Recently, I was coaching a Japanese executive of a foreign investment bank. She was having difficulty engaging with her new team and also with other C-level execs, most of whom were spread around the globe. This meant she had to constantly deal with multiple cultures and accents, not to mention multiple time zones. And, of course, the investment banking industry is well known to be fast-moving, aggressive and, at times, unforgiving.
Her roles as global team leader and C-level team member required her to look and act decisively, and professionally, in hers as well as their eyes. (More on that later…)
Engaged, but not engaging
To start our first session, I asked her to introduce herself. She began with “First, I’d like apologize for my poor English.” She carried on with her introduction, but for me the first impression was made. With that, everything she said was consequently colored by that first statement.
In actual fact, her English was fine. She had no trouble understanding or being understood. There was more to it than language. She was being Japanese, and just doing what is considered ‘humble’. That’s perfect for Japan, but this was one reason why she came off as lacking confidence in a global business setting. Not what a global leader needs to project. (As an aside, non-Japanese should try to remember that apologizing, in the right context, can be seen as humble.)
Traditionally, the above is considered a cultural issue. And, it is, generally, but generalities rarely help with solving specific problems. I feel its much more practical to drill down, focusing on, in this situation, perspectives and expectations.
In her case, she used the ‘unwritten rules’ from the Japanese perspective. From a global business perspective, this goes against expectations. So even when spoken grammatically correct, the words were used in an inappropriate manner. This sent mixed signals to her team and colleagues and was causing damage. Not much, but little-by-little, over time, can add up. This is especially relevant as confidence in a leader is hard won, but easily lost. Naturally, it works both ways. For example, non-Japanese speakers, including myself, can seem overly aggressive when speaking English or Japanese. As long as other can grasp your meaning, it’s not the correctness of the language, but the correctness of the manner that counts. Most Japanese who speak English are using the Japanese 'unwritten rules' so it’s best that non-Japanese understand these rules, also.
The rules of engagement
Understanding that apologizing for her language abilities was inappropriate, was an easy fix. Much easier than learning the language in the first place. We spent more time on other 'unwritten rules’ most of which are rarely taught. Such as how leaders are expected to engage in meetings and even email. The list can be long, but a few of the more well known ones are sharing without being asked, giving opinions, listening and asking questions. Others, less well known are 'what really constitutes agreement, commitment and even brainstorming for ideas'. Again, for any non-Japanese working with Japanese, the same is true. Learning the 'unwritten rules' of Japan can be a huge help to your business and maybe help lower your stress levels, too.
Understanding how to engage is a huge challenge for Japanese working in global business. Especially, as most have no idea that there are certain appropriate and, of course, inappropriate ways of communicating.
Japan vs Global
Our ongoing Fiction Point Analysis survey of foreign companies in Japan indicates that the biggest challenge for Japanese when working with non-Japanese is as follows:
Leading global teams & projects
Disagreeing with others
In Japan, there’s a lot that flows just beneath the surface. And, both sides can find it hard to read each other. Communication really is in conflict. Utilizing the 'unwritten rules' of business perspective and expectations is the first step in developing more engaged and motivated leaders and employees.