Invisible Culture Gaps in the Workplace: How Is Information Supposed to Flow?

My Japanese boss never gives me feedback; he never explained the parameters and expectations of my job when he hired me. I have no idea what he’s thinking, and feel like he’s purposely withholding information from me.

 –Frustrated American working for a Japanese company

My American subordinate never takes initiative to gather information; this behavior makes me think he doesn’t care. Why doesn’t he ask me for information? Why doesn’t he pay more attention and figure out for himself what to do? And why doesn’t he come seek out my advice?

 –Frustrated Japanese boss of American subordinate

These are completely disjointed views of reality that permeate the mixed Japanese-American cross-cultural workplace. Lot’s of folks in Japanese-owned subsidiaries in the U.S. are thinking these very thoughts. And unfortunately, it’s a conversation both sides are not having.

So where do you suppose the communication gap is here? It’s different cultural assumptions about how information is supposed to flow in the organization.

In corporate America, information is expected to flow systemically to the recipient in need of it, an efficient, linear passive management system that Americans excel at. American employees expect bosses to explain the subordinate’s individual job description, overall expectations, including periodic feedback–ideally positive and negative–so the subordinate has the chance to adjust as needed. And if the American subordinate happens to be the production scheduler, she expects monthly orders and other projection data to systemically flow to her in a timely manner, so she can do her job ordering raw materials within her restricted lead times.

And when information doesn’t flow systemically, then the system is deemed flawed (or else “someone screwed up”), and corrective action is expected. God forbid anyone goes out and gets the information; that would require active information-gathering behavior that’s not recognized or encouraged by the American management model of efficiency.

This may surprise the uninitiated, but no Japanese employee expects all the information to flow systemically in a Japanese organization: the burden is on the individual to seek out and gather the information necessary to do his or her job, by personally connecting with other people in the organization. The belief is that a face-to-face meeting is packed with information that, for example, an email or even a phone call could never provide. For this reason, misuse of email is frowned upon. And even when email is used appropriately, Japanese still expect follow-up face-to-face contact.

Edward T. Hall would agree:

“Although we tend to regard language as the main channel of communication, research reveals that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of information is communicated by other means.”

That’s heady stuff. Through the years I’ve grown to understand the importance of the non-verbal communication world. So much rides on context and the strength of relationships, especially in Japan. In my work experience, the most effective Japanese managers had allies and friends spread throughout the company, folks with whom favors and information were exchanged based on the strength of those relationships. Ditto all that for the best American managers as well. The difference is that in Japan it’s expected, while in America it’s considered “exceptional”, for example the talented wheeler-and-dealer personality we all know, the guy who just knows how to get things done.

What this means is that in a Japanese company, if you wait for information and don’t have allies across the organization to help you, you’ll be left in the dust twiddling your thumbs.

This difference in expectations of information flow can have morale-busting effects on feedback-starved Americans waiting for direction from a Japanese boss who, unbeknownst to the American subordinate, expects him to take initiative to gather information for himself. I’ve refereed some intense exchanges based on this misunderstanding alone. The problem is further compounded by all the other invisible gaps muddying the waters.

After working in and with both Japanese and American systems for many years, I’ve concluded that the optimal workplace information-exchange system is a hybrid of the two extremes. The strength of Western-style communication within the workplace is efficiency and “automation” of information flow. The weakness is that the world we live and work in is dynamic. No matter how great an information system you have, something always falls through the cracks, or new information outside the system becomes relevant, or information doesn’t yet exist and therefore must be mined through active collection of data and subsequent analysis.

The strength of the Japanese system is the breadth of data collection, and the tendency to look at issues in the workplace from as many points of view as possible, achieved through solicitation of input from functions across the organization. In this sense, Japanese are masters at holistically defining problems in great detail. Another strength is that it gives most employees and managers a much broader view of the organization than Western counterparts, by fostering and nurturing cross-functional communication on an ongoing basis through the Japanese-flavored “chosei” (coordination) process, an organic, informal “negotiating” method with no parallel in the West. The glaring weakness of the Japanese method of course, is its sheer inefficiency, not to mention that only people lucky enough to be in the “informal loop” are privy to key information.

Westerners would do well to expand their approach to encompass all departments, and develop corporate cultures that encourage individual initiative in collecting  information (in addition to standard “passive” channels of communication), while promoting more face-to-face consultations among departments across the organization.

The Japanese would do well to get more systemic in the way they exchange information, but do so without abandoning their holistic approach to defining problems and making decisions.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

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