Peter Drucker has this great quote. "Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion and under performance. Everything else requires leadership". In this modern day and age, why do we still encounter these three horsemen of the apocalypse of organizational dis-function? Each signals its own raft of challenges, magnified even further when operating in Japan.
Friction is a tricky one in Japan for foreign bosses, because so often it is subterranean. Power struggles, factions, proxies, turf, ego all come into play here but not so overtly. Influence is achieved through access to key people more often than over the bodies of enemies. Apart from bosses disciplining subordinates, screaming abuse at colleagues isn’t acceptable in Japan. The problem here is getting the issues out on the table for resolution more than anything else.
The age old remedy of out of office discussions is usually where the boss finds out what is really going on, as opposed to what was thought to be happening. It is highly unlikely staff will seek the gaijin boss out and download the skullduggery going on, so you have to unearth it for yourself. Presuming you are able to achieve such a worthy goal, that is only half the battle, now what do you do about it.
The typical stance of getting two people in a room and telling them to sort it out may work in the West, but it won’t work here. I am not sure that this actually works anywhere, but that doesn’t stop supposedly intelligent and experienced people from trying it though. Rather, we need to really dig out the issues and manage the resolution process, paying careful attention to those spurious "yes" statements, which in Japan indicate I heard you but that doesn’t mean I agree with you.
This ensures that the follow up is critically important to make sure that the solution is actually executed and everyone is doing what they said they would do. White-anting, backsliding, artful misinterpreting of what was agreed, untrue communication gap excuses, willful disobedience – expect the whole gamut.
Confusion is usually the result of unclear processes and unclear communication. Japanese language is a big culprit, because in the hands of native speakers it is genius at leaving things muscularly vague. Having a process and having a common understanding of the process is not the same thing. In the same vein, common sense is not common and the unaccounted for action is often the project success killer. You might believe that we should move directly from A to B but that doesn’t guarantee that others will share that view. They might think a little detour to Q is more appropriate. So we need to spell out the process, in detail and we need to check for understanding. Expecting the next logical step to be logical to everyone else is too bold. Specify, micro-manage the detail, check back (ad nausium) is often the minimum required.
Underperformance is usually a factor of skill or motivation gaps. Skill gaps can generally be closed through providing quality training, mentoring and coaching. Motivation though is a lot harder subject. This is often a systemic problem, starting at the top. The senior leaders determine the culture of the organization. If the atmosphere is to defer to seniority by rank and age, then don’t expect too much innovation occurring anytime soon. If middle management only understand the two tools of "what" and "how" and don’t have "why" in their explanation toolbox, expect employee passive compliance. It boils down to "why be creative when you don’t care?".
Latching on to the "why care" drivers is critical, if we want to move forward and succeed in the market, the latter brimming with competitors. Three things drive engagement: firstly, the relationship with the immediate supervisor – so trust, and communication are paramount. Secondly, the belief by those at the bottom that those at the top actually know what they are doing, requires middle management to cascade down the top group’s "why". Thirdly, pride in the organization necessitates a one-team approach, rather than a self-obsessed internally oriented power struggle capital of the universe approach. This is why we talk about leadership at all levels – we need the alignment and agreement on what it is we need to do, how we need to do it and what success looks like.
As Drucker points out leaders need to lead but often in Japan they just rotate through positions in large organizations, never taking any significant decisions, avoiding as many initiatives as possible and keeping their heads down anticipating a cushy retirement. This is why we love working in Japan – never a dull moment here.
1. Carefully investigate the causes behind issues between staff
2. Get agreement to correct the problem and then keep checking that what was agreed gets done
3. Communicate more often and more regularly the same key messages, don’t imagine people get it with just one pass by
4. Keep hammering away at the WHY