The Japanese are famous for having learnt, over many centuries, how to get along with others. High-density living in the modern era and village communal agricultural activities in the past have both seeded probably the best example of how to have a complex, but low-friction society.
Arguments, fights and road rage do occur, but compared with anywhere else with such a population pressure cooker, Japan doesn’t even rate as a contender for worst practice. The concepts of tatemae, or publicly displayed opinions and feelings, and honne, or actual feelings, are a big part of creating that harmonious environment.
Of course, as foreigners, we initially struggle with this separation of the real world and the imagined world. It can seem that Japanese people can be two faced—saying one thing, but doing another. Being the bearer of bad news rarely becomes an issue in Japan, because no one ever delivers it. No shooting the messenger here, because people have learnt to be extremely circumspect about how much they tell others and how they tell it. The language is an admirable tool for this because it is excellent for being vague.
Western society does the same thing, but we tend to notice it more here. In your home country, if your father-in-law has been on a “see-food diet” (see food and eat it), but asks if you think he has lost weight, you are likely to plunge right into a tatemae answer that will tell him what he wants to hear. No unvarnished truth that he is obese and there is no difference from the last time you saw him, which would be the honne. So we do it in our cultures as well, but Japan has institutionalised it.
Being indirect, vague and circuitous are all admirable traits for Japanese communicators. Meanwhile, rude, unrepentant and bombastic Westerners—card-carrying members of the “tell it like it is” society—have trouble with what they see as duplicitous behaviour. What do you do when people won’t tell you the truth? How can you lead an organisation when you don’t know what is going on, and when bad news only leaks out when all efforts to hide it have failed? How can people be held accountable when you can’t count on them to adhere to the internal rules around transparency?
Lessons for the boss
It gets worse, of course, when you are the boss. Any boss, in almost any culture, will be getting served up some form of tatemae, simply because they are the boss. People tell you what they think you want to hear, as a means of sucking up to you for some possible advantage or to avoid your wrath if it all goes the wrong way. There are plenty of killed messengers in the Western world, and we have all learnt that that role is one to avoid whenever possible. Japan just takes the level of mastery up a couple of notches.
As the boss, if we can’t rely on those who work for us to speak up, how do we get to the bottom of what is going on? We have a few options available to us. Find a confidant who is plugged into what is really going on and can tell you the truth. But be careful of the “gaijin handler”, the English-speaking Japanese staff member who uses their communication facility to get close to power. They are often there to feed you what others want you to know, make sure you don’t find out too much, and keep an eye on you.
A better method is to be a great boss who people can trust and will not feel fear whenever they have to talk truth to power. You might imagine that is you already.
Wasn’t it you who erupted when the target achievement was poor or the deadline was missed or someone did something dumb? Everyone is watching the boss like a hawk. How does the boss react to bad news? What happens when the pressure is really on? Does that bon vivant boss become a monster? Keeping calm, no matter what, takes courage, patience and practice.
Building a personal relationship of trust with staff means making time available for them. The boss who can’t manage their time and can’t delegate is just a leaf being blown around by the wind of busyness. They can’t coach and can’t create real relationships because they don’t have the time. So make the time and get busy working on time management and delegation skills. Work on your communication skills.
Make the time to talk with the staff. Find out what motivates them and become their assistant to make what they want happen. Back them, praise them, support them and good things start to happen. Create staff members who feel empowered by you. Make them feel valued in a sincere way. Make time to communicate with them and build relationships.
Dr Greg Story is president of Dale Carnegie Training Japan.
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