Trust, Japan & Globalisation

for March, 2015

Trust, Japan & Globalisation

Posted on 16 March 2015 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training -
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I recently attended a seminar about Opportunities for Japanese businesses in the infrastructure of the UK. After presentations from experts in the field, the question was posed, “Why did some Japanese companies pull out of this sector in the UK in the last 10 years?” Considering that most of the audience were Japanese, it was very candid of the presenters, who had hands on experience in these ventures, to say that it was down to a perceived lack of trust from the Japanese side. In such a “local” industry as construction, it was felt that some of the Japanese investors did not harness that local capability and make it work to their advantage. This sparked a very interesting networking session, where many Japanese people spoke openly about this issue of trust that does impact on cross border communications and in some cases the success of business deals and retention of non-Japanese staff.

Establishing trust between cultures that have very different experiences of its very meaning will always be difficult. Japan has, through its history and economic necessity, built up many layers of seemingly close-knit and impenetrable business relationships and structures that are not always transferable on a global stage or understandable to less group orientated societies. Their complex system of consensual decision making and hierarchy, sense of belonging to the workplace and need for keeping certain relationships intact have all resulted in certain behaviours including a deep need for detail, a much longer term view to doing business and a fair amount of caution when it comes to forming new relationships. These deeply ingrained behaviours can, when not adapted to suit other cultural mindsets, come across as frustrating, micromanaging, distrustful and alienating.

In my work, I advise both British and Japanese companies on how to build up relationships and create a culture of confidence to avoid such misunderstandings. I myself work very hard to develop long-term relationships within the Japanese business community. However, I am not immune to the frustrations of it and know that it is still a challenge for them not to operate from a Japanese cultural mindset even when faced with their current Globalisation Imperative. I do believe though that developing an understanding of the motivations of the other culture and making adaptations where necessary really does go a long way to build up trusting & successful relationships.



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Cultivating a Culture somewhere Inbetween Individualism and Collectivism

Posted on 9 March 2015 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training, Published Article -
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The boom in global expansion by Japanese companies, a need for higher female and foreign labour participation prompted by an ageing and declining population, shifts in attitudes towards work among the younger generation and political pressure to change corporate culture that doesn’t support this “globalization” imperative, all mean that Japanese managers now need to employ different management techniques to motivate and communicate and ultimately retain talent that is not currently being nurtured.

My home culture (U.K.) is fundamentally individualistic.  Putting the needs of the group ahead of our own is not always rewarding, as there is so little importance placed on it. We are generally motivated by individual achievements, although we may play them down, and expect to be rewarded appropriately.

From my experience of traditional Japanese working environments, they are more collectivist. In Japan, the strong group mentality and the paternalistic management techniques employed by Japanese companies have successfully created intense personal identity with, and loyalty to the workplace. Employees are valued not only by the work they do, but for being cooperative, obliging and harmonious in interpersonal relationships. Often, these elements are misinterpreted or at worst ignored by the individualist for whom strong hierarchies, big investments in relationships building and ultraconsensual decision making processes seem confusing and time-consuming.

Motivators used within Japanese organizations do not always translate effectively to other cultures. I know of a small Japanese subsidiary in the U.K. employing socialization techniques among local staff such as morning exercises, reciting company mottos, and encouraging all employees to spend lunch hours together. They also use an apprenticeship style of training for new staff by gradually introducing work under close supervision. The local staff members don’t appreciate its value and cultural context, so they lack motivation and staff turnover is high.

Such Japanese-style management models work well in an environment where they fit a cultural need to derive worth and identity from membership in a viable and successful group. 

An Individualistic Culture
Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group Ltd., is an unabashed self-promoter, risk-taker and world record breaker. . He is a highly successful and motivating individual whose leadership style has been described as “charismatic and transformational because of its informal style and lack of emphasis on hierarchy within companies. He believes that underlying ‘Virgin-ness’ is a scope for individuality and believes that you should give individuals the tools they need, outline some parameters to work within, and then just let them get on and do their stuff.

Branson’s recently announced “limitless holiday” policy for employees allowing them to control their own working hours with the assumption that it doesn’t affect their work output provides an interesting contrast to Japan, where long working hours are often seen as dedication to the company and where it is common that staff do not take their full entitlement of holiday time. In an individualistic society, this may well hit the right spot, engendering a feeling of autonomy and trust, creating competition while preserving performance output. It would be interesting to see whether this would ever translate into Virgin’s subsidiaries in Japan as planned.

Japan Meets Entrepreneurialism?
Although the risk-averse nature of the Japanese has not been the ideal environment for entrepreneurialism, some interesting entrepreneurs, most notably Hiroshi Mikitani, founder of Rakuten, have appeared, championing a change to traditional Japanese corporate culture. He encourages a risk-taking attitude within his company, often expresses frustration with the pace of change within Japanese organisations, and prefers direct styles of communication.

Like Sir Richard Branson, his use of social media as a promotional tool enables him to engage personally with his customers without hierarchical barriers. He still places emphasis on collaboration as the only way to achieve sustained success; all his staff clean their own desks and he has adopted the Japanese principle of kaizen (continuous improvement) which is driven by teamwork alongside consensual decision-making, rather than through individualism.

Needless to say, change is afoot for Japanese management. Company loyalty is weakening among younger employees, headhunting is more rampant, money and quality of life are becoming stronger motivators. Japanese employment structures and management styles will more resemble Western patterns, hopefully combining a hybrid of the best aspects of both to support Japan on its journey of true globalisation.

For the full article published in the HR Agenda January 2015, click here

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