Category Archives: cross-cultural management

Intercultural Twilight Zone Hits a Milestone


The Intercultural Twilight Zone just hit a milestone: 100,000 hits.

Granted, lots of those hits were bogus bots, or seekers of illicit material (boy they must’ve been disappointed when they stumbled onto my anthropological ramblings without the naked pictures), or perhaps fans of the Twilight Zone series?

I didn’t set out to accumulate x number of hits when I started writing my blog in 2008. I started blogging because writing is a therapeutic outlet for me, and it’s an incredible feeling to know you’ve connected with people through words. (You know it when you get lots of hits on a given post and when people take time to comment.) It’s worth mentioning that I intended at one time to write another book, but have found blogging much more attractive. Why? Instant publishing, instant feedback, instant gratification, and I can write whatever I want.

A big mahalo to all my subscribers and to everyone who takes time to read my ramblings.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014


The Joy of Gnarly Cross-Cultural Gigs and Reducing Secret Meetings

The client approached me for help. Productivity was down, tensions were high, the American staff felt disrespected, and Japanese managers were perceived by the locals as arrogant and unwilling to adapt their management style to American culture. Same old story.

This time I really did have my work cut out for me. More accurately, the client’s staff had their work cut out for them. But it was too early to break the news that outside consultants can’t solve a company’s internal problems, that my job is to help them better define their “current situation” so they can figure out for themselves how to best solve their own problems. This explanation would come soon enough. For now I would tread lightly and work on educating both sides to understand the deeper causes of their intercultural struggles.

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

My approach is a bit unconventional but there’s a method to my madness. I spend several hours un-muddying the waters by educating American and Japanese staffs on each others’ cultures separately, then bring them together for a joint session at the end where a meaningful dialogue can unfold. It’s never easy.

At the beginning of each separate session I have participants make a list of what they like about working with the other culture, and also what drives them crazy. As you might expect, the “drives-them-crazy” lists are always longer than the “like” lists, a statement about human nature for sure. I also spend a good part of the separate sessions explaining the meanings, misunderstandings, and cultural ramifications of the listed comments. This provides badly needed context. Then in preparation for the final joint session, both lists are translated so both sides clearly understand what the other side is saying about them.

Sounds dangerous, right? That’s what I thought the first time I launched this program ten years ago. Happy to report that not once have I had to break up a fight. But it isn’t a love-fest either. It’s like incrementally turning a battleship around in the water with no single definitive turning point.

In my world, every workshop takes on a life of its own, so no paint-by-the-numbers magic. Lots of improvisation but it starts with education. Then I build on that foundation with humor, facilitated dialogue, self-reflection and structured brainstorming on improving relationships. But if I have a “go-to” technique it’s humor, a natural output of discussions that take place in the joint sessions. Indeed, cross-cultural interactions are ripe with humor, but only if you’re paying attention and seize those opportunities. Sometimes humor even happens by accident.

I once facilitated a joint session between Japanese and Americans in which the Americans had complained (as they always do) that the Japanese held “secret meetings,” implying they were intentionally withholding information from the Americans. The expression “secret meetings” took the Japanese by surprise. They simply took for granted that behind-the-scenes negotiating was how decision-making was supposed to happen.

In the course of the training the American participants learned that that these private meetings weren’t aimed at shutting out the Americans, that their Japanese counterparts in fact routinely held small private meetings off-line even in their own country when working only with fellow Japanese. This revelation went a long way in placating the American staff.

At the end of the session, after the Japanese had thoroughly reflected on comments made by American counterparts, the Japanese managers addressed the “secret meeting” complaint. Not knowing the proper English words to describe their off-line meetings, they defaulted to the “secret meeting” description. With a straight face, one of the Japanese managers faced the American audience and proclaimed in earnest, “We are so sorry. It is true that we Japanese have many ‘secret meetings.’ So our corrective action 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 try, if you will now, to imagine if context had not been provided upfront? It could have easily been a communication disaster.

The Battleship Does a U-Turn

Admittedly, this particular workshop was a tougher nut to crack than most I had administered in the past. In the initial American session the tension was palpable. It would take most of the session to get the American managers’ collective heads wrapped around the problem.

The Japanese session was a bit easier, although they were shocked to hear just how much resentment had built up with American counterparts.

Then in the final joint session the battleship did an unexpected and sudden U-turn. After hearing numerous comments from the American staff that they felt “disrespected” and “unappreciated,” the top Japanese executive present 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 country with no natural resources. America has kindly allowed us to build our factory here in this huge, wonderful market, and it has greatly benefitted our parent company. We are very grateful for that. So we have absolutely no intention to insult or belittle 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.

The rest of the session was fun, engaging and productive. Everyone left the room at the end of the day with the agreement that they would all work harder to communicate, cooperate, even socialize outside of work. They also agreed to hold similar joint sessions periodically to ensure proper follow up, and keep the lines of communication open.


At the end of all my sessions I get a “report card” from each participant, ranking the effectiveness of the training on a scale of one to five (one being the worst, five the best). Also included is a comments section. This session yielded a 4.5 average ranking, a score to be proud of for sure. But two comments really stuck with me: in both cases, the participants said that they had low expectations coming into the training. Both said they were “very surprised” at how effective the training was, and thanked me for administering the workshop.

Nothing beats turning a battleship around in the water, turning conflict into harmony, and connecting cultures. Can’t wait for my next gnarly gig.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo Jumbo

That’s how you know you’re within a walled city, the jargon. They’ve cut themselves off from the rest of the world and are speaking a jargon only they can really understand.” –Robert Pirsig

The first anthropology book that didn’t put me to sleep was Takie Sugiyama Lebra’s Japanese Patterns of Behavior. At the time I had been in Japan over four years and had a reasonable grasp of spoken Japanese. But I was still confused about what I perceived as contradictory behavior by my Japanese hosts. To wit:

How could they be so polite in social interactions then turn into maniacs on the train? Why so serious and reserved at work then hammered and goofy at the karaoke bar? How could they be modern and scientific, and yet so beholden to ancient superstitions and rituals? What would make them warm and caring towards some people, but cold and distant toward others? And why so vague in their routine communication style but no qualms about bluntly pointing out you’ve gained a few pounds?

To Dr. Lebra’s credit, her book singlehandedly took four years of accumulated confusion and sorted most of it out in a single reading. Lightbulbs clicked on with every turn of the page, and the antics of my Japanese hosts suddenly started making sense. It was a breakthrough book for sure, and I’m thankful to Dr. Lebra for the burst of enlightenment.

But man did she make me wade through some dry, academic mumbo jumbo to get to the Promised Land. Had I not been in Japan at the time—had I not had a vested interest in figuring out my Japanese hosts’ behavior—it’s doubtful I’d have made it past the first page. But don’t believe me, read this snippet and judge for yourself:

Social interaction or relationships can best be analyzed by singling out the central actor then identifying his social object. I shall call the central actor “Ego” and his social object “Alter,” both terms being capitalized to signify their social emphasis as distinct from their psychological implications… Alter, who is the main object of preoccupation for the Japanese Ego, may be in regular contact with Ego or may be inaccessible except on special occasion and thus only recalled from memory. Alter may be a single person or a group; Alter and Ego may be of equal standing or hierarchically graded; their relationship may be lifelong or only transient, a desirable one Ego wants to maintain or an undesirable one from which Ego wishes to extricate himself. We can think of many other variations, yet they are all identical with respect to social preoccupation.” (Takie Sugiyama Lebra)

My brain hurts reading this even thirty years later. There must be a simpler way to convey the same message in plain English—or plain any language—preferably with a story or anecdote to breathe some life into it.

As cryptic as Lebra’s style is, at least her subject matter had enough juice to keep me going til the end. But as a friend once quipped after reading it, “You sometimes wonder if she’s talking about people or specimens.”

But this is not about Dr. Lebra—it’s about the mumbo jumbo in all the literature of cultural anthropology. Check out this gem from the first anthropology book that actually did put me to sleep, “Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction”:

In studies of classification, both in developmental and cross-cultural psychology, a good deal of interest has centered on two aspects of the subject’s performance: (1) the particular attribute the subject uses as the criterion of similarity (this is comparable to interest in the stimulus dimension in perceptual preference studies), and (2) whether or not he uses a single attribute consistently as the basis for groupings. Findings with respect to these questions have provided much of the empirical foundation for theories of cognitive development that stress progression from a kind of thinking that is concrete and context-bound to thinking that is abstract and rule-governed.”

I get the point but need a drink now! Can’t imagine anyone outside the academic walls of cultural anthropology exercising their freewill to read this. And if the average Joes in our global world don’t get this knowledge—if it’s only intended for the eyes and ears of other mumbo-jumbo-speaking academics—then really, what good is it?

Indeed anthropology has worked hard to shroud itself in complexity, aided by the use of a cryptic language developed and spoken only by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and folks who just want to sound smart. And it begs the question, why would that be?

Why All the Anthropo-Mumbo-Jumbo?

I blame Franz Boas, the immortalized “father of American anthropology,” for trying to make cultural anthropology into a Victorian science, when it was, is, and always will be, the subjective study of humans by humans.

Boas’ bias toward science makes perfect sense in light of his background. A product of the 19th century, he was trained in mathematics and received his doctorate in physics in Germany at a time when scientists were flirting with rock star status. (Einstein the most famous of them all.) Boas would go on to teach at Columbia University, and in 1899 establish the very first Anthropology Ph.D. Program in the U.S.

One of Boas’ many claims to fame was that he pioneered a method of anthropological investigation modeled after the hard sciences. Philosopher Robert Pirsig explains the problem with casting anthropology as a science:

The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages. The result has been theoretical chaos.”

Science or no science, the reality is that anthropology aspired—and still aspiresto be a science, which implies there was doubt from the beginning about its scientific legitimacy. After all, physics and biology don’t aspire to be a science, everyone knows they just are. But poor, insecure anthropology, craving the legitimacy of science from its modern inception, created a language of scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo that gave rise to the dry, lifeless, cryptic literature anthropology students are forced to read today. And we all suffer for it.

My issues with the mumbo jumbo aside, Boas deserves his props for the enduring contribution he made to cultural anthropology in very positive ways. His big claim to fame was successfully applying scientific methods to debunking “scientific racism,” the application of what was purportedly science, to classifying people according to race, then ranking them up accordingly. Boas rejected outright the idea of biological predispositions and countered with the theory that social learning was the primary driver of differences amongst the various cultures of the world. His theory stuck, and it’s a cornerstone of modern anthropology today.

We can also thank Boas for groundbreaking research that led to the anthropological principle of “cultural relativism,” the belief that civilization is, in Boas’ own words, “not something absolute, but…relative, and…our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” This implies that cultures cannot be ranked objectively, as each human observer perceives the world through the lens of his or her respective culture and makes subjective judgments accordingly (interestingly a claim in itself that contradicts the notion of anthropology as a science).

So acknowledging that there’s lots to love about Boas and his impact on anthropology, just imagine how much cooler it’d be without the jargon.

In fairness to Boas he had plenty of accomplices in creating and advancing the language of anthropology, namely, his student minions Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Alfred Kroeber. Collectively they took their mentor’s staunch commitment to objectivity, science and all its accompanying scientific jargon, and raised it to new heights of inscrutability.

So we’ve identified our key culprits, the creators of the jargon-filled gobblygook language of anthropology that endures today. At its core is a yearning by an insecure field of study for the same legitimacy commanded by the traditional sciences. Those of us inside the walls of anthropology who continue using the language of mumbo-mumbo, are complicit in scaring off the very people who could use the knowledge the most.

Earning Our Keep

If I were king I’d ban all mumbo jumbo, gobblygook and balderdash from anthropology, and require all my subjects to use simple, clear language in all their communications.

Unfortunately the odds of me being king of anything are about the same as the average Joe reading Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Not gonna happen. The writing style is just too intimidating.

It’s tough enough connecting cultures for a living. Folks in the cross-cultural field have the added chore of connecting the cryptic language of insecure academics with clients who need to communicate with living, breathing human beings. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. And this is where we earn our keep: spinning mumbo-jumbo into productive human connections.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

It’s Not What’s Said, It’s What’s Heard

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

While working with a client on a project some years back, I shared Edward T. Hall’s quote above with an executive leading the project. He responded with a pithy quote of his own that really nailed the point: “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

Beautiful. So I put it in the title. Lots of meaning packed into those words.

What is “Communication”?

Contrary to popular myth communication doesn’t equal language; language is but one tool of communication. (For more on this see The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language.)

And yet most of us get lulled into believing that if we just string together the right words then communication will naturally follow.

The mind-flip invited by both quotes above, is that the focus should be on the listener not the speaker. 

And the underlying implication is that communication is strategic. It’s all about getting the other person to hear the desired intent behind the message and respond in a certain way.

Anyone who’s ever worked in sales knows this intuitively. When a salesperson walks into a sales presentation her desired response is to get the audience to buy whatever she’s selling. She could have the slickest, flashiest presentation in the world, rattle off a littany of “right” messages, but if she doesn’t get a purchase order out of the deal then she didn’t get her desired response, a failure to communicate in the most tangible sense.

Peddling Planes to China

But let’s shift our focus now in a positive direction. Specifically, let’s examine an actual case study where a savvy U.S. company developed an effective initiative using strategic knowledge about local culture to elicit a desired response.

In 1997 China Southern applied for approval to the U.S. department of transportation to launch a new route from Guangzhou to Los Angeles. The U.S. government, wary of China’s safety record, used the application as an excuse to dig under the fingernails of Chinese airline regulators to make sure they had their ducks in a row prior to issuing approval.

Of course they didn’t.

No surprise China Southern threw a hissy fit, threatening to cancel the airplane orders it placed with Boeing. Imagine that.

Boeing was obviously in a pickle. If the U.S. government didn’t issue approval for the new routes, then they could kiss those China-Southern airplane orders goodbye.

Of course Boeing had no direct connection to the safety woes of the Chinese airlines. But it really wanted to sell those airplanes. So Boeing did what any long-term thinking business would do: it shouldered the burden of helping China raise its regulatory practices and improve airline safety procedures. Just how Boeing approached the challenge echoes the sentiments expressed above: “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

James Fallows explains:

…the U.S. training team was hyper-sensitive about two aspects of this training exercise for their Chinese colleagues. One was to present all their recommendations in terms of meeting international standards for air safety and airline procedures, rather than seeming to say, This is how we do it in the U.S. of A. Presenting the challenge this way made it far more palatable to the Chinese side.” (China Airborne)

In other words, the “desired response” sought by Boeing was for the Chinese to be cooperative. The strategy was to NOT come across as “arrogant Americans,” an approach that would’ve pushed Chinese clients into a defensive stance and make them anything but cooperative. 

According to Fallows, Boeing was so successful in getting their desired response that, “Through the next decade, Chinese commercial aviation, while expanding faster than any other country’s, was statistically among the world’s very safest.” (For more on this topic check out China Airborne by James Fallows.)

The moral of the story is that communication is about selling a message, a point of view, an opinion, a truth, sometimes even a lie. The barometer of success is simple: Are your listeners “buying” your message?

Sometimes we overcomplicate things in the cross-cultural field with our cryptic “academic-speak” and abstract communication models. Sometimes you wonder if we’re talking about people or specimens! So here’s my very simple desired response today: if we all would just put a little more focus on what others might be hearing, rather than on what we think we want to say, pretty sure we’d all get along a little better.

But only if you’re hearing what I’m saying.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

Madogiwa Misfits & the Power of Peer Pressure

“Peer pressure is much more powerful than a concept of a boss. Many, many times more powerful.”

Jim Buckley, long-time employee of GORE

Just as Japanese parents punish their children in ways unimaginable to Westerners, so it goes in the Japanese workplace.

In the previous post we looked at how values affect the way we punish our children. Remember the image of young Kurumi pounding on the door to get back in the house while her mother ignored her cries? She just wanted to belong! (Meanwhile naughty, individualistic Tim was grounded at home, yearning for freedom and independence.)

Today we’ll look at corporate Japan’s version of “locking-out the naughty child.” But for context, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese expats find plenty of “strange” things about the U.S. workplace.

For starters, it’s tough for Japanese expats to grasp all the overwhelming policies, rules and regulations they have to follow to stay out of trouble in America. And indeed, some fail to stay out of trouble.

It helps to understand that Japan is a homogenous society–about 98% of the population is Japanese. Under these conditions, no surprise Japanese companies have no EEOC regulations to deal with. This reality alone makes HR systems in the Japanese workplace much less complex than in America.

Don’t misunderstand–Japan has plenty of complexity. It’s just that the complexity is built into the culture.

From a World Without Individual Job Descriptions!

Here’s another big difference between Japanese and American workplaces: to the chagrin of many American HR professionals, Japanese expats come to the American workplace with no clear individual job descriptions, an outgrowth of Japan’s collective way of structuring work. (They don’t have clear job descriptions in Japan either.) This means that each Japanese employee’s specific job responsibilities are fuzzy at best. Now try to imagine the sheer inefficiency caused by duplicated efforts.

And here’s the rub: the collective teamwork concept in Japanese companies is predicated on the assumption that each employee will take initiative.  The employee has no choice, really: not only does he not have an individual job description, his boss is averse to spelling things out from “1 to 10,” and offers only smatterings of ambiguous feedback, more often than not of the negative variety.

Indeed employees in Japanese companies are expected to figure out for themselves what to do. The most successful take initiative and “think for themselves.” And while pride and commitment to quality are great motivators in Japanese culture, individual performance is driven to a great degree by an underlying fear of performing below expectation of one’s peers.

So what’s a feedback-starved, self-motivated employee to do? Ere on the side of caution, of course: Assume your efforts are never quite good enough; keep going the extra yard, just in case. This mindset keeps many Japanese employees scrambling their entire careers.

Fear of This, Fear of That

As strict as Japanese society can be, it’s ironic that Japanese factory managers are shocked at America’s punitive approach to employee mistakes.

A good example is the write-up system common in American factories, a technique usually tied to a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” kind of policy. (Sometimes you get more strikes, sometimes less, but the sword always looms near the poor production operator’s neck.)

It might surprise you to learn that Japanese believe this kind of punitive system is crazy, because it encourages employees to hide mistakes, a condition counter to continuous improvement philosophy, a core management strategy embraced by Japan’s elite companies.

Don’t misconstrue this to mean that Japanese employees don’t feel fear in the workplace. They feel it all right. But it’s not fear of losing their jobs. They feel the fear of that little girl pounding on the locked door, her fear of rejection from the collective.

This is why Japanese companies don’t need all those fancy schmancy HR rules to get employees to toe the line. When it comes to regulating employee behavior, American style three-strike policies can’t hold a candle to the power of Japanese-style ostracism.

The Power of Peer Pressure

The Japanese don’t have a monopoly on ostracism, of course. Anyone who has ever played team sports has seen or felt it–no one on the team wants to be the guy doggin’ it. Fear of letting down teammates keeps most team members motivated enough to contribute.

Some American companies also use the peer-pressure concept to regulate employee behavior. Japanese automakers have employed it with great success in their U.S. subsidiaries as well. The U.S. company Gore, maker of Gore-Tex™, organizes its employees into small teams for this reason. Gore’s leaders say that peer pressure is a much more powerful motivator than any punishment a middle manager could ever mete out. Guided by this organizational philosophy, the Gore organization functions effectively and efficiently with a minimal headcount of middle managers. (For more on this, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.)

Peer pressure notwithstanding, it takes some major-league goof-ups and seriously disruptive behavior–not to mention a total lack of effort–before Japanese will give up on a teammate.

The good news is that Japanese managers will move heaven and earth to salvage a non-performing subordinate, even move the subordinate into lateral positions to match his or her talents to the needs of the organization. The bad news is that once the Japanese finally give up, the errant teammate soon finds himself with a newspaper–compliments of the team–and a seat near the window. Whether he realizes it or not, he is now officially at the end of the bench, a member of the infamous madogiwa-zoku or “window tribe.”

This is the Japanese non-verbal, passive-aggressive way of saying, “we’ve given up on you, you’re useless, stay out of our way.”

Madogiwa-zoku in the U.S. Workplace?

Imagine employing the “window-tribe” tactic in the U.S. The American non-performer would think he’d gotten a promotion! “Hey, I’ve got a window with a view, a newspaper, don’t have to work–I’ve made it!”

If you think about the madogiwa-zoku phenomenon it’s really just the corporate version of my Japanese wife many years ago being locked out of her house by her mother. The glaring difference is that the party being pushed out at work is no longer dealing with an indulgent mom. Once you get that window seat in the workplace, the door is locked forever. Your only choices then are to live near the window in shame, leave the organization on your own accord, or jump out the window.

Indeed Japanese teammates can be a tough crowd to please, and the individual is merely a fraction of the whole. (Interesting the Japanese word for “self” is jibun, literally “one’s part.”) As cultures go, Japan is the mother of all pressure cookers, as it forces conformity based on the uncompromising assumption that each “fraction of the whole” will sacrifice personal desires for the greater collective. The payoff is acceptance by the group.

Most Americans would not consider acceptance by a group with such strict demands and commitments a good deal at all. That’s because belonging isn’t a big motivator for Americans. It’s safe to say that for many Americans, the value on belonging ranks well below individualism, freedom, independence, and the pursuit of individual happiness.

Life in a Pressure-Cooker

No doubt peer pressure controls lots of problems in Japanese society, or at least sweeps them under the rug. But Japanese-style peer pressure is wrought with painful ambiguity that few Americans are comfortable dealing with. You never really know where you stand with the Japanese (even if you’re Japanese) so you’re stuck guessing.

American culture is much clearer. We don’t beat around the bush, we tell subordinates in no uncertain terms what we think, good or bad (at least in theory). Non-performers in America will be hard-pressed to find someone willing to put in the time and effort to “salvage” them. Truth is, an American misfit would have a much better shot at redemption in a Japanese company.

My guess is that the days of the madogiwa-zoku “window tribe” are numbered in Japan. After all, who can afford the luxury now? But I don’t see ostracism going away anytime soon; it’s just too ingrained in Japan’s collectivist psyche.

For what it’s worth, after living and working with the Japanese for some thirty-seven years, here’s my take: it is really tough to be Japanese. This personal awareness of the pressure-cooker nature of Japanese society–the burden on Japanese people to conform and selflessly please everyone else–inspires tremendous respect and compassion for my Japanese friends, family and clients. And it makes me appreciate even more my good fortune to enjoy the freedom my culture encourages.

To avoid becoming a madogiwazoku in the first place, check out: The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

Of Mice and Japanese Men


Japan is still a “man’s world” in many ways. Japanese gender roles are so different from America’s that bridging the gap can be tricky, especially in the workplace. No doubt, Japan still has a long way to go in providing fair opportunities for females in the workplace, a topic beyond the scope of today’s post. Here’s the reality: when Japanese employees of “transplant” subsidiaries set foot on American turf, bridging the culture gap–particularly in relation to gender–is not only achievable, but failure to do so can lead to dire consequences.

Happy to say I’ve seen numerous American females earn the respect of Japanese male managers. Here’s a case in point.

It happened over twenty years ago in a factory in the Deep South, where a gritty Tennessee country girl won the grudging respect of an “old-school” Japanese engineer.

I was sitting at my desk working on the production schedule. Our Japanese Sales Manager, “Mr. Ito” (all names other than mine are aliases) tapped me on the shoulder:

“Tim-san,” he said whispering, “Could you do me a favor?”

I leaned in and whispered back, “Sure.”

“Could you get me a cup of green tea from kitchen?”

It was an odd request. Ito wasn’t one to go around asking coworkers to serve him green tea. I didn’t mind helping him score his fix, but I couldn’t contain my curiosity.

“Sure, Ito-san, I’ll get your tea. May I ask why?”

He blushed and stared at his shoes. “There’s a mouse in kitchen, and I’m afraid of the mouse.”

This was the last thing I expected to hear, but at least the whispering now made sense. Lost for words I could only think to say, “Well I’m not afraid of the mouse.” (I was a little afraid but didn’t want to admit it.)

So into the kitchen I went. My mission, to extract a cup of green tea from an area now controlled by the mouse.

I slipped in and out without incident. Ito-san now owed me big time.

But the fun was just beginning. Minutes later our Japanese manufacturing engineer, Ishiyama, called me to over to translate something. His desk was smack dab in front of the kitchen, which I was now facing; Ishiyama was facing me.

Enter Sheila, our production control shipping clerk, who decided to stop by the kitchen to refill her mug. As she was about to pour the coffee the mouse scampered across the floor. I watched in horror as Sheila raised her right leg and came down hard with the heel of her boot–thwack!

The mouse never knew what hit him.

Unaware of the carnage behind him, Ishiyama rambled on about hydraulic systems, or maybe it was limit switches, I wasn’t listening.

Sheila then bent over, picked up the dead mouse by the tail and nonchalantly walked through the office swinging it, much like you’d carry a fashionable handbag. She opened the front door and tossed the mangled mouse into the bushes. As she walked back to the kitchen she brushed her hands together several times with deliberate, light taps, as if she did this everyday. (She probably did.)

The only part of this extraordinary event Ishiyama saw was Sheila walking through the office swinging the dead mouse. But it was enough to change his perspective of women forever. Truth is, we were both in awe.

To appreciate the dramatic nature of Ishiyama’s epiphany it helps to understand that he was an old-school, factory section manager not easily impressed. He almost never smiled. But when Sheila walked by his desk swinging that dead mouse, Ishiyama’s eyes got as wide as saucers and a big grin spread across his face. He turned to me and said, “Tim, I’m an old fashioned Japanese man. I never liked the idea of women working in a factory. But any woman who can do that–can work in my factory!”

The Moral of the Story?

Competence trumps gender every time, even in the eyes of a grumpy old Japanese manufacturing engineer.

The good news is you don’t have to kill a mouse to earn the respect of Japanese coworkers. Here’s a less colorful example that’s more appropriate for the squeamish.

“Edith” was a key member of our improvement team. With her charming Southern drawl and nurturing nature, she always found creative ways to bond and communicate with Japanese coworkers.

As great a communicator as Edith was, she couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese. But she was smart, considerate, hardworking and had a great sense of humor.

She would do anything to avoid using interpreters, instead opting to get her point across directly in conversations with Japanese coworkers–by drawing pictures, looking up words in the dictionary, actions often accompanied by a delightful game of charades.

Edith was always respectful and willing to learn. Most important, she was observant, anticipated the needs of others, and fulfilled them proactively. Her actions transcended language and culture–they spoke louder than Japanese words ever could. Edith’s actions and demeanor earned respect of Japanese coworkers. She eventually became the “go-to guy” in the plant for the Japanese expatriates.

To this day Edith is the best improvement manager and performer that I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Once the Japanese staff saw Edith demonstrate competence in her job, they forgot about her gender.

While Edith had a strong tomboy quality about her (similar to my wife), she also used to her advantage tendencies that some might consider “feminine”–for example: love of harmony and beauty, importance of developing relationships, taking people’s “feelings” into consideration, etc.

Edith was able to leverage these values because they also happen to be core values of the Japanese. The irony is that when it comes to dealing with Japan, female culture makes available some powerful connecting points that are beyond the reach of many American men.

Indeed Japanese managers often change their view of women after they see how organized, communicative, cooperative and professional American female managers are in the workplace. A Japanese friend who lived in the U.S. for many years once confided to me that he actually preferred American females in the workplace to men because (in his words) “they are superior multi-taskers and try harder.”

And yes, I’ve also seen some Japanese men who struggled to take women seriously in the workplace. But this is not one of those cross-cultural situations where you meet halfway and compromise. Japanese businessmen have no choice but to adhere to U.S. laws and respect American culture. As Americans we must insist they do. The professional American manager should also be willing to facilitate the process.

In my experience most Japanese expatriates are happy to comply with U.S. laws and customs, so long as they know what they are and the consequences of violating them.

It’s the job of American HR professionals–and all American senior managers who interface with Japanese colleagues on a regular basis–to ensure their Japanese teammates are aware of the rules and follow them to the letter.

But don’t buy into the myth that Western women can’t work with Japanese men. Sheila and Edith are just two of many females who have earned the respect of Japanese coworkers, proof that it can be done.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009