The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

“Not my circus, not my monkeys.” This Polish proverb made me smile. It’s a handy phrase for whenever the needle on the “ridiculous meter” is hitting red and overloading. While it serves as a great smarty-pants one-liner, it actually invites some reflection on the difficulty of getting people and teams to work together.

Another great zinger is the “not invented here” attitude of disinterest, when you are trying to introduce change into organizations.

Reflecting on working in small project teams and big divisions, as well as across divisions, and ultimately across industry sectors, this “not my circus” disclaimer pops up all the time. It is funny, but painful.

Japan throws up a number of challenges around getting cooperation or innovation when it is not that person’s “circus,” not their direct responsibility. The social ramifications of failing or making a mistake in Japan are such that people have become geniuses at micro-defining their roles and responsibilities.

A hoary old tradition of Japanese bosses practising “tough love”, lambasting subordinates for errors and shortcomings, has had a salutary effect on subsequent generations, driving them deep into their comfort zones.

Keeping a low profile, never volunteering, favoring group responsibility over individual accountability, carefully drawing and defending boundaries around the scope of one’s job, are some of the outcomes. This is not terribly helpful if we seek cooperation and innovation across our teams.

In any organization, anywhere, we get issues between sales and marketing, sales and production, the back office and production, IT versus everyone, etc. Japan just manages to take it to another level of sophistication, hence my smile when reading about circuses and monkeys.

So what can we do about it? Here are some proven principles to improve cooperation and up the “care factor.” By the way, we know all this stuff; we just forget to do it.

“Arouse in the other person an eager want.” We become so preoccupied with what we want; we are blind to the perspective of the person whose cooperation we seek.

Our Western communications skills are often skewed to strength of will; to pummel the other party into submission to our predilections, rather than through persuasion.

A handy related principle is “talk in terms of the other person’s interests.” If we do that, then the understanding improves and the likelihood of getting their cooperation and ownership for a task goes up dramatically.

Aligning our mutual interests is a winner and the way to do that is to “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”

Wait…check yourself—when you want cooperation, are you babbling on about what you want and why it is important to you? No wonder we get the response of “not my circus” or the reaction of “not invented here”.

When we really listen to others, we can find more points in common and construct a better base on which to build a joint effort. The word “listening” glides easily across this page, but real listening takes serious work. Are we actually good at listening? Be honest—usually we are rubbish and all need to improve in this area.

Two principles that work well in tandem are: “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view,” and “Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.”

The latter idea is not about manipulating people. Rather, when we have a sense of their situation, values, aspirations, fears and concerns, we are better able to find the most convincing argument to support a line of action.

We can frame the context of the decision in a way that they can more easily identify with. If we give people a big enough WHY, the WHAT and the HOW flow naturally.

The power of that context, that WHY, is often so strong they recognize it themselves and come to their own conclusion, which agrees with ours. That is good communication and persuasion, not brute force or skullduggery.

All of us are being driven to do more, faster, with less. Cooperation, ownership, accountability, and innovation can be won—use these principles and enjoy the payoff.