To succeed globally, Japanese organizations may need to ensure that the best workers are rewarded and promoted, regardless of diversity factors, and that all employees want to take responsibility, and feel that they have influence and a voice that is heard. However typical Japanese business communication style is based on hierarchical shows of respect, one-way “Confucian” style meetings and decision-making based on relationships and personal discussions in back-channels. Although this system does in a hidden way involve inclusive sharing of information and ideas between management levels and between departments and respectful listening to all employees’ ideas, it is difficult for outsiders who do not understand Japanese culture to be aware of this or take part because it so different to global business culture.
Typical Japanese organizations may face three key challenges if their communication style does not match the expectations of global counterparts: 1. low sales, 2. low staff retention and 3. Low profits due to barriers to innovation. Internally, they can improve productivity and value by using a style of information sharing and leadership that is easier to understand by diverse global stakeholders such as employees, partners, vendors and investors, leading to more innovation and lower costs.
Non-Japanese staff quit their jobs at Japanese companies overseas faster then Japanese do for a variety of reasons, including not understanding Japan’s unusual team-based working style, and a major contributing factor is that managers and colleagues tend to use a more “high context” and “closed” communication style. “High context” means expecting shared unspoken understanding, so key information may not be organized in a clear, logical and full manner, and many key points may not be explained at all.
This is partly due to a common human psychological issue called “false consensus bias” which makes us think others are more similar to us than they really are. Japanese may be brought up “reading between the lines” and trained as new hires in economical sharing information that avoids repeating information that is likely known, and only sharing what may be new to the other person. This works effectively in Japan where it may be a standard practice, but Japanese often wrongly assume that non-Japanese can do it to the same degree.
Edward T Hall’s research and subsequent follow up studies over the last few decades have shown that Japan is the world’s most high context industrialized society. Other high context societies such as greater China or Indonesia also have high context communication compared to the West but this can actually make teamwork with Japan worse. This is because although they have a shared tendency to guess or imaging each others’ meanings, when their cultural values and working style differ, nobody notices or checks and so the misunderstanding continues
High context communication can combine with two other Japanese working style tendencies called “Confucian” and “Appearance of inequality” to create an image of “closed communication style” which further causes damaging misunderstandings. It can lead to local hires quitting jobs early or ineffective sharing of innovation or local market needs between head office and local companies.
Another example is the rare use of praise in high-context Japan, where satisfactory performance is expected and unlikely to be commented on. Japanese may not require or even feel comfortable with public praise – and just knowing they have created value for their colleagues and helped the team may be enough. But for global staff, being praised for correct work is helpful to build confidence that they are doing the right thing, as well as motivation to try harder. In contrast, because praise is such a commonly used management tool in global companies (not least because public recognition can boost productivity more than financial rewards, and is of course much cheaper) if employees are not praised in Japanese companies, they may fear that they are not successful or appreciated.
High context communication can cause issues in project management (if critical points are not confirmed leading to working in different directions), in career planning (when key career steps and requirements are unspoken), and in evaluations and feedback (where required values and behaviours and their benefits or corrective steps are not explained in enough detail) In each case, low context confirming of each others’ needs and expectations, and then paraphrasing each others meanings to check they are “on the same page” would greatly increase productivity, teamwork and engagement.
“Confucian” means expecting respect for seniors and a one-way meeting style, with decisions already made through informal channels, so frank debate is rare in formal meetings. Even if diversity is valued by the organization, if people do not feel comfortable to freely ask for or share ideas, then the full value of diversity will not be realized in global business results. For example, many companies bring their overseas local managers and top staff to Japan, but too often they are just in one-way presentations by senior staff or informal parties, rather than practical productive meetings hearing everybody’s local area needs and brainstorming global strategies and policies together.
“Appearance of inequality” means relationships may seem formal and hierarachical, including deferent and humble communication with bosses, in meetings or to presentation audiences. Shows of respect can include long silences, poker face and “closed” body language such as lack of gestures, crossed arms or lack of eye contact. All of these can either be misinterpreted as negative emotions or lack of interest, or can simply prevent relationships becoming trusting and friendly quickly enough to allow free information sharing. Due to hierarchical communication styles it can be hard to draw bosses’ attention to problems or misunderstandings.
In much the same way, many overseas cultures and especially English speakers, share and use people’s short names freely, as a way to be friendly and clear, but Japanese tend to avoid this for reasons of grammar (no subject required), high context (we know unspoken who is referred to) and respectful communication such as using work titles instead of names. In global business, whether in a meeting, facilitating training, or talking with customers, learning, remembering and often using names would increase the success of the project.
Everyone can contribute to his or her full potential.
Jon James Lynch is the founder of J-Global, which provides organizations in Japan with training in the J-Global method, a powerful new framework of mindsets and skills for managing, working and communicating more effectively in an international environment.
Jon has decades of experience in Japan consulting for business leaders and facilitating training sessions and workshops. In his partnership with the Nikkei Group during the past 5 years, he has expanded his reach to hundreds of leading Japanese and multinational companies.
This article was originally posted on Link Global Solution’s website.