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Using Japanese Values to Thrive in Global Business

Japanese companies have unique cultural, communication, and operational challenges. But they also have values that have led to remarkable longevity. Check out this seminar to hear how these values help earn trust from overseas head offices and develop employees.

Turnaround Leadership: The Differences Between Japan and the West

What's the best way for leaders to communicate a shift in corporate strategy? How do you even know when it's time for such a change? This course explains how Japan might have one answer, Western companies another.

Working in a team—any team—comes with challenges. Especially when you have to deliver feedback, tensions can escalate quickly without the right approach.

But what if your team is filled with cross-cultural members? What’s the “right approach” if some teammates prefer low-context communication (with very direct feedback) and others prefer high-context communication (indirectness)?

High-context cultures are found in countries like Japan and India. People from these cultures tend to prefer communication that’s more inferred and gently delivered. Low-context cultures, on the other hand, come from places like the US, Sweden, and Germany. These people respond better to direct, explicit communication.

In Japan, a classic example of a high-context culture, global companies that make Tokyo or Osaka their APAC hub face frequent cross-cultural misunderstandings. Many Japanese people say they feel uncomfortable receiving negative feedback directly, especially from foreign colleagues. They also aren’t sure how to give feedback (especially if it’s their boss).

On the flipside, those bosses (who are often from low-context cultures like the US or Germany) feel they need this feedback from their Japanese colleagues in order to understand if they’re doing a good job or failing to mesh with the team.

How do you bridge the gap?

We spoke to GLOBIS University faculty Suzanne Price (from the UK), Cristian Vlad (from Romania), and Megumi Taoka (from Japan) about how feedback can be delivered properly for better teamwork and psychological safety among both high-context and low-context team members.

GLOBIS faculty Megumi Taoka, Cristian Vlad, and Suzanne Price discuss how to give negative feedback in high-context cultures
From left to right, GLOBIS faculty Megumi Taoka, Cristian Vlad, and Suzanne Price |©GLOBIS

How to Give Negative Feedback across Cultural Divides

Megumi Taoka: First, I’d like to clarify a common misconception that Japanese people “can’t” give negative feedback. We can. But we’re more comfortable giving feedback on “things.”

For example, if we’re looking at a design, we can say, “This is a bad shape,” or “The color is horrible.” That’s easy. But we struggle to say that kind of thing about people. We just want to keep it to ourselves.

So the question is, how can we make it so Japanese people feel safe to give negative feedback?

Suzanne Price: This is deeply connected to the values many Asian cultures share around losing face and saving face. From a psychological point of view, I connect this with fear of shame. On the other hand, the opposite of shame is “grandiosity.”

Using Japanese Values to Thrive in Global Business

Japanese companies have unique cultural, communication, and operational challenges. But they also have values that have led to remarkable longevity. Check out this seminar to hear how these values help earn trust from overseas head offices and develop employees.

Some cultures, such as the US, are somewhat self-promotional. An American could say something a little grandiose, and someone from a culture that values modesty could respond, “Oh, gosh that’s so embarrassing! How could you say those things?” Shame and modesty are all connected with, “I don’t want to shame myself, embarrass myself, or embarrass you.” That’s the fundamental mechanism.

Humans are terrified of shame. That anxiety or fear comes out when giving negative feedback. A lot of people, regardless of cultural background, can relate to feelings like, “I’m not very skilled at feedback because I haven’t seen other people do it,” or “I’m afraid I might offend you. We will lose our harmony, and then we won’t be able to work together.” There’s a lot of that going on when Japanese people are asked for constructive criticism.

Cris Vlad: So the question is, “How do we make it safe for people to give feedback?”

Price: First, we need to help people realize why feedback is important. They need to understand that if they don’t give you feedback, you can’t grow and do your best work. And that would mean they’ve done you and the organization a disservice. This frees people up.

Leaders and coworkers alike need to keep reminding each other that it really is safe to say these things and give feedback.

Vlad: Often, I hear foreigners in leadership roles ask their Japanese colleagues working for them, “Do you have feedback for me?” And the Japanese respond, “Oh. That’s really embarrassing. How could you ask that? You’re the boss.”

Price: Again, I think there’s some fear, discomfort and shame going on. Every culture needs to learn the skills to have these conversations in a non-judgmental way. Feedback is a powerful tool, and you can communicate your opinions while still expressing that you value each other and care about the other person’s confidence and dignity.

Delivering negative feedback effectively is about focusing on employee performance. Make them understand, “I’m partnering with you to help you to do a better job. And you will feel better if you do a better job.”

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How to Restructure the Culture of Critical Feedback

Taoka: I think many Asian and African nationals tend to take others’ opinions very personally, whether positive or negative. In these cases, they are afraid of feedback, both the giving and the receiving. But feedback is intended to simply be a process for continual improvement. Feedback should be directed towards actions and behavior, not towards a person or character.

That is, attack the problem, not the person.

Cultures that welcome direct negative feedback, such as the Germans and Dutch, seem to appreciate that intrinsic purpose and value. All of us need to find a way to de-personalize like that and more clearly see what we can gain from it.

Vlad: Perhaps managers can lead by example by giving positive feedback themselves. They can also mention their own experiences: “In a previous job, I gave my boss this feedback, and this was the great result that we got because of that,” or “One of my team members pointed this out, and it saved me from making some silly decision or generating tons of unnecessary work.”

Price: Another solution is to foster a corporate culture where giving and receiving criticism is not only safe, but expected. Once people observe a positive pattern and realize it’s safe, they will be more open to join in.

Goldman Sachs does this. Japanese employees give feedback to senior leaders because they understand, “That’s what we do around here. It’s expected, and it’s safe.”

Turnaround Leadership: The Differences Between Japan and the West

What's the best way for leaders to communicate a shift in corporate strategy? How do you even know when it's time for such a change? This course explains how Japan might have one answer, Western companies another.

How to Find the Right Format for Feedback

Taoka: What about putting the feedback in writing? Then you can mention, “I’m giving this feedback because I’d like you to grow. We can grow together. Thank you for reading.”

This plays into the high-context comfort zone. Having a form really makes us Japanese people feel it’s safe. Given our hierarchical thinking, we feel comfortable following rules and processes set by the authority, which writing implies. If it’s what the company wants, we can more readily open up without obsessing over the consequences.

If the form explains the context, we feel safer, too. We can take our time. This kind of deliberate writing process can satisfy the well-known Japanese inclination to avoid risk.

Price: That kind of form could be part of 360 degree feedback. A lot of companies put 360-feedback mechanisms into their performance management systems.

When I’m coaching leaders, I gather feedback via interviews. I then give that to the leaders so we can discuss the themes that came up. I don’t mention who said what. This system provides the anonymity necessary to feel safe giving honest, tough, constructive feedback.

Taoka: One final, practical hint on how to give negative feedback: Pay attention to the type of language you use. Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map, recommends adjusting your tone using “upgraders” (for emphasis) or “downgraders” (for softness) to match to the preferred directness in a particular culture.

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