Client Success Stories
Helping People Connect and Communicate Better in South America
Mitsubishi Trading conducts training at its domestic and overseas offices and group companies to foster a better understanding of the Mitsubishi Group’s corporate philosophy, culture, and values. Called the Gateway Program, more than 500 people participate in the training each year. PFC delivers it in both Japanese and English, and 2,600 people have participated in it since its inception in 2010. Previously, we spoke with Akihide Ando, Mitsubishi’s Pakistan Country Manager, to learn how PFC's cross-cultural communication training within the Gateway Program was rolled out in Pakistan. In this interview, Minoru Ishibashi, Regional Human Resources Manager, shares his thoughts about the impact of the Gateway Program in Brazil.
Mr. Ishibashi works in San Paulo at Mitsubishi’s Regional CEO Office for Central and South America and is in charge of providing HR support to both foreign and local staff in the region. To help our clients identify the organizational and collaboration challenges they may face when working globally, PFC created a simple framework based on three key factors of global complexity called "CSP" (Cultural, Structural, Physical). We started our conversation with Mr. Ishibashi by asking him to discuss the first factor, culture, and the specific cultural difficulties he’s experienced while working in Latin America.
Now in my third year here in Brazil, I've realized that my general impression of Brazilians before I came was quite accurate; they are quite open, flexible and adaptable people. Of course, people will differ as individuals and depending on the country they come from, but compared to most Japanese people, I feel that this is a common characteristic throughout Latin America. They’re not overly concerned with details at first, and instead tend to jump in and see what happens. Mistakes and issues come up along the way, but they take them in stride, adjusting their approach as they move forward and accept the issues as a natural part of the bigger picture. For example, boarding gates at the airport change at the last minute. When you request to have someone come and set up your internet, they say they will be there “sometime between 8am and 6pm”, and hen sometimes don’t show up at all! But no one is surprised at this, and no one gets mad – it’s just how things are done here.
When interacting with others, Japanese people tend to think carefully about the context of the situation and the possible impact on all parties involved, and even then proceed somewhat cautiously. But we don’t express this thinking in any explicit way, so from the perspective of the local staff, we are like a "black box" - no one knows what's inside. The phrase, “I never know what my Japanese counterparts are thinking” is something I often hear from frustrated local staff. Or, even worse, they think we're not thinking about anything at all. I found out after the fact that they thought these things about me, such as they didn’t know what I was thinking, or that I was somehow a cold person because I didn’t express myself as openly as they did. But I gradually figured this out and started making an effort to explain my thought processes more explicitly, and this helped immensely.
Brazilian's sense of time is also different. Japanese people tend to take a long-term view of things, while local staff put more focus on the short term. Because of this, I always clarify people’s understanding of timelines when discussing projects.
Where does structural complexity show up in your work?
There isn’t much risk of terrorism or war where we do business in Latin America, but robberies and kidnappings are commonplace. Having said that, as seen with the changes in governments in Brazil and Argentina, the economies here are trying to break from the lax fiscal policies of the past and move toward something more solid.
In terms of HR challenges, there is a strong stance to protect the employee, and lawsuits against employers are very common, but regulations around things like employee dismissal are relatively lax. Career-motivated employees change firms frequently, often stepping up in position each time, which is again quite different from what I was used to in Japan. It’s important to communicate very clearly and positively when interviewing, assigning work, and evaluating staff and also make continual efforts to keep positions as attractive as possible if you want to retain your best staff.
Many Japanese people who work for larger companies were hired straight out of university and enjoy the relative job security of ‘lifetime employment’. They feel comfortable to adopt a long-term stance toward their advancement and development within the firm because they know they’ll be there for a long time. They take annual evaluations in stride, and don’t tend to complain or push back very strongly on feedback because they know there will be ups and downs in how they are evaluated. By comparison, in Latin America, companies are largely staffed with mid-career hires, so firms hire and lay off staff more frequently, and you are also never sure when an employee is going to quit and go to another firm. This creates a job environment for both employer and employee that could change anytime, so I try to make each and every evaluation meeting with staff count, giving them as much feedback and explanation as possible. If I don’t explain myself well enough, it not only demotivates them, but can quickly turn into a retention issue. Lawsuits over wrongful dismissal are also very common here, so you need to make sure your reasoning and how you communicate that reasoning is very clear.
Why did you decide to roll this program out in Latin America, and how is it going so far?
In recent years, Mitsubishi Trading has been shifting the way it creates value in the market, transitioning its focus away from trading and toward investment in and management of local businesses. One might think that this would have a diversifying effect on our corporate culture, but it’s actually just the opposite. We’ve leveraged this shift tot each, discuss and share Mitsubishi’s three core principles* with staff in all of our ventures, and it’s had the effect of strengthening the core values that bond us together and also increasing customer trust in our organization. The Gateway Program has proven to be the perfect vehicle for sharing our philosophy with newcomers to our offices in the region. We initially engaged a local firm to run the cross-cultural training component of the program, but the content they put together overly exaggerated the characteristics of Japanese culture and seemed to push the merits of Latin American business customs too much. It’s not that we wanted to push Japanese culture on anyone, but we were looking for a more balanced approach, focused on true mutual understanding and ways to bridge the business practices of the two cultures.
It was then that our team at Japan headquarters introduced us to PFC’s program, and it seemed to be just what we were looking for.
In addition to general cross-cultural communication concepts, the Gateway program gives Japanese participants hands-on practice explaining Japanese cultural concepts such as nemawashii and uchi-soto to non-Japanese and has all participants share their best practices for writing emails and giving feedback.
The program has been extremely popular with participants, with post-program evaluation results averaging 4.8out of 5, the highest we’ve ever had on a training program.
They learn the importance of “reading between the lines” with Japanese staff, and how concepts like hone-tatemae and nemawashi affect how things are communicated. It’s a well-balanced program that doesn’t prioritize either culture’s way of doing things, but instead helps participants understand each other and find ways to work together more effectively. The program flow is very interactive, with group work to keep participants actively engaged, and the facilitator, Carlos Carvalho, keeps participants focused on coming up with tangible strategies for bridging cultural gaps. I personally believe that, more than national cultural differences, true cross-cultural understanding begins with bridging style preference sat the individual level, so I look forward to further integrating this idea into our program going forward.
What message would you like to share with your colleagues working overseas, or those about to go to an office abroad?
There are many things that are hard to really grasp until you actually live and work in a local culture. Language and cultural differences can seem daunting at first, but I think the key lies in not trying to do everything yourself. Asking others for help and trusting them enough to delegate work to them is a great way to gain their trust. I’ve also made every effort to communicate as often and clearly as possible so that they begin to trust me too.
*Mitsubishi’s three core principles are Corporate Responsibility to Society, Integrity and Fairness, and Global Understanding Through Business. They were articulated in the 1930s by the fourth president of the Mitsubishi organization, Koyata Iwasaki, and are shared by staff throughout the Mitsubishi Group.