Is Japanese-style Management Really “Bottom Up”?

Management experts often describe Japanese-style management as “bottom up.” Many non-Japanese employees who work for Japanese organizations would beg to differ. Back in a previous life when I worked as a management consultant at Japan Management Association Consultants (日本能率協会 コンサルティング), one of my Japanese mentors described it this way: action plans bubble up from the bottom, but before that can happen, company policy must first be deployed top-down.

So what is policy deployment? In a nutshell, top management defines a general vision and direction for the organization, then as that vision is deployed downward, specific targets are developed and quantified. When it reaches the lower levels of the organization, employees are expected to develop and propose concrete plans to achieve the targets provided from above. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Note that the top-down and bottom-up processes can be messy and informal, including lots of cross-functional coordination among different departments. The fact that much of it occurs informally creates the unintended effect of excluding non-Japanese who aren’t in the loop. Below is my analysis of how miscommunication can occur when bottom-up management is discussed between Japanese and American managers.

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Japanese version:

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Cross-Cultural Expressions of Love & the Implied Double-Negative

Following up on yesterday’s Humor Lost In Translation post, today’s scenario deals with two cross-cultural communication issues: one linguistic, the other concerning different ways of defining and expressing love.

On the linguistic front, this scenario represents a common communication breakdown that occurs in dialogues between English speakers and Japanese who haven’t mastered the finer nuances of the English language. In this case, the unsuspecting American husband asks a question in a negative format. (i.e., “Don’t you…?) The Japanese wife responds the way she would if the same question were posed in her native language: with an implied double-negative that she fails to clearly articulate. As a result, the two lovebirds get their wires crossed.

On the “love” front, sure wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a forlorn gaijin husband complain about the “lack of affection” from his Japanese spouse. (And I’d gladly give the nickel back if I could help them work out their issues.) Goes without saying, nothing beats an open dialogue and better understanding of each other’s culture. Below is an attempt to provide a framework for such a dialogue.

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Disclaimer: in no way am I suggesting this applies to all intercultural (“gaijin”-Japanese) couples. Also, keep in mind that couples can evolve. For example, when I first started dating my wife, she wasn’t a hugger. After 33 years of living in the U.S., she’s become much more openly affectionate. And even my 88-year-old mother-in-law has gotten into hugging, although she reserves it exclusively for her gaijin son-in-law. 🙂 

 

Humor Lost in Translation (and the Ticked-Off Japanese Wife)

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I’ve never been so clueless as to say this to my Japanese wife. (We communicate in Japanese, but frankly, I wouldn’t know how to pull this off in Japanese anyway, as certain types of humor just don’t translate.) Note that I stole this particular wisecrack from my high school math teacher, but just about any sarcastic remark will elicit a similar reaction. With 35 years of marital bliss under my belt, I’ve learned how to make my wife laugh, but occasionally stumble and make jokes that fall into the gap. I’ve seen similar miscommunications happen in the business world at numerous mixed-culture meetings. Cross-cultural humor is an acquired skill, but it comes with risk, especially sarcasm and irony. So joker beware!

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Can Japanese Hospitality Go Too Far?

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I am a big fan of Japanese hospitality, especially the kikubari tradition (気配り=”the art of anticipation”). I personally appreciate kikubari even when it misses the mark. But Japanese service providers should be aware that some foreigners would rather have a choice than have the host decide for them. I plugged a simple scenario into my communication model. Here’s what it looks like in English:

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Here’s the Japanese version:

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What do you think? Do the Japanese sometimes go too far by “over-anticipating”?

For more on “kikubari” check out Japanese-style Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari.

How to Avoid Being Micromanaged by Your Japanese Boss

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On yesterday’s post, I introduced my communication model. Building on that foundation, today I’ll provide yet another concrete example of a typical communication breakdown that happens when Japanese and non-Japanese work together.

For some context, Japanese managers have an expression called “hōrensō.” It is actually an acronym made up of three Japanese words: 「報告」(hōkoku), 「連絡」(renraku), and 「相談」(sōdan), which literally translates as “report-contact-consult.” Note that the acronym is pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “spinach” (“hōrensō“), which makes it easy to remember. (For more details on the hōrensō process, check out The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss.)

Many non-Japanese believe that “hōrensō” is a form of micromanagement, but I see it as a tool to avoid being micromanaged, a technique to turn the tables and actually manage your Japanese boss. Granted, it can be time-consuming at first but think of it as an investment in your time to build trust, an essential condition to get your boss to back off and let you do your job.

So without further ado, here’s my analysis of how Japanese and non-Japanese are on different wavelengths in terms of how this concept is perceived. (Two examples are provided: one in English, one in Japanese.)

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And the Japanese version…

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Hope these visuals help.

 

 

The Cross-Cultural Communication Model

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The essence of cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing responses than with sending messages. It is more important to release the right response than to send the right message.”

–Edward T. Hall

I recently resurrected a cross-cultural communication model that I developed years ago. It’s an elegant way to communicate not only the limited role of language in the communication process in general, but also the importance of hidden differences that too often prevent effective communication from happening. The Edward T. Hall quote above highlights the importance of the adage, “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

Below are three charts. The first is the general communication model (in Japanese & English). The next two charts depict a concrete (and realistic) scenario that I plugged into the model (one in English, the other in Japanese).

Even concepts that seem simple on the surface can be far more complex than we imagine, and can lead to serious cross-cultural misunderstandings.

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To quote the late and great Peter Drucker:

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Here’s an example of a deeply rooted cross-cultural misunderstanding even in a seemingly simple interaction.

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Here’s the Japanese version.

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Hope you find the model and these examples useful.

10 Things We All Need to Apologize For

board-229730_960_720The other day an article scrolled onto my LinkedIn feed titled 10 Things to Never Apologize For Again. My first thought was that people in my culture don’t apologize enough. My second thought was, please don’t give my people more reasons not to apologize!

In fairness, it was a good list and the author made some great points.  Still, can’t help but think the world needs more apologizing, not less. So to get the universe back in balance, here’s my list of things we should always apologize for. In no particular order.

You should apologize if…

  1. … you overuse fancy jargon to make things sound more complicated than they are. (My field is the worst offender. Unless it’s actually rocket science, please speak plain English.)
  2. …you send connection requests on LinkedIn without a brief courtesy message. (A simple greeting will do.)
  3. …you are a keyboard warrior who flings insults online that you’d never dare say to someone’s face. (If you can’t be brave, at least be civil.)
  4. …you argue politics on social media, especially on LinkedIn. (Divisive and unproductive, business and politics are a bad combination.)
  5. …you think you have nothing to apologize for. (You do.)
  6. …you accuse everyone else of being in a bubble. (Proof you are living in the tiniest of bubbles.)
  7. …you assign yourself a pretentious business title that doesn’t exist in real life, like “Relationship Integration Versatilist,” (counselor) or Transparency Enhancement Technician (window washer).
  8. …you use nouns like “leverage” and “gift” as verbs. (Who gave these nouns permission to become verbs?)
  9. …you use words like “opulent,” “high-toned,” and “resonantly floral” to describe your coffee. (Just drink it and enjoy!)
  10. …you make lists of reasons people should apologize. (For that I sincerely apologize.)

It’s easy making this list for other people. Now try making one for yourself. Not so easy, and not nearly as much fun. But there’s a big upside: it’s a wonderful exercise in self-reflection.

What’s your list?