Working in Japan: How to Propose Changes to Your Japanese Boss

In recent years, Japanese companies have increasingly hired more and more foreigners. The government has also alleviated the hurdle for foreigners to obtain permanent residence. Gradually, foreigners are not just a good-to-have supplement, we are playing a bigger role in workplace. Except from contributing our hard skills, many of us also find our soft skills and the different working style useful.

In my last article — Working in Japan: Why are We Bad Followers, I looked into the several differences, managerial or teamwork related, in work culture that are harmful to achieving team goals. Facing these differences, there are usually 3 types of approach.

The Accept-er: We accept what it is. We understand there is something not working as we expected. We prefer to let things stay as it is rather than putting extra effort into changing something that is very unlikely to change or require immense effort.

The Blend-er: We are the one striving to blend into the culture. We are able to find the uniqueness and advantages in the Japanese working style. We feel comfortable in following their usual practice. In addition, we usually speak fluent Japanese.

The Change-r: We want to change the current situation. We notice flaws or misbehavior that can possibly improve productivity if fixed properly. We want to contribute in making a better environment for not just ourselves or our team, but eventually everyone.

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This article will be focused on how a Change-r can effectively deliver the changes they want to bring upon their team. I am going to go through each step with my own real life experience as in 2 past attempts, one succeeded and one failed.

Case 1: Communication

Communication between my team and an internal client team is ineffective and insufficient. As a result, schedule is inaccurate and teammates are overloaded. Client are not getting what they expected.

Case 2: Meetings

Meetings are ill-formed. They are more like casual chitchats than meetings. No proper agenda, no proper minutes, no proper person to control the flow of the meeting.

Steps as follows:

Step 1: Understand

The first step consists of a few realizations. It also captures the reason why we cannot just reach out to our boss directly and ask for change.

  • Understand that in Japan age matters a lot, years of experience are required to arrive managerial position
  • Understand we want to change something that has been “working” for their full career, maybe up to decades
  • Understand we are trying to change something that our boss do not necessarily think there is a need to change
  • Understand team harmony might be placed more importance than productivity in Japan, the change we want to achieve might not benefit both
  • Understand even the current Japan is more friendly to other cultures, our boss likely comes from the time when things were different, and very likely they cannot understand English
  • Understand our boss might not have interacted with other culture before and he knows almost nothing about how things could work otherwise
  • Understand not every boss have management training before, it might just because his age or his last project’s success granted him a promotion

Therefore, proposing a change would never be as easy as we had experienced in our own country. That is why we need to put extra effort into strategizing our way to propose a change.

Step 2: Start Small

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Pick a sub-problem, confine the scope small enough it is easy to change. This is not only for the sake of easier execution, it is also more psychologically friendly. Japanese take great pride in their work. Proposing many massive changes at once might feels like we are denying the success of our boss. It just does not feel good.

Case 1: Ineffective communication

Instead of proposing more structured meetings or more direct information exchange, I started with targeting only the unrealistic schedule, which is the product of miscommunication.

Case 2: Ill-formed meetings

Instead of educating my boss how an effective meeting should be held with what kind of tools, I started with something very small — a proper agenda and minutes.

Step 3: Involve

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If we think there should be a change, there must be a problem we want to fix. For any problem, there is consequence. As explained in the first step, very likely the change we are proposing is trying to fix a problem that has never existed in their eyes. So, involve our colleagues and our boss in the consequences.

Case 1: Overloaded tasks

I asked for help from my boss to be in-charge of one of the major tasks. Quickly enough, once he started working on it and the client team repeatedly urging, he realized the task schedule is unrealistic.

Case 2: Proper agenda and minutes

I asked my boss questions about discussed items in previous meetings for clarification. Within several attempts, we found out conclusion that we and the client team made differently.

Step 4: Do-it-yourself (partially)

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If the change is something that you could actually participate in, you should try introduce it gradually by yourself. Gradually, do not force it. This is also a good chance to see if your change can actually work and benefit the team. If not, do not hesitate to retract.

Case 1: Task Estimation

I spent a full day to estimate everyone’s tasks by breaking down into smaller and more specific tasks. Also create more sub-tasks if the requirement from the client team is not defined properly.

Case 2: Agenda and minutes

I wrote the agenda and minutes myself. Following basic template, list who, when, where, what, estimated time for each topics, action items, time spent, etc. Easy enough.

Step 5: Follow-up

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The last step is to remind our boss all the steps we have done and let him compare. In Japan, because who is the final decision maker and who takes up what responsibility are not always well defined, all kinds of decision are usually made by the boss himself only. If our boss disagrees, we should then decide whether to give up or keep trying by focusing on another sub-problem.

Case 1: Succeed

At a biweekly progress review meeting, I asked again which approach on task estimation he prefers now and asks for his permission to carry on the same method from now on. He agreed and everyone is happy now.

Case 2: Failed

For that few meetings, there is less off-track discussion and conclusions are recorded clearly. At one point I stopped writing the agenda and minutes for my boss. My boss reverted to the old way and all the consequences came back — forgetting about what to discuss, having a misunderstood conclusion, overrunning with random topics. And I gave up.

Sadly, the fact is all these steps cannot guarantee a successful attempt. Personality of our boss varies. Some of them might be more open to suggestion from foreigners. Some of them might not. I had seen my foreigner colleague being disliked because he is too aggressive in trying to introduce change to the team, which all the proposals he had were in a way not wrong.

This is not just a guide to empower you to (hopefully) successfully deliver changes. This is also a reminder that when you fail to make changes, you should not be frustrated and understand making change is never easy, especially in Japan. The key is to self-reflect. Because managerial and teamwork related changes are hard to prove right, constantly checking if it aligns with our original purpose and give up when it is not are more important than accomplishing the change itself.

Being an Accept-er, a Blend-er or a Change-r is not a one-off decision, it is flexible and can be interchanged according to our working environment, our boss and colleagues, the duration we have stayed in Japan and many other factors. We should be comfortable switching between approaches, sometimes we take a more active role in helping the team transforms into something better, sometimes we focus on our work more and let the world flows around us. And there is nothing wrong about it.

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