Make Business Culture Differences a Strength for Global Teams in Japan

A summary from the Tokyo Chapter on February 24, 2016.

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Mar 04, 2016

For international assignees, it can be a struggle to be transposed into a foreign environment, with different ways of thinking and dealing with critical situations. This is why a lot of expatriates coming to Japan for business purpose receive a cultural training beforehand. But what about the local employees who have the (unspoken) responsibility to make the new assignee feel comfortable and integrated in his new team? Actually, very few receive information and training about the differences in the way foreigners communicate, resolve issues, evolve in the work space or try to socialize with colleagues.

How little these differences may be, if their meaning is misunderstood ten hours per day for several months, they can become a serious problem for a global team… We don’t count anymore the cases where business culture differences in Japan conducted to a premature departure of the assignee.

With this perspective, FEM Tokyo invited last February 24th Jon Lynch (CEO of Tsunago, director of J-global institute) and Heike Geiling (Founder and CEO of Beyond Global Mindset), who both have a long experience dealing with cultural differences in a business environment, and now help companies to turn these differences into strengths in their team.

Without speaking too much about Japanese long business hours (which doesn’t apply everywhere and tend to be reduced), it is not difficult to spot great differences in the way we, foreigners and Japanese, behave in the work space.

You will find a typical Japanese business speech meeting very polite, with respectful attitude and nothing else than professional topics (better restraining yourself from asking your business appointment how was his week-end). Meetings can reunite many members, with sometimes an unclear purpose of “information sharing”, perceived as a loss of time and slow decision making process for many expatriates. Things are much different with Indians, Americans, and Europeans who tend to have a friendly, clear and persuasive speech, in order to find a personal connection with their fellow. Asking personal questions during a meeting is not rare. They love 3-5 people meeting with quick decision making and brainstorming sessions.

So who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Well, it shouldn’t be the question, and blaming each other only contributes to reinforce a frustration feeling that will motivates a premature departure of the assignee within 1-2 years…A huge loss of money, time and resource for the sending company.

According to Jon Lynch and Heike Geiling, it is very important to acknowledge in which dimensions these differences occur:

  • Should the psychological distance which separates you from your superior be short or long ?
  • Should things be told in a clear manner for everybody to understand (low context)? Or should things be known by all from the beginning, without being said (high context)?
  • Should we prefer risks or safe paths?
  • Should decisions be made on a short term or long term vision?
  • Which of the individual itself or the team should be the most rewarded?
  • What should be the presence and role of women in the business environment?

Reading these 6 points, you were probably able to see the main differences between your vision of an ideal business environment and the one of your Japanese workmate. You were also probably able to see on which points you agree.

All in all, pointing out business culture differences shouldn’t just be used as a justification for the failure of an assignment. On the contrary, acknowledging the differences allows to find where the main gaps are, how you can fill them little by little, while still putting forward your similitudes.

For more information about the business culture differences that occurs in a Japanese multicultural business environment, please visit & contact:

J-Global institute

Beyond Global Mindset

To join the Tokyo FEM community and next events, please email Milena Osika (FEM Tokyo Chapter Lead).

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Milena OSIKA

Business Developer, Sterling Japan

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