Mending Fences & Connecting Cultures in Japanese Overseas Subsidiaries


The client approached me for help. Tensions were high, productivity was low, the American staff felt disrespected, and Japanese managers were perceived as arrogant and unwilling to adapt their management style to American culture.

Same old story.

This was going to be a tough gig. But the burden was on the client to make it meaningfulMy job was not to solve their problems, rather, to help them define their current situation so they could solve their own problems.

The endgame in my workshops is to get both sides talking to each other without all the accumulated misunderstandings and accompanying emotional baggage muddying the waters. It’s kind of like marriage counseling, except without the marriage part.

I spend several hours un-muddying the waters by separately educating Japanese and non-Japanese staffs on each other’s cultures. Then I bring them together for a third session at the end where a meaningful dialogue can unfold. That’s when things get real.

At the beginning of each separate session, I have participants make lists of what they enjoy about working with the other culture and also what drives them crazy. No surprise the “drives-them-crazy” lists are always longer than the “enjoy” lists, a telling statement about human nature. I also spend a good part of the separate sessions explaining the meanings, misunderstandings and cultural ramifications of their own comments, with a quick history and culture lesson thrown in for good measure. This provides badly needed context. Then in preparation for the final joint session, I translate both lists—Japanese and English—into the other language so each side clearly understands what the other side is saying about them.

Sounds dangerous, right? That’s what I thought the first time I launched this program fifteen years ago. I’m happy to report that not once have I had to break up a fight. But it’s not a walk in the park either. It’s a grind, in most cases with no single definitive turning point.

But each workshop takes on a life of its own, so I have to improvise. The one constant is education. I build on that with dialogue, self-reflection exercises (“hansei-kai”), and a brainstorming session at the end to invite ideas from participants on improving relations. If I have a “go-to” technique, it’s humor, a natural output of discussions that take place in the final joint session. If you can get both sides laughing together, then you’re almost home.

Sometimes humor even happens by accident.

I once conducted a workshop in which the Americans complained—as they always do—that the Japanese held “secret meetings,” implying the Japanese staff was intentionally withholding information from them. The expression “secret meetings” took the Japanese managers by surprise; they assumed as a matter of course that behind-the-scenes negotiating was how decisions were supposed to be made.

The American participants learned in the training that these offline meetings were not aimed at shutting them out (well, most weren’t), that their Japanese counterparts routinely held small, offline meetings even in Japan when working exclusively with fellow Japanese. This revelation alone went a long way in placating the Americans.

During the joint session, a Japanese work group addressed the “secret meetings” complaint. Not knowing the proper English words to describe their offline meetings, they defaulted to the Americans’ description. With a straight face, a Japanese manager faced the American audience and proclaimed in earnest, “We are so sorry. It is true that we Japanese have many secret meetings. So our countermeasure will be to reduce the number of secret meetings!”

To the Japanese presenter’s utter surprise, the Americans burst out laughing. They understood from context what he was trying to say. But imagine if context had not been provided. I might’ve had to break up my first fight.

But the participants in this particular engagement were a tougher crowd. In the initial Americans-only session, the tension was palpable. It would take most of the session to get the American managers’ collective heads wrapped around the causes of their problems. Still, no one was ready to sing Kum Ba Yah.

In contrast, the Japanese session started out completely tension free, but only because the Japanese managers were oblivious. When they learned just how resentful their American counterparts were, they grew visibly nervous.

Sometimes nervous is good.

Imagine my glee when the final joint session took a sudden, positive turn. After hearing numerous complaints from frustrated American counterparts on how they felt “disrespected” and “unappreciated,” the senior Japanese executive asked me to interpret. Here’s what he said:

“I suspect that I am guilty of offending you, and for that I want to offer my sincere apology. We Japanese come from a tiny island with no natural resources. Your town has kindly allowed us to build our factory here in the middle of this huge, wonderful market, and it has greatly benefitted our parent company. We are very grateful for that. So we have absolutely no intention of insulting or disrespecting you. We will do our best moving forward to change that perception, and would like very much to work together. We are on the same team, have the same goals, and want to work together as one team.”

I could almost hear the tension escaping from the room. The Americans immediately softened; it was written all over their faces.

We didn’t sing Kum Ba Yah, but the rest of the session was fun, engaging, and productive. They even started laughing at my jokes. Everyone left the room at the end of the day with the agreement that they’d put more effort into communicating, cooperating, and socializing outside of work. They also agreed to hold similar joint sessions periodically to ensure proper follow up and keep the lines of communication open.

In the end, the client made the session profoundly meaningful. I can’t overstate the importance of the senior Japanese executive’s apology in winning over the Americans, a testament to the power of humility in building bridges.

These tougher engagements are especially rewarding because they are so challenging; they are welcome reminders of my good fortune to work in a field that mends fences and connects people.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019


7 responses to “Mending Fences & Connecting Cultures in Japanese Overseas Subsidiaries

  1. What a fantastic success story! Congratulations:-) Which aspect do you think is the most important out of those covered in the training? Is it the initial ‘education’ about cultural differences, the help of ‘putting feelings on paper’ session or the ‘we will try to do x,y,z from now on’ part?
    I also love the ‘what drives us crazy’ part and the comparison to marriage. The truth is that you love and hate your spouse for the exact same silly things… The key to success is to turn the hate to love & appreciation of our differences.
    Once again, well done!

    • Thanks again for commenting wolikag! Not sure I can isolate the most important aspect, but I can say that without background education, the other components of the workshop don’t work, as knowledge is the foundation upon which everything else is built. On the other hand, without face-to-face dialogue the educational part is meaningless: folks need to drill down to their concrete issues and work it out themselves. But the last part (self-reflection) is the most powerful: getting people to turn their pointing fingers around at themselves and focus on the only thing they control–their own behavior. Getting there isn’t easy but it’s absolutely essential for taking the next step and building trust.

  2. Aloha Tim! Thank you. I am involved in restructuring work for nonprofit organizations right now and one of the first challenges is “changing the culture” from a non-sustainable one to a sustainable one. I am employing your Japanese-American cross cultural understanding improvement techniques in my work now even though all the participants are Americans!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Grif. That’s a real compliment that you’re employing my method.

      And best of luck in selling lots of copies of your recently published LQ book!

  3. Thanks for sharing. It is inspiring to hear the statement from the Japanese executive!

  4. Hi Tim,

    This reminds me of a realization I just made about one of my Japanese colleagues in a previous job. When I left the organization, I was convinced he was a untrustworth two-faced lying back-stabber. We had several meetings together where we would talk about things and make plans and whenever I brought them up in the official meetings later, he would sit there stone cold and never support me if people didn’t agree – left me hanging out to dry ever time.

    I was also convinced that my Japanese colleagues totally ignored me in their nemawashi “secret meeting” sessions, effectively elimiating me from any real decision making in the organization. I think you know where this is going, but imagine my internal embarassment when I recently realized that through these private sessoins, I was part of the secret meeting nemawashi system and it was I who violated the system by throwing out ideas for consideration before the whole nemawashi circuit had time to be completed. Several years too late, but I’m glad to have finally figured this one out!

    • Thanks for sharing that Scot!

      Hopefully we can hook up again in the near future. (Slammed right now and traveling soon, but perhaps late July or August?) Regards to honorable wife. 😉

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