The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

As multinationals with Japan offices scramble to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, cultural clashes and misunderstandings are bound to crop up even more than usual between senior managers, who are often Western, and local Japanese staff. That can undermine team cohesion and performance at a time when unity is needed most.

Foreign managers are going to implement a corporate culture that may seem natural to them, “but Japanese staffers may have different expectations about what leadership looks like in a crisis,” said Royanne Doi, who teaches a course on cross-cultural leadership at Hitotsubashi University and is a member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Corporate Governance Task Force.

In fact, the spike in stress can even cause foreign managers familiar with Japan—and who pride themselves on being culturally sensitive—to make rookie mistakes, experts say. “When we are busy and distracted, we are not at the top of our cross-cultural game, and problems can and will occur at precisely the moment we can’t afford them,” said Leland Gaskins, author of Step Up: Overcoming Cross-Cultural Differences Between Japanese and Western Businesspeople.

The ACCJ Journal spoke with several chamber members and other longtime Japan experts to get their insights on potential pitfalls facing Western managers as well as their tips and best practices—practical and philosophical—to help navigate this unfolding crisis.

During the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent nuclear disaster, people banded together to overcome the tragedy. But this crisis differs from many in the past in that we need to create distance between people to reduce the spread of the virus. This is difficult in any culture, but especially in the Japanese work context, where togetherness, teamwork, and showing dedication to a common goal are highly prized.

In American culture, people are more comfortable operating individually. But in Japan, working from home can leave many feeling isolated and rudderless—something Western managers may not fully appreciate, the experts said.

That can have a big impact on emotional well-being. “What we know about neuroscience and the brain is that social distress—being pushed out of your group—lights up the same part of the brain as physical pain. So, social distress can be as painful as a slap in the face. Social pain is real pain—as real as physical pain,” said Doi, who is passionate about the intersection of employee ethical behavior and neuroscience.

Effective communication—always a top priority for leaders in a crisis—therefore plays a particularly critical role in over­coming those distances in this emergency.

In a nutshell, leaders need to provide both direction and reas­surance, addressing employees’ practical and psycho­logical needs: “Clear guidance and a message of hope,” said David Wagner, who heads his own media strategy and crisis communication company in Tokyo. “People need to feel hope.”

Or, stated a bit differently, the leader’s role in a crisis is two-fold: providing strategy—where we’re going and why we’re doing it—and looking after the people, said Dr. Greg Story, president of Dale Carnegie Training Japan. “You need to have broad brushstrokes of direction and giving people hope, reaching out to them individually.”

But communication is also more complicated in this crisis because it’s mostly not in person, which is the context Japanese prefer because it allows them to build trust and “read the air”—meaning to assess the speaker’s body language and the reactions of others in the group. All of that is much more difficult when communicating by video, phone, chats, or email.

To overcome those gaps and sense of isolation, “overcom­munication is better than undercommunication,” said Jesper Koll, senior advisor at Wisdom Tree Japan, who daily checks in with the eight members of his Tokyo office. His company’s chief executive officer also holds a weekly town hall-style video call with global employees. “To make everybody part of the team, you need to go out of your way to open up and include absolutely everybody.”

Western managers will probably need to contact Japanese staffers more than they would in their home countries. It may seem like micromanaging, but Japanese team members may expect and even want it, said Gaskins. “I’ve seen situations where what seems like an appropriate level of communication and oversight to a Western manager is perceived by a Japanese colleague as being ignored or neglected,” he said.

Still, managers need to be careful not to be too task-oriented; they need to be asking how their employees and their families are doing as human beings.

And at a time when people feel a loss of control, managers can focus employees’ attention on things they can control: their work and shared goals. This can make them feel that they are contributing to something larger than themselves and will boost their sense of teamwork, which is particularly important in the Japanese context. “When you can focus people on shared goals, it makes them feel like they’re part of a team,” Doi said.

Some understanding of how our brains can react to the coro­na­virus outbreak is helpful, said Doi. This crisis scares us on many levels and can hijack the limbic system, starting with the amygdala—the region of our brain that activates the fight-or-flight instinct when we feel threatened.

In fact, Doi points out, this pandemic pulls all five levers in our psyche identified in NeuroLeadership Institute Co-founder David Rock’s model known as SCARF (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness). SCARF is one way of measuring the threat or reward responses that we rely on for survival. In particular, Covid-19 rattles us in the areas of certainty (our ability to predict the future), autonomy (our sense of control over events), and relatedness (connections with others).

“So, flip it on its head, what smart leaders do to calm people down is to provide as much certainty and autonomy as possible,” Doi said.

Managers can address certainty by creating expectations around communication routines. “Even if you don’t have the answers, you can say as a leader, ‘I will communicate with you twice a week,’” she said. And Story recommends keeping rituals such as morning meetings or creating an afternoon coffee time that anyone can join.

Autonomy can be addressed by helping employees feel like they have some control over an otherwise chaotic situation, Doi said. One way to do that is giving workers choices about how and when they want to conduct their work remotely. “Even in a Japanese or very controlled environment, you can help your employees feel like they have choices,” she said.

Put another way, empower your employees to come up with solutions to problems, or ideas for connecting scattered staffers, said Koll. One idea proposed from New York that has been surprisingly popular among Wisdom Tree employees has been virtual yoga sessions conducted over Zoom.

“It may seem like a silly thing, but it worked very well,” Koll said. “You need to find ways to empower your team, whether it’s the mailperson or the newly hired associate or veteran partner. Just empower everybody to come up with ideas to keep the company together.”

It is important that messages are clear and concise, said Wagner, and, if possible, present an expected timeline so employees have some idea of what the coming weeks will hold. Managers should also highlight that everyone needs to be flexible and policies may change—something that Japanese will likely respond to well given their desire to adjust to the group’s greater goals.

“Make implicit things explicit,” said Doi. “People are guessing, making assumptions based on their cultural background. So, if you want to add certainty to your employee’s life, you want to make things more explicit. If you assume everybody knows, that leads to confusion.”

In a recent episode that highlights this, Doi, who mentors dozens of people, said she was consulted by two individuals—a Japanese mid-level manager and his direct report, a twenty-something American—on opposite sides of a disagreement over how to handle this crisis.

The young staffer wanted to immediately know the com­pany’s policy on remote working and suggested the boss inform clients about it. But he didn’t respond right away. Instead, he asked headquarters for its direction on the matter. His apparent inaction frustrated the American Millennial.

Doi, a Japanese-American who has lived in Japan since 1994, could understand both sides and gave them each some advice. She urged the young American to slow down and recognize that decision-making usually takes more time in Japan than in the West.

She told the Japanese manager that it is helpful to commu­nicate openly and promptly with the entire team, even if he doesn’t have a clear answer. “The Japanese boss failed to make the implicit explicit—to say that he was waiting to hear from the home office,” Doi said. “He just assumed that his staff would know that he wasn’t setting policy by himself.”

And when you reach out, don’t forget to address the team’s anxiety, she told him: “Don’t be inauthentic, but, within your own leadership style, try to acknowledge their feelings and express some hopefulness.”

Jesper Koll: “Empower everybody to come up with ideas to keep the company together.”

Obviously, language and culture are hurdles that can muddle messages. Even if a Japanese person is working at an interna­tional company, they will tend to operate according to normal Japanese social dynamics. So, Western managers need to adjust their communication style to connect with their local staff, the experts said.

For example, Japanese are generally more indirect and formal in the way they communicate than Americans, and also tend to take more time to think over their responses before speaking—especially if they are operating in a second language, Wagner said.

And if communication occurs via video conference, that adds yet another filter. When speaking face-to-face, people can pick up from cues that the other person doesn’t understand. That’s much more difficult on video, said Story. “In the virtual environment, you need to be checking for understanding a lot more.”

But when doing so, Story says Japanese generally don’t respond very well to direct questions such as, “Do you agree with me?” What generally works better is an indirect approach, such as acknowledging that you don’t know everything and asking for their input about things that need to be considered. This shows that you value their input, he said.

Managers may want to carefully consider who is the best messenger during these times—and it may not be them, Wagner said. Having someone with charisma is nice, but, most of all, you want a person who is perceived as trustworthy and transparent. In Japanese companies, the messenger is typically the head of the unit or company, but that person may not be a good communicator. A better candidate may be a “sleeper”—someone who may not be in a senior role but is gifted in connecting with the target audience, he said.

Also, video as a medium can be tricky and will accentuate flaws in anyone’s presentation style. Mediocre communicators in person become “magnificently poor communicators in a virtual environment,” said Story.

Another seemingly minor issue on video calls—the time lag between when the speaker talks and when the audio reaches the listener—can also create problems. Westerners are typically uncomfortable with gaps in conversations and try to fill the silence, giving their Japanese counterparts little time to think or respond. “You’ve got to learn to shut up and let them hear what you’re saying,” Story added.

Podcasting is a key part of Dr. Greg Story’s approach to communication and is especially helpful when people are working remote.

Western expats may live in large accommodations with many rooms, but they need to realize that most of their Japanese staff don’t—and that working from home can be stressful. Children are also at home due to school closures, and it may be hard to find a quiet place to concentrate or take video calls, Story said.

“You may be thinking your team is pumping out the work, but, in reality, they’re working under a lot of stress,” he said. “It’s noisy and they get interrupted. Our expectations about productivity have to be tempered.”

Many foreign executives simply don’t have a view of their Japanese employees’ lifestyles and how difficult this time is for them, said Nancy Ngou, an associate partner at EY Advisory and Consulting and ACCJ Governor. “Many colleagues share their daily challenges: no daycare, spouse and young children all home together, both working and ensuring kids are doing schoolwork, all in a small space,” she said. “It’s just not as easy. Having proper space to work is a big challenge, let alone a quiet space for conference calls.”

Japanese generally have great reserves of gaman, or dogged perse­verance to get through trials—a huge positive in these circumstances. “Japanese have the ability to gaman and tolerate more than Americans do, in my experience,” said Wagner. “They have a lot of experience with crises­—especially earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons. Japanese are raised on crises.”

But decision-making in Japan—and therefore crisis-mana­gement—is generally slower than in the West, largely because of the need for consensus-building. Western managers may become frustrated by this and independently make decisions they expect everyone to follow. It may go down much better if they do some nema-washi, or consensus-building, among key players before making public announcements, Wagner said.

However, once the decision is made, implementation in Japan is usually rapid, he said. “America is the opposite. It takes a short time to make a decision, but implementation takes a long time.”

Seeking to do the right thing and being sensitive to cultural norms can be tricky, as reflected in another recent case in which a young Japanese woman reached out to Doi for advice.

The foreign boss of her small office decided that, absent a mandatory lockdown order from the government, everyone would continue to come into the office for work. The manager made this decision because a couple of employees had jobs that essentially could not be done from home. So that it was seen as fair, everyone should come in, Doi was told.

The young woman was worried about catching the virus in the small office and so was considering quitting. When she discovered that company policy allowed her to take unpaid leave at home, Doi counseled her to first try that—and show her boss how much she could accomplish even if she wasn’t being paid. “Be twice as efficient, show him that it’s possible not to lose any productivity,” she said.

Doi cautioned the young employee not to judge her boss too harshly, because she didn’t know what sort of pressures he was under. And the decision can’t be pinned on his foreignness; he was probably trying to do the right thing. “Maybe he had an experience in the past where Japanese people were very concerned about fairness,” she said. “You don’t know his situ­ation. You don’t know if he can’t make payroll or if he has a sick mother dying.”

Assume that everyone is doing the best they can, Doi said.

Interaction with clients and partners is another dimension to business in Japan that requires patience and understanding during this epidemic.

As the crisis has unfolded, multinational companies in Japan have generally been quicker to shift to teleworking than domestic ones. This may be partly because many aren’t set up for remote work. A 2018 government survey showed that only 19 percent of companies had teleworking systems in place. The coronavirus is surely driving change in that area.

That means many Japanese businesses aren’t necessarily familiar with using video software such as Skype, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams. This has made it difficult to hold virtual meetings or training sessions, said EY’s Ngou. “Just getting one client set up to use a digital tool for a training session—both technologically and due to their information security policies—took a lot of time. Then, during the training, getting each person in the tool and settled, took time from the session and made the training more difficult. On the positive side, next time should be easier.”

Over the past few weeks, as Wisdom Tree has shifted to video client meetings, Koll said that, often, there were a couple of people in the room of Japanese clients who had never done a video conference before.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on face-to-face meetings is so strong here that some Japanese clients still want to meet in person, despite authorities urging everyone to minimize gatherings, Ngou said. “One Japanese leader keeps putting off a time-sensitive discussion because he wants to meet in person,” she said. “But we can’t put it off anymore.”

As a result, decisions are being delayed, Ngou said. “It’s such a high-context culture. Many times, individuals want to see the person in order to read each other.”

Will Covid-19 force Japanese to embrace online meetings?

For many businesses, this slowdown offers opportunities to tackle projects that improve the company’s structural effi­ciency—such as installing trading systems or updating data­bases—but are difficult to execute during the normal busy-ness.

“This is a great time for that,” said Koll, whose company is integrating its client databases in Tokyo, London, and New York. “Normally, when you try to do that, you are kind of trying to fix a car driving 100 miles per hour. Now the car is going 20 miles per hour, so you can fix these things. You also have the IT capacity to do that.”

This can give workers a concrete project to focus on and a sense of purpose—they’re working toward a future goal that will help the company after the crisis passes.

“We’ll never get this much time and availability of staff to do this type of work in our lifetimes,” Story said. “Once things warm up, we’ll all be too busy again.”

Riffing off the Japanese business concept of kaizen—steady, continuous, incremental improvement—Koll says, “Now is the time for turbocharged kaizen. How can I turn a crisis into an opportunity?”

Malcolm Foster is a freelance journalist who has been covering Japan for more than a decade.
Social distress—being pushed out of your group—lights up the same part of the brain as physical pain.