Steven's Blog

Provoke Your People

If you want to achieve dramatic change in mindset and behavior, the fastest way is through provocation. By provocation, I mean deliberately evoking a visceral emotional response in others. There is nothing wrong with provocation if you do it right. It’s just that, as a leader, you ought to be provocative, but never a provocateur—the two are not the same.

The provocateur provokes only for his or her own benefit and never for the benefit of others. A non-Japanese manager once told me in all seriousness that the problem with Japanese culture is that it promotes dishonesty. That is why there are so many corporate scandals in Japan, he argued. He tells that to everyone he meets only to provoke. However, how does that provocation help me? People like me who work with the Japanese successfully are in his view either dupes or complicit. Which one does he consider me? I don’t know, but it does not matter. He says this, not to help me in any way, but rather to rationalize to anyone who will listen to his own failures in business as the fault of the Japanese, as opposed to some honest self-examination. In my view, a provocateur is someone who is dysfunctional at best and at worst suffers from some kind of personality disorder. Fortunately, that describes only a minority of people and probably not anyone reading this piece for they would have unsubscribed long ago.

Being provocative, however, means deliberately using provocation for the benefit of others. And the best leaders in business are always provocative. Rakuten CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, announced in 2010 that the lingua franca of his Japanese company was hitherto to be English because that’s what is required to be a truly global company—head office in Japan or not. Both Rakuten employees and other business leaders in Japan viewed Mikitani’s announcement with skepticism and as highly provocative.

Honda’s CEO at the time publicly called Mikitani’s idea, “stupid!” Others said it was impossible. Yet, Mikitani was successful and now other Japanese companies like Shiseido are following suit. Think of how many Japanese employees are better off for having been provoked into learning English. I have met some in Rakuten and can tell that they are! Think of how many companies are better off for having been provoked, improving their global business capability. Think of how much Japan is better off as a country for what Mikitani started. Being provocative is good for any leader even when the result at the outset might be visceral anger, resentment, derision, or all of these!

I use provocation to help people and to help them fast. I neither cajole nor evangelize. I make no effort at diplomacy. I have no patience for politics, and making others feel comfortable is never a priority for me. Friction and confrontation elicit no fear in me. I provoke and I provoke with benevolence and intent.

So when I tell people, “Japanese corporate culture does not exist,” like I did when I was interviewed on Bloomberg, I mean to provoke and I mean it in the best interests of others. I do not expect all to agree with me and, in fact, if everyone did agree I’m probably not doing my job properly. However, I know that when I say something provocative, whether you agree with me or not, you will absolutely want to hear what I have to say next. Can you afford not to?

I have helped leaders change their companies for the better in ways that even they had not thought possible all because I first provoked them. You can help the people in your business change fast for the better by doing the same. Click To Tweet

So if you want to change mindset, attitudes, and behaviors of the people in your business and you want to change them fast, speak your truth that causes people to stop in their tracks. Some people might not agree and a few might even walk away, but no matter what everyone will want to hear what you have to say next. It is what you say next that will spark the change for most—and don’t worry. You are unlikely ever to be any sort of provocateur. Don’t let the reactions you get discourage you. Even the most visceral of emotions pass and fade.


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