“You shut up!” the man at the head of the table yelled. Everyone stopped and stared at Keiko Sakurai, who immediately realised what she had done wrong.
This was years ago, when Sakurai was a junior accountant at a large firm in Japan. The man was her client, an executive from a power company who was in his 40s. And by traditional Japanese protocols — respecting your elders, showing deference to the more senior worker — she knew he could justify raising his voice at her.
Even though I was right, I still did not have the position to contradict him – Keiko Sakurai
The man had been criticising Sakurai’s accounting methods over drinks after work, at a table of their colleagues. Sakurai defended herself, explaining that her practices were sound. The man kept complaining. So Sakurai noted that her methods followed the contract.
“That’s when he shouted at me,” Sakurai recalled. “I broke the rules of hierarchy, and I contradicted my elder. Even though I was right, I still did not have the position to contradict him.”
It didn’t matter that Sakurai’s methods were sound or that the man approved of the vast majority of Sakurai’s work. In the traditional Japanese workplace hierarchy, positive feedback is largely unheard of.
If you don’t hear from your Japanese manager, you’re doing well
Business in Japan plays by its own distinct set of rules from Western countries and even other Asian nations. For managers going to work in Japan for the first time, the correct manner of providing feedback can cause consternation. So, forget what you’ve learned about how to review employees.
Traditionally, the Japanese language had no word for feedback because it just wasn’t something that anybody did, says Sharon Schweitzer, CEO of Protocol and Etiquette Worldwide, and an expert on how managers can assimilate in foreign countries. So they had to make up a word, fīdobakku.
Yet, it’s still simply not something that’s done. “If you don’t hear from your Japanese manager, you’re doing well,” Schweitzer says. “If your manager asks for an update on your project, that means you’re not doing well.”
It’s a process called hou-ren-sou and it involves subordinates sending their boss emails, all day long
Managers in Japan aren’t likely to ask for an update because employees are expected to constantly provide them. It’s a process called hou-ren-sou and it involves subordinates sending their boss emails, all day long, about when they’re going to lunch, the percentage of the project they’ve finished, when they’re taking a coffee break, everything.
For foreign managers, the temptation may be to reply with accolades, congratulating them on finishing 32% of the project. But don’t, Schweitzer cautions. “If you reply and tell them good job, you will lose face and they will lose face. Just say thank you or don’t reply at all.”
Thinking like a foreign manager, you might be wondering if the answer is annual reviews. But one-on-one sit-downs with the boss to discuss performance are just not done, says Taro Fukuyama, a native of Japan and CEO of AnyPerk, a start-up offering services to improve employee happiness at work.
The best way to offer an employee feedback is simple: take them out drinking
Calling an employee into your office for that kind of meeting is likely to elicit panic. Instead, Fukuyama says, the best way to offer an employee feedback is simple: take them out drinking.
In fact, Japan has a tradition called nomikai, where colleagues and their bosses drink, often a lot, and often until late night. Still, any feedback over beers and sake is likely to concentrate only on what went wrong.
The reason for this, Fukuyama says, is that employees in Japan typically don’t move between companies. Since they’re spending their careers in one place, the goal is to get promoted. And the best chance at promotion comes from keeping your head down and avoiding errors.
Most employees will just do what their boss says and that’s it - Taro Fukuyama
“The best way to not make mistakes is to not take risks, and so most employees will just do what their boss says and that’s it,” Fukuyama says. “You might question if this is the right way, but having a unified rule will help someone adjust to the culture.”
No singling out
Foreign managers who don’t adjust simply won’t fit in. Jim Whittle found that out the hard way.
Back when Whittle was general manager overseeing Japan for McVities Digestive Biscuits, he had an employee who came up with a novel idea. She suggested handing out samples in subway stations, exposing the product to thousands of potential customers.
The company saw a spike in sales afterward, so Whittle decided to recognise his employee for her brilliant idea. In front of her team, Whittle noted that she had developed a successful, unique idea that went beyond the norm, which usually involved spending advertising money on simply more coupons and billboards.
It didn’t go well. Even though the promotion worked, and even though the employee deserved the positive attention, singling her out made her seem like a maverick who can’t be trusted by her co-workers. Instead of elevating her, Whittle learned he had just made her less trusted.
You can’t just come in and expect to be accepted based on your past successes. It’s all about building trust - Jim Whittle
“There are rules you need to learn to be effective in Japan, and if you don’t learn them, you will simply not get the respect of your team,” Whittle says. Now, Whittle works in the Tokyo office of RSR Partners, an executive search firm. He often works with foreign managers, prepping them for working in Japan. “Unlike elsewhere, you can’t just come in and expect to be accepted based on your past successes,” Whittle says. “It’s all about building trust, and it’s all about building relationships.”
Sakurai now works for Aperian Global as a senior consultant, splitting time between San Francisco and Tokyo. She helps executives get ready for life in Japan, and she also teaches Japanese managers the customs of business from other countries.
During her training sessions in Japan, Sakurai will ask managers to complete a homework assignment: write down 10 comments of positive feedback about a subordinate.
“People really struggle with that one,” Sakurai says. “Maybe they come back with five or six. And then most of them are something like ‘not bad’ or ‘good enough.’ They just can’t get in the mindset of positive feedback.”
That said, younger workers, especially in Japan, may appreciate a kind word from the boss when things go right, Sakurai says. And, very slowly, things are beginning to change in Japan, with a few companies adopting collaborative and communicative management styles. Foreign managers working there for the first time may test the waters of positive fīdobakku.
“If you go around and keep telling your employees ‘terrific job,’ they’re going to wonder what’s wrong. Because, they’ll think, what’s terrific about doing your job? That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Sakurai says.
Instead, it’s about picking up on nonverbal clues from employees on whether your positive feedback is well accepted, Sakurai says.
And so, just like anywhere, an occasional “good job” might just be the motivation your employees need.
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