How to get buy-in for change from your Japanese colleagues

Michael Glazer is a Tokyo-based Senior Consultant whose client work spans 15 countries across four continents. Learn more about Michael here.

As a Ken Blanchard Companies certified Leading People Through Change trainer, I learned that 70% of all change initiatives fail. In the process, I also learned from Gartner’s research¹ that taking the time to involve people and earn their buy-in increases the chances of success by 34% - 58%.

I incorporate the principles of taking a high-involvement approach into my consulting work to help leaders facilitate large-scale change across cultures and languages. While the principles are widely applicable across cultures, it’s worth noting that how we get buy-in in one culture won’t necessarily work as well in another. I have found this to be the case when leaders who do not speak Japanese need buy-in from their Japanese colleagues in order to make lasting change in Japan.

So, here are four ideas that can help you localize your high-involvement change playbook when leading change in Japan.

Translate and localize critical information

Some of the first things people want to know about change is what’s changing, what isn’t, what’s the goal and why is the change happening in the first place. Make sure the case for change and the vision for it is localized into Japanese. This often means we need to think beyond translating the words to ensure that the intent and rationale behind the words clear to Japanese colleagues. Pay careful attention to making sure that the definitions and nuances of familiar English terms – innovation, authentic leadership, and open communication as examples – are fully conveyed in natural-sounding Japanese.

Incorporate Japanese language materials into your non-Japanese language presentations

Simultaneous interpretation is commonly used when executives announce company-wide change initiatives. How else can you make it easier for employees to understand what the change is about? Handing out Japanese copies of your presentation materials for people to refer to during your kickoff meeting is one way. And displaying your presentation using those same Japanese materials (of course, while referring to your copy in your own native language) shows you care about helping people understand your message.

Surface questions and concerns by broadcasting and cascading communications

Taking a high-involvement approach to change in Japan often means creating safe forums for people to raise their questions and concerns candidly. Town hall-style meetings are not one of those places for many Japanese employees.

So instead of overly relying on large group settings, partner with managers to cascade the change messages throughout the organization. What’s critical in the cascade process is to include structured opportunities for dialogue and feedback.

This is important because part of persuading people to support change depends on being able to satisfy their needs. And often their needs are what’s behind the questions they ask about change. So naturally, we want to know what questions are on employees’ minds. Using staff meetings for this purpose works well because meetings with fewer people, held in Japanese and attended by people with similar levels of seniority, decrease the perceived risk of asking questions. Under the right circumstances, simple questions like “what have you understood about the change,” “what are your impressions of what was presented,” “what else would you like to know,” or “what questions would you like to ask” can be surprisingly effective at drawing out people’s true opinions and feelings.

Doing this takes effort, but it often pays off. Taking time to surface questions can be the difference between winning support of key middle managers or having them strongly and silently work against you. McKinsey has termed this type of derailer “the last man standing” in the way of change.

Ensure everyone saves face

Ask managers to share their team’s comments, questions and concerns anonymously. Then ask leaders to cascade their feedback back up to the change sponsor. Eventually, information from the teams aggregates into divisional- or organization-level feedback. This approach is well suited for collective organizational culture, since it signals to people that their reputations are not at risk for voicing concerns when they speak up. Sponsors can then address any issues raised without shining an uncomfortable light on the people who voiced them.

Change initiatives are fraught with pitfalls, and people tend to resist change. But by making sure you’ve covered these four issues, you will have a better chance getting the buy-in you need for success in Japan.

¹ Changing Change Management, 2019.