Improving your chances of leading successful change with a Japanese team

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

Like you, I know that leading organizational change is hard work and making it successful is even harder. And that’s when we lead change in our home countries and cultures. For most expat leaders, leading successful change of any scale in Japan can be particularly challenging.

Why does making change in Japan often feel more difficult than in other places? There are many factors at play. One is that Japanese culture tends to value certainty more than Western cultures do. It is common for Japanese organizations and workers to need more time and information upfront in order to make decisions, especially when compared with many Westerners who put a higher value on taking quick action as well as a having a willingness to embrace ambiguity and figure things out along the way. I often hear Japanese colleagues and clients express their expectations that things be “done right” the first time. Measure twice, cut once. On the other hand, I hear many Westerners use phrases like “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” or “we’ve got to build the plane as we’re flying it.”

Broadly speaking, another common factor that influences how I’ve seen people lead change is their preference for focusing first on tasks or on relationships when starting a new initiative. Many Western cultures prioritize achieving business goals on schedule over maintaining relationships. The most extreme example of this in my personal experience is a manager who told her team, “I’m driving this truck. Get on or get out of my way. And if you don’t get out of my way, there are going to be bodies in the road. At the end of the day, I’m running a business here.” Yikes!

Japanese employees at one organization I have worked with routinely complain that they feel “colonized” by Western leaders who show up with aggressive business goals yet seem to lack even a basic understanding of Japanese business culture or the historic successes that underpin the organization’s long, proud domestic history.

Compare that with Japan’s relationship-oriented culture which views time spent building relationships as essential to getting good results. Many Japanese tend to put equal value on who you know as on what you can achieve. In Tokyo I am rarely surprised when I hear that a local’s first reaction to a proposed change is, “I see. Who have you talked to already about your idea?”

Another dynamic in Japan when an executive introduces unpopular change is for the local management to bide their time. The rationale is that the expat manager is here for only a few years but the locals will remain long after the expat moves on. From the expat’s point of view, it might appear that their Japanese team members are giving lip service to a proposed change, or offering to “study it,” without taking substantive action to move things forward.  And if your Japanese colleagues have been “studying it” for a long time, there is a chance they’ve already said no to your idea without you even realizing it.

Despite these differences, it is possible for expats to lead successful change in Japan. When clients who are in the early phases of change initiatives ask me what I’ve found successful, the advice I share includes:

  • Show genuine interest and respect for how things are being done currently. Express understanding and appreciation for the history and values of the department, division or company.
  • Invest heavily in building relationships at all levels upfront so you have political capital to use when you need it.
  • Give people time to digest your ideas about change and give them a culturally appropriate forum for voicing their opinions, especially about how change will be implemented and managed.
  • Focus on fostering curiosity or fueling excitement by having people look outside their current focus for new information, benchmarks or examples of success.
  • Learn how to shape messages to Japanese cultural values, including the general preference in Japan for avoiding uncertainty. Here’s an example “Competitors X and Y successfully implemented this type of protocol in Japan. It has helped them demonstrate the safety of product A to regulators. How well would such a protocol work for us? Who would it help? What would (influential person Z) think about the idea?”
  • Create opportunities to invite managers from across your value chain to informal meetings or social events.
  • And while not specific to making change happen in Japan, it is often helpful to conduct a stakeholder analysis that accounts for informal sources of power within the organization as well as a force field analysis to identify factors in place that support or work against the planned change.