How do you stand out in a culture that teaches you to fit in? Does the nail that sticks out always have to be hammered down?
In my birth culture, the United States, standing out is valued and often expected. I was raised on such advice as “be yourself,” “the early bird gets the worm,” “just do it,” and “look out for #1.” But in other cultures, as in my current home culture in Japan, people value fitting into the group. Here, being passive, humble, modest, and silent is respected. As such, defining your authentic self in Japan and broadcasting it tends to put the Japanese at risk of being separate from, rather than part of the group.
In the 1970s, Dutch cultural anthropologist Geert Hofstede identified the degree to which a society reinforces individual or group achievement as one of five cultural dimensions to explain cross-cultural attitudes, behaviors and communication styles. In societies that emphasize collectivism, people’s main concern is their in-group identity rather than their individuality. Here is a quick snapshot of “me” versus “we” cultures:
“Me” Cultures: ■ Self comes first ■ Focus on growth and progress ■ Competitive ■ Individual achievement earned and rewarded
“We” Cultures: ■ Group comes first ■ Focus on tradition and precedent ■ Collaborative ■ Success and position are ascribed
Japanese are educated from childhood to be self-effacing and to put the group ahead of one’s own interest. The idea of understanding your unique attributes – strengths, skills, values, and passions – and using them to stand out and differentiate yourself from others is a challenging concept. In the August 2011 edition of The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Journal, William H Saito compared Japan’s national dream to a “predictable escalator” – get into a good university and ride up to graduation. Then get into a safe company, stand obediently to one side, and ride patiently up the escalator to retirement.
As we know, the world of work has changed forever. Even in Japan job security and lifetime employment are no longer guaranteed. “Out of order” signs are gradually appearing on these predictable escalators and lines are getting longer as people patiently wait for them to be repaired. However, success in this new working world in Japan will be characterized by jumping on an express elevator with an elevator pitch in hand that communicates a personal brand. Those who have worked to uncover, communicate, and manage their personal brand with be able to take this express elevator to the top. The question is how to do this without alienating oneself from the group.
Here are two quick tips to help people in “we” cultures to embrace personal branding without losing their in-group identity:
1) Be “SMART” and connect your brand to the group
Personal branding does not mean isolating yourself from others. Rather, it is understanding yourself better so that you can add value to your business, company, or career. Especially in “we” cultures you need stay focused on how your brand creates value for the group. One way is articulating how your unique promise of value provides SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) benefits to the team or organization. For example, “By using my passionate drive for success, our team is empowered to reach our quarterly department goals 1 month ahead of schedule.”
Remember, the diversity that the individual brings to the group does not come at the expense of others but rather empowers the group to reach a common goal. When the group understands how your unique value supports a larger group goal that they are also committed to, you become more memorable and your in-group identity is maintained.
2) “Style-switch” between ‘me’ and ‘we’
Personal branding across cultures requires active “style-switching”. Simply this is looking at a situation and deciding if the emphasis should be on “me” versus “we” and adjusting your approach. For example, if a Japanese team member is meeting with his/her American manager for his/her performance review, then emphasizing individual achievement is expected. In addition, when the American manager complements the Japanese team member, he/she should accept the complement rather then deferring it to the group. On the other hand, if the same team member is meeting with a Japanese customer then switching back to modest and self-effacing language is needed to maintain group harmony.
By following these two tips, you are respecting the “we” while still being “me.”© Japan Today