When I first met Masaru Someya (Masa), about 8 years ago, he was my client. Now we work together. What started off as a friendly discussion led to a mutual passion. We both agreed that people working in foreign companies in Japan were struggling, both Japanese and non-Japanese. We also agreed that these struggles affected workplace performance. However, our paths to finding the root cause and a solution to what seems like an age-old problem were quite different.
A non-traditional approach
Masa struggled right from the start when he joined a foreign IT company at the age of 22. His English studies had not prepared him for working in a global business environment.
"He had no time for 'perfect English"
The traditional way, of continually increasing vocabulary and grammar, then having conversation sessions did not work for him. He had no time for 'perfect English', he had to get the job the done. So Masa took another path. Masa began by analyzing the actual situations at work where he was struggling. Improving his own performance became his goal. Over the years, he developed a number of practical, target-oriented solutions that used vocabulary and grammar he already knew. His view of English changed. He now saw it as a tool for work. No different from a PC or a telephone. This freed him from the common 'make no mistakes' type of attitude. His solutions helped to change his mindset, making him feel much more comfortable and confident in global business settings.
Working on a hunch, he surveyed the over 5,000 Japanese employees of this global IT firm. Shockingly, he discovered that 61% were just like he was. So many. They too, were frustrated at having to work in an English environment. Gaining momentum from the survey data, he then began teaching his straight-forward method to others in his company. His method of performance-oriented English-as-a-tool became very popular, very quickly.
A completely different angle
I, on the other hand, came at this from a completely different angle. As with Masa, I was working in both languages. The difference was that, depending on the level of our language abilities, I would speak with Japanese natives in either English or Japanese. What I discovered was that Japanese who had never lived for years outside of Japan, while able to speak English would communicate in unexpected ways. Their use of vocabulary and grammar was good enough to understand, but they were usually quiet, rarely sharing information or asking questions.The reason given for this was that Japanese were shy or that they weren’t confident in their English ability. Naturally, this made communication awkward at times. I also noticed that if I, when speaking in Japanese, asked questions or shared my opinion, I was sometimes met by silence. I learned that biding my time, usually waiting till the end of meetings to speak out was most effective. What eventually became clear to me was that my Japanese colleagues were using the same rules for speaking Japanese when they spoke English. They didn't know that not asking questions can mean that you understand. Or that not disagreeing can mean that you agree. They didn’t realize that being non-participative in meetings was actually considered to be impolite and was creating a poor atmosphere for business and damaging performance. So naturally people would become frustrated, on both sides.
"These 'unwritten' rules of communication are what we absorb while growing up speaking a language."
At first, I thought this was just too simple an explanation. However, the more I explored it, the more convinced I became. Especially, as I experienced it firsthand when I spoke Japanese without using what I term the 'unwritten’ rules of Japanese. These 'unwritten' rules of communication are what we absorb while growing up speaking a language. We learn without conscious thought so don’t think to teach non-natives. And, the Japanese 'unwritten rules are very, very different from those used in global business.
So I set about laying out down these 'unwritten' rules as they applied to global business. Next I created sets of drills that would develop the the mindset and skills people needed to perform better at work. These were well received as so many believed that they would never be comfortable in English. So while shyness and language can be challenging, the bigger problem is knowing how and when to speak. Once participants learned how to communicate properly, their level of frustration decreased and they became much more comfortable and confident.
"Combining two methodologies"
Our mutually opposing perspectives fueled many more discussions. And while we both had our successes, some were short-lived. Not everyone could make a complete transformation. For some, reading a book or taking a workshop is enough. Others need a more long term approach. That’s when we agreed to combine our two methodologies to create Global Player 2.0. (GP2.0) This solved part of the puzzle and we have begun to use technology to solve the others. We have developed multiple resources allowing for low cost, long term support, including an online community for sharing challenges and successes. This community provides a sustainable solution so we can coach on an individual basis but also share with the community so all can grow.
We continue to improve and expand GP2.0 to reach an even wider audience. While our focus has been on our colleagues at work, GP2.0 is an approach that applies to any who wish to use English to communicate in a global world.