By Eric Barton
“You shut up!” the man at the head of the table yelled. Everyone stopped and stared at Keiko Sakurai, who immediately realised what she had done wrong.
This was years ago, when Sakurai was a junior accountant at a large firm in Japan. The man was her client, an executive from a power company who was in his 40s. And by traditional Japanese protocols — respecting your elders, showing deference to the more senior worker — she knew he could justify raising his voice at her.
Even though I was right, I still did not have the position to contradict him – Keiko Sakurai
The man had been criticising Sakurai’s accounting methods over drinks after work, at a table of their colleagues. Sakurai defended herself, explaining that her practices were sound. The man kept complaining. So Sakurai noted that her methods followed the contract.
“That’s when he shouted at me,” Sakurai recalled. “I broke the rules of hierarchy, and I contradicted my elder. Even though I was right, I still did not have the position to contradict him.”
It didn’t matter that Sakurai’s methods were sound or that the man approved of the vast majority of Sakurai’s work. In the traditional Japanese workplace hierarchy, positive feedback is largely unheard of.
If you don’t hear from your Japanese manager, you’re doing well
Business in Japan plays by its own distinct set of rules from Western countries and even other Asian nations. For managers going to work in Japan for the first time, the correct manner of providing feedback can cause consternation. So, forget what you’ve learned about how to review employees.
Traditionally, the Japanese language had no word for feedback because it just wasn’t something that anybody did, says Sharon Schweitzer, CEO of Protocol and Etiquette Worldwide, and an expert on how managers can assimilate in foreign countries. So they had to make up a word, fīdobakku.
Yet, it’s still simply not something that’s done. “If you don’t hear from your Japanese manager, you’re doing well,” Schweitzer says. “If your manager asks for an update on your project, that means you’re not doing well.”
It’s a process called hou-ren-sou and it involves subordinates sending their boss emails, all day long
Managers in Japan aren’t likely to ask for an update because employees are expected to constantly provide them. It’s a process called hou-ren-sou and it involves subordinates sending their boss emails, all day long, about when they’re going to lunch, the percentage of the project they’ve finished, when they’re taking a coffee break, everything.
For foreign managers, the temptation may be to reply with accolades, congratulating them on finishing 32% of the project. But don’t, Schweitzer cautions. “If you reply and tell them good job, you will lose face and they will lose face. Just say thank you or don’t reply at all.”
Thinking like a foreign manager, you might be wondering if the answer is annual reviews. But one-on-one sit-downs with the boss to discuss performance are just not done, says Taro Fukuyama, a native of Japan and CEO of AnyPerk, a start-up offering services to improve employee happiness at work.