Steven's Blog

Sense, Not Sensitivity

The greatest impediment to success in international business is cultural sensitivity. Yes, that’s right. Now take a moment to vent your outrage if you need to, and bear with me. It is not cultural sensitivity but rather cultural sense-making that you want, and these are not the same thing. Don’t get me wrong. I am no xenophobe. It is good to make yourself an expert in a foreign language or another country’s culture. However, there is a difference between using your expertise to adapt to the culture around you, as opposed to changing it.

The goal of cultural sensitivity is to be “sensitive” to cultural differences so you can modulate your behavior to conform to the culture around you. Cultural sense-making is the opposite. You seek out cultural commonalities in order to change the behaviors of others. With cultural sense-making, you act on the culture. With cultural sensitivity, the culture acts on you.

If you are a culturally sensitive leader of a company in Japan, you will you conclude that you cannot just hire, fire, and promote people as you are accustomed, and must adapt your management methods to Japanese culture. Companies in Japan are different. Many have lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion systems, rather than merit-based systems common elsewhere. Loyalty over time will be rewarded with promotion on a predictable schedule as long as an employee commits no major errors. Japanese managers are thus notoriously averse to risk, no matter how remote, and will be tentative when a Western manager would be decisive.

The culturally sensitive leader in Japan is patient with change. Push for change too hard and too fast, and you will sow dissension in the ranks. Promote a top performer over a mediocre manager who is his or her senior, you will be a radical attacking Japan’s societal order. Fire someone, and you will have committed a crime of catastrophic proportions. All will mistrust you, blacklist your company among graduate candidates for employment, make your suppliers and customers question their relationship with your company, and perhaps even instigate staff resignations en masse. Woe is the culturally insensitive leader.

The culturally sensitive leader becomes tentative, even in decisions of strategic import, considering all the possible cultural ramifications before committing to a move. He or she will begin to behave like the most risk-averse Japanese managers, who at first were baffling, and become indistinguishable from them. He or she will explain to executives in headquarters how Japan has to be treated differently from operations elsewhere in the world, and expectations for the Japan business must be modulated. He or she becomes the company’s resident Japanologist—or perhaps more accurately, the company’s resident Japan apologist. Some executives will begin to suspect you have gone native and it is time to recall you back home before they lose you completely. This is where cultural sensitivity leads, and why the field of cross-cultural communication has yielded so little in terms of business results.

The cultural sense-maker, however, seeks out cultural commonalities, not differences. What makes the business strong elsewhere in the world will make it just as strong in Japan if not stronger. Cultural differences exist only to be defied. An airplane gains its greatest lift by flying against the wind.

A business achieves its greatest success by flying against cultural norms. Click To Tweet

Besides, the Japanese are not unique. Systems of lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion are practices that blunt competitiveness of any organization and cause its people to move lethargically. You can see the same behaviors and results in organizations everywhere, whether a business, a government bureaucracy, or a university. It is just that such systems are more common in Japan.

A company with a merit-based system attracts dynamic and motivated people, even in Japan. Support such people to learn and grow as fast as they like, and a company can retain them. However, not everyone is dynamic and motivated. Those who are not, will opt out or be expunged. If you want to improve the competitiveness of your business in Japan or anywhere else, you must first eliminate lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion systems.

The leader of the Japan operation of major blue chip global business did just that. Lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion had been policy and were protected by union contract for sales staff, stymying all attempts at growth and change made by management. Sales people were viewed as “typically Japanese”—overly risk-averse and slow-to-move. Negotiation with union proved fruitless. So the company’s management established a non-unionized subsidiary with a merit-based system to expand into new markets and new business, a culturally insensitive move.

Or was it? Ten percent of sales staff, all of whom are Japanese, abandoned their union jobs applied for the non-union jobs in the new subsidiary. Were the union representatives and members upset by this? For sure, but not upset enough to go on strike or resign en masse. None of the company’s customers or suppliers were perturbed at all by the change. The subsidiary outperforms the unionized parent.

The sales people who joined are exactly the kind of people management had wanted in the business. It is only that the protectionist systems had stifled them. Had management not established the subsidiary, the company would have lost the very people management would have wanted to retain. How unfair would this have been to the shareholders, customers, and suppliers of the company, to say nothing of unfairness to excellent employees? Why reward the mediocre?

Will the company end up being blacklisted as an employer of choice? Yes, probably. Every candidate looking for a safe, cushy job will probably avoid the company. Only the exceptional will likely be attracted.

I am a cultural sense-maker. You can decide what matters to you.


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