BY PARISSA HAGIHIRAN
A good friend tells me she is confused about her role in a medium-sized, successful Japanese firm. One the one hand, she is supposed to bring in foreign clients and ease communication between them and her Japanese firm. On the other hand, she is not allowed to make any decisions on her own. Every time she tries to set the rules for her team or comes up with a solution without consulting with them, her Japanese colleagues react negatively.
Experiences like this are common for international women working in Japan. I often hear complaints about endless meeting and discussions, unclear responsibility, and weak leadership in the Japanese workplace. Therefore, many of my friends find working in Japanese teams difficult and confusing. They often do not know what their role in a Japanese team or department really is, and whether they are supposed to take a leadership or not.
During my career in Japanese organisations I have also experienced challenges in the Japanese workplace. In one case I was assigned a project and assumed that I was supposed to make a project plan, outline the overall goals of the project, and to divide work for my team. This is what I would have done back home and I could not see why project management could be so different in Japan. However, my individual management style led to a lot of trouble and was perceived as pushy, even selfish. Team members complained that I did not call enough meetings and did not inform them about every detail of the project. During these first attempts to work in a Japanese team I felt frustrated a lot, and at a loss.
Teams differ in the East and West:
Many international women have feelings like this when working in Japan. The reason for these feelings and many misunderstandings are differences in how Japanese teams are formed and work. Often, however, these differences are not obvious. Many of our Japanese colleagues speak English very well, and processes seem very similar at first. So we often assume that a team in Japan is like a Western team, where one person usually is in charge and is also responsible for the result of a project. Within the team, each team member has the responsibility for a certain task. Each team member’s individuality, his or her skills and interest are taken into account when assigning tasks. Team members work more individually and only meet if decisions have to be made. During team meetings informality is stressed and all members should be able to express their opinions. Each team member may have a certain discussion style, but compromises can be worked out and at the end of every meeting a solution for a certain problem is found.
A Japanese team, however, works totally differently. First of all, Japanese teams tend to be much larger than Western teams. Apart from its size, a Japanese team also has a different structure. In many Japanese companies, people still work together for a long time—often decades—and not for a certain project. Group membership is very important for Japanese employees; it has a strong impact on their motivations and provides a place of identity. Within the team, membership is more important than tasks, roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined. All members share responsibility, being an expert does not come with a special position.
This also means that every decision to be made is a group decision. All team members have to informed, even about the smallest details. Frequent meetings and reports are a must. The meetings have a mostly informative character, and consume a lot of time. Reports are written in a very formal manner and also help to update all people involved in the project. Of course, Japanese teams also have leaders or project managers, but these leaders’ competencies are not as powerful as in the West. A Japanese team leader has more the role of a coordinator than a decision maker. As I described in my last articles, a lot of international women are hired by Japanese firms because they have particular skills or support the internationalisation processes of Japanese companies. They are hired as experts and expect to be treated as such. Being an expert also involves responsibilities and a certain amount of authority.
Working in a Japanese team can be quite a challenge:
Working in or leading a Japanese team can therefore become quite a challenge. We are used to taking responsibility, making decisions on our own, and not involving other team members as much. We only communicate with other team members if problems need to be solved, not to discuss every detail of our work with them. We like taking leadership and responsibility for projects.
So, how can we work successfully in Japanese teams? Is it better to adapt or to keep our Western management style? I think the best solution is to ‘Japan-ise’ the way we learned to manage back at home and develop a softer, more Asian leadership style. Leadership needs to be more subtle; opinions of team members must always be listened to and considered. We also need to learn that projects take longer in Japan and many more stakeholders are involved. Personal relationships often count more than fact and must not be neglected. Reporting to and informing team members, clients, and superiors plays a major role in Japanese project management.
I am often asked whether challenges like these only affect women and whether Japanese employees would rather work with foreign men. I personally do not think that being an international women is a problem when working in a Japanese firm. Problems I described above are based on different understandings of how teams work and what they are supposed to achieve, not on gender perceptions. In many cases, we are perceived as foreigners first, not as females. Seniority and time spent in the firm are more important factors than gender for international women working in a Japanese firm.
For Western women a ‘Japan-ised’ work style and finding the balance between East and West when it comes to project management and leadership is always a challenge. But trying to bridge both styles can be quite inspiring and help to improve our management skills and deepen our knowledge of Japan and Japanese management. After all, improving and growing make our lives in Japan so exciting and interesting.
Dr. Parissa Haghirian is an associate professor of International Management at the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Sophia University, Tokyo. She is the editor of J-Management; Fresh Perspectives of the Japanese firm in the 21st Century. www.parissahaghirian.com