As a leader, if you are working at the interface between Japanese and Western cultures, you will be facing some very difficult challenges. Fundamental differences in values, communication style and behaviour can very easily result in misunderstandings, loss of trust and even conflict – either within the business itself, or in external customer relationships, or in both.
The gap can seem impossible to bridge. What are the common issues?
- Western business behaviour can be perceived by the Japanese to be aggressive and short-term-focused. Western thinking focuses on the big strategic picture, but to the Japanese it can seem too rushed and that important details are ignored. The Japanese perspective is that Western business leaders place insufficient importance on relationships, listening and respect for the consensus view of the wider group or team.
- At the same time, Japanese behaviour can be perceived by Westerners to be very formal, slow and indecisive. From the Western viewpoint, Japanese business thinking can seem to lack clarity, and to be too concerned with minor details, countless options, discussing and involving everyone, instead of just taking action and moving on.
Which is right? The truth is, both Western and Japanese cultural perspectives and ways of working have strengths and weaknesses. Underneath, at a human level, there is much more common ground and good intention than it sometimes seems.
Whether you are leading a Western company in Japan, or a Japanese company in a Western country, the key to success is to harness the good intent, leverage the strengths and work harder to understand the other perspective. This requires a totally different level of flexibility, adaptability and patience – so as to find a shared perspective of how business success can be achieved. Otherwise, misunderstanding, lack of trust and inappropriate behaviour will seriously undermine business performance and results.
Stuart Pickles spent 4 years living and working in Japan for Unilever and became fluent in Japanese. Together with his 25 years in industry, CFO and coaching expertise and experience, Stuart’s cross-cultural awareness means that he has a unique ability to step in and bridge the culture gap; to enable reconciliation and collaboration at a fundamentally different level and so achieve business results.