a Japanese firm.

1. The Japanese rely on the power of the group, the informal organization of cohorts is an important information channel.

College graduates were recruited and entered employment together as a “class of cohorts”. The “cohort” is a special group of those who entered the company together and/or “once worked in the same department.” Because of the slow pace of promotion, people in the cohort feel that they are treated equally and no one has a sense of having lost out in the promotion race. This creates a strong sense of unity.

Japanese society is defined by an intricate web of reciprocal obligations to multiple groups to which an individual belongs. Therefore, acceptance is of utmost importance. Their strong group orientation and difficulty in objectively measuring potential, has led to a long-standing system of seniority based promotions. This ensures that the harmony of the group is maintained and no one is signaled out unfairly.

Outsiders will be treated with caution and skepticism until they have earned the trust of the long-established insiders.

2. Senior Japanese leaders will prefer picking those they know and trust for key positions.

The Japanese are very ambitious and performance oriented; however, their strong group orientation and difficulty in objectively measuring potential, has led to a long-standing system of seniority based promotions. This ensures that the harmony of the group is maintained and no one is signaled out unfairly. For that reason, department heads are typically the oldest members not necessarily the most talented. Japanese companies distrust leaders who are exceptionally talented because they upset the balance of mutual dependence between figureheads representing the group and devoted subordinates who keep the ship of state running on course.

3. Senior executives in Japanese organizations draw their power from the loyalty of those who directly report to them.

Those at the top are rarely charismatic individuals, rather those who are good at creating harmony and consensus. There is no word in the Japanese language for “leadership.” To the extent that senior Japanese leaders are involved in the merger, they will let a consensus emerge on key integration decisions rather than decide themselves or articulate a clear vision at the outset.

Relationships define the organization, not contractual obligations. In other words, a person isn’t hired to do a job, rather has a relationship to his boss to fulfill an obligation. Japanese organizations are defined by one-on-one relationships that are vertical.

4. Information and decisions move up and down the hierarchy in a typical Japanese organization.

Japanese organizations are defined by one-on-one relationships that are vertical. As a result, information and decisions move up and down a typical Japanese organization, poorly cross-functionally. Sometimes, the bosses do not want his subordinates to interact with other departments out of the boss’s sight. Because of stronger vertical relationships, “push-back” is quite rare, or done very softly and tacitly, resulting in vague communication where reading between the lines is important.

5. Understanding who has the informal power and working with them to make decisions is a critical success factor.

Since ultimate power in Japanese society and organizations is symbolic, it is rarely exercised. The risk of loss of face is too great. Therefore, it is incumbent on those in service of the leaders to exercise power behind the scenes on their behalf. ”The officials who head the hierarchy do not typically exercise actual authority. Advisers and hidden forces work in the background.” Understanding who has the informal power and working with them to make decisions is a critical success factor.

If functions are to be integrated and consolidated, special care should be taken to help establish subordinate/supervisor relationships, with the expectation that the change will take years.

6. Appoint respected middle managers as team leaders, ones that can mobilize the positive power of the cohort network.

Establish a hierarchy of well-chartered teams to maximize involvement and minimize uncertainty as new norms are established. As a result, it is critical to pay attention and respect to those in a change effort who may feel threatened, by including them and giving them the opportunity to contribute their expertise. Nothing is more threatening than decisions taken outside the group that will affect it, especially those relating to scope and power.

Organizations that use committees effectively are able operationally to manage cross-functional processes well; however, the ones that do not know how to take advantage of committees, often create them without clear objectives, authority. It is recommended to carefully charter committees so leaders can define the boundaries within which department heads are expected to come to solutions.

If functions are to be integrated and consolidated, special care should be taken to help establish subordinate/supervisor relationships, with the expectation that the change will take years.

7. Expect it to take three times as long to change in a Japanese organization as it needs to establish new norms.

The time taken will pay-off during implementation as you’ll find everyone included knows why the change is taking place, what their role is and how to operate in the new environment.

If functions are to be integrated and consolidated, special care should be taken to help establish subordinate/supervisor relationships, with the expectation that the change will take years.

In private enterprise, it would be typically Japanese to take a very top-down approach: appoint a senior person or persons to set policy for the good of the company. The implication is that ambiguity about who is in charge will slow down if not paralyze a Japanese company in transition because they order their world with constant reference to hierarchy.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Steve Crom

is the CEO and a founding Partner of Valeocon Management Consulting. He consults on strategy, change leadership, team and organizational effectiveness. He was born in the US, has lived and worked for 25 years in Europe, currently based in Germany and can be reached at steve.crom@valeocon.com

Nobuyuki Ota

is a partner of Valeocon Management Consulting and responsible for the firm’s Asia-Pacific practice. He is based in Tokyo and can be reached at nobuyuki.ota@valeocon.com

References

The Chrysanthemum and The Sword

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By |2018-10-05T14:07:16+00:00October 5th, 2018|Perspectives|Comments Off on [Article] How To Work With Japanese Organizations: 7 Tips For A Better Understanding

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