How to gather info from your Japanese team members when you don’t speak Japanese

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

Most people who have worked outside of their home country realize they need to adapt aspects of their default work style to succeed abroad. How we build trust, gather information, give feedback, make decisions and resolve conflict are just a few examples of where leaders find the need to flex their styles in order to work successfully in new corporate or country cultures.

When it comes to making informed decisions and managing communications with stakeholders and managers outside of Japan, one common challenge for leaders in Japan who do not speak Japanese is figuring out whether they have been given the full picture about a particular issue or situation. Fortunately for me, I’ve experienced firsthand how being able to work with Japanese colleagues and clients in Japanese has played an indispensable role in overcoming this challenge.

Many expat leaders I work with here in Japan discover, within a few months after arriving, that having a local team of strong English speakers isn’t enough to overcome cultural differences. Common sense the leader brings from her home country about how to build and lead a strong team too often doesn’t translate well into Japan’s culture. This can lead to weak team performance, frustration for local staff, eroding self-confidence for the leader and headaches for the HR professionals who support them all.

Compared with many Western cultures, Japanese culture tends to be more interdependent and status oriented. This can mean that junior people will likely avoid giving their own opinions to a skip-level leader, especially when their direct managers are in the room. And if you are looking for complete and candid info about the cause of a specific issue, keep in mind that Japan’s preference for relatively indirect communications means that sensitive information and differences of opinion might be expressed subtly or through nonverbal means. Japan’s strong orientation toward valuing relationships could also mean that your colleagues or direct reports might not feel safe sharing information until they feel you have earned their trust. All this is a lot to think about.

So, what can you do when you need to get the info you need with Japanese teams? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Depersonalize questions by using the passive voice when asking. For example, ask "what can be done?" instead of "what do you think?" You can also depersonalize questions by asking about team operations in general such as "what parts of the monthly reporting process can be improved even more?"
  • Hold more 1x1 meetings and ask questions then, especially if you want to ask about problems or suggest making changes to established ways of doing things.
  • Ask yourself whether there are assumptions in your questions that might feel risky to your listeners. For example, asking what can be done in the next two weeks to solve a certain problem might feel threatening if the people you are asking think the two-week timeline the boss is asking for would set them up for failure. Instead, ask about solutions and timelines separately.
  • Avoid asking "any questions?" or “any ideas?” since this works primarily in egalitarian cultures like the USA or Australia. It’s better to specify who you want to answer your question: "How comfortable is the quality assurance team with the new product specs?” or, when focusing on timelines: “what is a realistic time frame for completing this milestone?” Then, follow up by asking the team to fill in the reasons and relevant business context.
  • Ask a credible third party to explain the background or context of the topic. You can also ask that person for suggestions of how to (or how not to) collect the info needed.
  • Use facilitation techniques to make your meetings more interactive.
  • Try nomunnication. Nomunnication (or sometimes 飲みにケーション in Japanese) refers to the common Japan practice of exchanging honest thoughts and feelings with colleagues while out for drinks after work. The word comes from combining the Japanese verb “nomu,” which means to drink and the English “communication.”
  • Use closed-ended questions to test hunches and confirm your own understanding of the situation. As I heard one leader ask his team. “My sense is that making even a small change to the feature set at this point could create problems with the R&D team and the supplier. Is this correct?”

In my own experience learning to work across cultures, Japan’s included, one of the most effective ways I have found to do this is by asking a willing, successful and locally well-respected colleague to be a business culture mentor. Having a reliable confidant to help me interpret communication when I can’t fully understand others’ messages to me or their expectations of me has been a key factor not only in my successes but also in my high level of satisfaction working abroad. Fortunately, with time and constant practice (and I am still learning!), I’ve picked up enough to be able to help others who are less familiar with Japanese work culture.

You can take a look here if you are interested in learning more about how myself and my colleagues at PFC help unite diverse teams and personalities from within an organization to communicate more effectively, focus more clearly and act with common purpose.