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Establishing an environment of psychological safety is an increasingly important consideration for modern companies. It’s linked to benefits such as improved productivity, lower staff turnover, greater employee wellbeing, and much more. And yet, this is an area in which Japanese companies have a reputation for falling short.
Why might this be? And what can be done about it?
Cultural Vulnerabilities to Psychological Safety in Japan
Psychological safety refers to how far individuals believe their colleagues and managers will allow them to take risks without criticism or punishment. These “risks” include things such as speaking up with suggestions or pointing out potential problems.
Sometimes, low psychological safety can occur when cultural factors are not accounted for. In Japan, the following four areas represent culture-based risk factors that companies should take care to consider.
Rigidly hierarchical structures
Japanese business culture is generally more hierarchical than in the West. There is strong implicit pressure to accept what authority figures (who are usually older or more experienced) say without question or challenge. That same pressure can also lead employees to experience discomfort when directly communicating their wants and needs to higher-status persons.
Harmony as a Priority
The harmony custom in Japan means that there is pressure to avoid or conceal any communication that results in disruption of the group ambiance, relationships, or others’ feelings. Thus, pointing out problems or expressing disagreement is usually avoided, especially when a higher-status person is the focus.
Expectations to make sacrifices for the company
For decades, Japanese companies were like second families to which employees were expected to devote their lives and loyalty in exchange for lifetime employment. While this situation is starting to change, such deep-rooted expectations are not easy to shift.
The Japanese custom of saving face means that there is social pressure to avoid anything that can bring shame or embarrassment. In Japanese companies, this often translates to micromanagement and intolerance of mistakes.
The consequences of not addressing the above vulnerabilities can be huge. A lack of psychological safety can lead to a wide range of adverse effects on employee wellbeing, innovation, knowledge-sharing, and a company’s bottom line. This is by no means a danger unique to Japan, as the likes of Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, Nokia, and the New York Federal Reserve discovered to their cost in recent years.
On the bright side, the benefits of a culture with psychological safety are equally global, as even some Japanese companies are proving.
Successes of Psychological Safety in Japan
A number of Japanese companies have successfully addressed Japan’s specific cultural needs with psychological safety initiatives.
MS&AD Insurance Group
Ruiko Mori, deputy manager of the Corporate Communications Department at MS&AD Insurance Group, says that the Tokyo-based company has made psychological safety one of its four core missions. “New ideas and innovations are created when employees with various backgrounds feel comfortable expressing their different and clashing opinions—and when decisions are made based on those opinions,” she says.
According to Mori, some of the key steps MS&AD has taken to nurture psychological safety include the following:
- Teaching employees and managers to understand each other better
- Setting specific and clear expectations and roles based on firm agreement between employees and their supervisors
- Allowing employees to make mistakes and leading them to learn from these experiences
- Installing a formal Speak-up System through which employees can report concerns and seek consultation
- Reducing age-based hierarchy by surveying employees in their twenties and thirties to understand their values
Another psychological safety success story is Coca-Cola Japan. According to Patrick Jordan, vice president of human resources in Japan and Korea, “We hold a number of activities throughout the year to help our employees feel more comfortable with being themselves. For example, each Leadership Team Member hosts a ‘clubhouse’ session where they discuss their background and take open questions from participants so they can be better known to individuals.”
Initiatives such as these don’t just allow employees to get to know and support each other as individuals. They also enhance psychological safety by increasing people’s ability to predict how others will react.
Jordan says that Coca-Cola Japan has taken steps to remove the stigma associated with failure, and to reframe mistakes as learning opportunities. “In 2021, we held a ‘failure’ competition where employees shared stories of times they made mistakes only to learn from them. Employees in the company voted on what they felt was the most impactful story,” he says.
6 Ways Japanese Companies Can Build Psychological Safety
So how can other Japanese companies go about creating an environment in which psychological safety can flourish?
It starts with team leaders–not upper management. Research shows that upper-level management support for psychological safety initiatives actually has no impact. It is the team leaders who need to take the lead for real results.
As for specific actions, there are many a company or team leader can take, but here are six of the most crucial for a Japanese context.
Given the powerful influence of authority figures in Japan, it is imperative that those authority figures take the lead on psychological safety initiatives. Team leaders can do this by responding to dissent calmly and gratefully–and by modeling the kinds of behaviors they would like to see their employees do, like admitting mistakes.
Change perceptions of conflict
Team leaders must work to show employees it is possible to have “good conflict” that does not lead to uncomfortable moments, damaged relationships, or hurt feelings. That starts with reframing perceptions to show how conflict and other kinds of “disruptive” behaviors can actually benefit the group.
Change perceptions about who can speak up
Team leaders must emphasize to employees that they want to hear everyone’s voice, regardless of their level of experience, age, status, or level of education. They must also help employees trust this message by genuinely listening and giving serious consideration to concerns and ideas.
True hierarchy reduction starts with greater transparency. Beyond that, it’s about providing employees with discretionary power, autonomy over work processes, and inclusion in key decision-making. Furthermore, there need to be opportunities for team leaders and supervisees to engage in the kind of unstructured, non-work-focused activities that allow trusting and supportive relationships.
Provide indirect means of communication
Employee discomfort with directly expressing needs means it can be difficult for team leaders to understand and provide for said needs. A non-face-to-face digital tool like Attuned can be an effective way for managers to learn about their employees and lay the foundation for deeper mutual understanding and better, more personalized communication.
Prioritize employee wellbeing
Repeat after me: “More time at a desk is not the same as more work done.”
Prioritizing employee wellbeing will not only result in greater productivity, higher quality output, and more motivation and commitment. It also signals to employees that you care about them, and that they can trust you.
Ultimately, every country has its own unique norms and values that make building psychological safety—or, indeed, any other positive culture change—more or less difficult. But the process and benefits of successfully nurturing psychological safety truly are universal.
For more information about how companies can create psychological safety, particularly in hybrid work environments, download Melissa’s recent white paper: “Using Psychological Safety and Intrinsic Motivation to Establish a New, Hybrid Work Environment that Boosts Employee Wellbeing.”