Working in Japan: Why are We Bad Followers

This article does not necessarily represent the situation in ALL Japanese companies. (But to a certain extent it does)

At work, we tend to complain a lot about how bad a leader is, no matter a small team leader or an executive much higher up in the rank. There is always something wrong with the leader. So leaders are bad, but have we asked ourselves are we bad followers?

Here, I define bad followers as team players that are not generating a positive impact on the team in achieving the obvious goal, even wasting effort and time that could have been saved. However, it is not uncommon that the most obvious goal might not be the ultimate goal. Most of the time it is the product. But it can also be team harmony, personal growth, self-satisfaction, and others. The ultimate goal is a mixture of all these with different weightings, depending on the company, the leader, the culture, and many other factors.

The following are a few recurring problems that almost turned me into a bad follower on my way to blending into the Japanese work culture.

Photo by Pascal Swier on Unsplash

Never Say No

The most shocking, also intriguing, the knowledge I have earned from my Japanese tutor — It is not okay to say No. When given an impossible task, instead of saying “it is impossible” directly, saying “gan-ba-ri-ma-su” (頑張ります), which means “I will try my best” is more appropriate.

Scenario: During a meeting with an internal client team. They suggested an obviously overwhelming list of features that is no way my team with three people only can achieve by the designated deadline.

Expectation: You simply reply “No, that is not possible. We should discuss and come up with some more possible requirements”. In this way, the client can know what they are going to get and not get by the deadline right at that meeting, and they can understand our team’s resources more and fine-tune their expectation in the future.

Reality: We had to say “Okay we will look at the requirements and come up with the time estimation”. So at the end of the meetings, all requirements are stated as possible. Then we go back and put actual time estimation on the tasks. Finally, we have to schedule another meeting and bring the news to the client. The whole process takes more than a week.

The problem of not being able to deliver direct negation is that we lose the ability to express different levels of disagreement. Any level of negative feedback is wrapped in the same level of positive response. If we can say a strong No to mistakes, we might be able to save time in fixing them and prevent future failure.

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Apologize Too Easily

Apologizing is an inseparable part of Japanese culture. If you happen to travel around Japan, the phrase you heard most is probably su-mi-ma-sen (すみません) or go-men-na-sai (ごめんなさい), which often means “Sorry”. Japanese apologizes a lot but it does not necessarily mean they admit the mistake or think there should be an improvement. Sometimes it is more like a reflex.

Scenario: There was once a very serious delay in my team’s schedule. At the end of the month, we sat down and talked about what happened and looked for ways to avoid the same situation occurs again.

Expectation: At this meeting, we should try to review the work allocation — had we allocated the wrong task to the wrong person, was there any other one better at doing the task, did we make a wrong time estimation. If anyone is not the best fit for his tasks, had we allocated enough time for him to pick up the task.

Reality: There is this one member that only repeatedly claimed it is his own fault because he is not familiar with the topic and lacks the skills to complete the task. One hour in vain and the only outcome from the meeting is he apologizing in many different ways.

Apologizing for the wrong cause is even worse. It masks the actual problem and root cause. An apology should not be the ending, comprehensive solution to fix the problem and precaution to prevent making the same mistake twice are.

Rarely Making Extra Effort

Japan is a country of systems and protocols. For example, the way to decide our salary raise. We set our targets at the start of a fiscal year. Then at the end of the year, we are evaluated solely based on how well we achieved those targets. Simple system, but in another word, we are not rewarded for meeting extra targets.

Scenario: In the software engineering industry, engineers are usually divided into teams for different areas of the product, which requires different specialized skills. Some problems require cross-team effort. Some problems at other teams might require features from our team.

Expectation: We should be aware of what other teams are doing that might affect or be useful to our area. Everyone should know how to use common features. If we are working on a feature that might be useful to other teams, the discussion and execution should be transparent to them as well.

Reality: Everyone only works within their circle. They work around when they see insufficiency in other teams’ features. They develop their own way to realize their feature request instead of understanding and making use of common features. Because their features are only built on top of their own area, those features are not easily understandable by other teams.

The upside is that everyone is very focused on their own tasks. Everyone knows very well about their tasks. Of course, we can argue because it is extra, it is not really necessary. Sure, but I would say understanding and sharing common resources is always more efficient than creating your own from scratch. It also empowers team fluidity because of familiarity.

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Care About “How” Much More Than “Why”

This last point might be controversial.

Nō-hau (ノウハウ), which literally translated from Know-How, is being placed high importance in Japan. Except for its meaning in terms of intellectual property, it can also be seen frequently from personal and team targets to the annual milestone of a company.

Scenario: A few times a year our company sends people to international events in the west, mostly technology-related conferences. When they are back they are required to give a presentation to share the knowledge they gained.

Expectation: Because most conference content is online and translated soon anyway, the presentation should be mainly focused on the insight the employee gained by summarizing the sessions they had been to, workshop they had tried, people they had talked to.

Reality: All the presentations are simply Japanese translations of the sessions. Very little or even no newly added value.

Some leaders prefer their followers to be very good at know-how, and the leader himself will take care of know-why. I personally do not favor this approach because without a thorough understanding of the reason for a certain task, the possible methods for the execution are also limited. Knowing how gets you fast, knowing why gets you far.

As I said in the beginning, these are usually only harmful in achieving the obvious goal. The fact is most of my colleagues have very good hard skills and so far every team I have stayed in have a very harmonic atmosphere.

The goal here is to understand, to learn, to improve. We as foreigners have learned from Japanese’s attention to detail, master craftsmanship, pursuit of perfection. Maybe they can also learn a thing or two from other cultures. For example, if directly saying no is inappropriate, instead of giving up the ability to deliver instant opposition, maybe we can think of something else that can serve the same purpose. Cultural difference is one thing. The willingness to overcome that barrier and find the best out of one’s own culture is another.

In Japan, some companies fully adopt a more western-like work culture, there are companies that group foreigners into an isolated team, and there are companies that try to blend the best of the west and the east. The last one is the most difficult, but I think if it is done right, in long term it is the most beneficial to the employee and the company.

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