The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


MARCH 2015

A Wet or Dry Sayonara?

By Dr. Greg Story

President, Dale Carnegie Training Japan

In most Western economies, a work colleague’s farewell is no big deal, just a part of the tapestry of business. If there is some turnover and the recently departed are being replaced, that is considered the natural order, and life moves on.

Managers applying a typical Western business approach to workplace departures in Japan, however, may overlook the need to communicate with staff left behind. Underestimating the emotional component of colleague separations here is a big mistake.

Most Western enterprises are “dry” rather than “wet” ecosystems. Dry workplaces are logical, ordered, efficient, unemotional, competitive, and oriented toward the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest.

Wet offices, meanwhile, are more emotional, nuanced, interdependent, harmonious, inefficient, and more forgiving of human frailties. Japan much prefers wet work environments.

The unexpected announcement of the pending disappearance of a workmate can cause a degree of consternation amongst the troops that is probably not anticipated or even sensed by Western-trained managers. If the bosses are unaware of the issue, there is no imperative for communication regarding the departure.

Even voluntary departures should not be ignored as chances to direct communication among team members. Just because staff departures are no big deal to you, it does not mean that Japanese staff share your dry view of the working world.

Don’t let the rumor mill crank up and the information vacuum become filled with negative messaging. If the departure is voluntary, don’t assume there is no assurance needed for those who remain, so they know that everything is still stable, safe, and predictable.

It is the leader’s job to explain what is going on to each person in the office. Team members want assurance that they are not also going to be shown the door. They may question whether a departing colleague is bailing out early because they know something the others don’t. Assure everyone that there are still oodles of opportunities for them to advance in their careers—or your might see other good staff leave.

If there has been a poor performance issue that is driving a team member’s departure, those staying need to hear that survivors are valued, as well as the reason that person’s departure is the best thing for the organization.

In Japan, the group—not the individual—is key. In this high-density environment, too much individualism is thought to be plain dangerous. The herd feels safety in numbers and in the known. Staff happiness requires as little disruption as possible to the established, harmonious order.

Leaders need to explain what is going on. Three factors determine employee engagement levels in companies: the relationship with an immediate supervisor; a belief in the direction being taken by senior management; and pride in the organization. Departures, when not properly handled, negatively impact all three.

The key emotional trigger to getting higher levels of engagement is feeling valued. Those who are left behind need to have a conversation with their boss to hear that they are valued.

Bone-dry leaders won’t get the message or won’t bother to act on it. Subsequently, they will wonder why the levels of engagement, commitment, innovation, and motivation are so low in their team. To successfully lead in Japan and beat the competition, you need a team that is more highly engaged than your rivals.

When it’s sayonara time, get wet.