The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Peter Drucker (1909–2005) had this great quote. “Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.” In this modern day and age, why do we still encounter these three horsemen of the apocalypse of organizational dysfunction? Each signals its own raft of challenges, magnified even further when operating in Japan.

Friction is a tricky one for foreign bosses in Japan because so often it is subterranean. Power struggles, factions, proxies, turf, ego all come into play here—but not so overtly. Influence is more often achieved through access to key people than over the bodies of enemies. Apart from bosses disciplining subordinates, screaming abuse at colleagues isn’t acceptable in Japan. More than anything else, the problem here is getting the issues out on the table for resolution.

The age-old remedy of out-of-office discussions is usually where the boss finds out what is really going on, as opposed to what was thought to be happening. It is highly unlikely staff will seek out the gaijin boss and download the skullduggery going on, so you have to unearth it yourself. That is only half the battle; now what do you do about it?

The typical stance of getting the two people in a room and telling them to sort it out may work in the West, but it won’t work here. We need to really dig out the issues and manage the resolution process, paying careful attention to those spurious “yes” statements, which indicate “I heard you” but don’t mean “I agree with you.”

This ensures that the follow-up is critically important to making sure that the solution is actually executed and everyone is doing what they said they would do. Undermining, backsliding, artful misinterpreting of what was agreed, untrue communication gap excuses, willful disobedience—expect the whole gamut.

Confusion is usually the result of unclear processes and unclear communication. Japanese language is a big culprit, because in the hands of native speakers it is genius at leaving things vague. Having a process and having a common understanding of the process is not the same thing. In the same vein, common sense is not common, and the unaccounted-for action is often the killer of project success. So we need to spell out the process, in detail, and we need to check for understanding. Expecting the next logical step to be logical to everyone else is too bold. Giving specific instructions, micro-managing the details, and checking back (ad nauseam) is often the minimum required.

Underperformance is usually a factor of skill or motivation gaps. Skill gaps can generally be closed through providing training, mentoring, and coaching. Motivation, though, is a lot harder. This is often a systemic problem, starting at the top. The senior leaders determine the culture of the organization. If the atmosphere is to defer to seniority by rank and age, then don’t expect too much innovation to occur anytime soon. If middle management only understands the two tools of “what” and “how”—and don’t have “why” in their explanation toolbox—expect merely passive compliance. It boils down to “why be creative when you don’t care?”

Latching on to the “why care” drivers is critical if we want to move forward and succeed in the market, the latter brimming with competitors. Three things drive engagement. Firstly, the relationship with the immediate supervisor—trust and communication are paramount. Secondly, the belief by those at the bottom that those at the top actually know what they are doing requires middle management to cascade down the top group’s “why.” Thirdly, pride in the organization necessitates a one-team approach, rather than a self-obsessed, internally oriented power struggle. This is why we talk about leadership at all levels; we need alignment and agreement on what it is we need to do, how we need to do it, and what success looks like.

As Drucker pointed out, leaders need to lead; but often in Japan they rotate through positions in the organization, never making any significant decisions, avoiding as many initiatives as possible, and keeping their heads down anticipating a cushy retirement. This is why we love working in Japan—never a dull moment.


It is quite interesting that our clients come from just about every industry you can imagine, but we notice there are some common requests for improving team performance.

The four most popular areas are leadership, communications, sales, and presentations. Although we started in New York in 1912, in Japan we deliver 90% of our training in Japanese. Also, having launched here in Tokyo 53 years ago, we have been able to master how to bring global best practices, together with the required degree of localization, to Japan. You’re the boss. Are you fully satisfied with your current results?

If not, and you would like to see higher skill and performance levels in your organization (through training delivered in Japanese or English), drop us a brief note at