Steven's Blog

There is No Japanese Mindset

Nationality and national culture are not granular enough to explain behavior. There is no  “Japanese mindset.”

I have traveled to more than twenty countries, and lived outside my native United States for almost my entire adult life. I speak Japanese and French fluently, and just enough Italian, German, and Mandarin Chinese to get myself into trouble. When I put my mind to it, I can even fake Spanish—and people understand me! I have worked with and known people from all over the world. Yet, I have never known any single person who could be described as typical of the country from which they come, because it is not nationality that really matters.

I define mindset as an individual’s underlying belief in the causes of success that drives his or her behavior. So, I am always surprised when someone ascribes a Japanese manager’s behavior to a Japanese mindset, because there is no single common belief among Japanese managers as to the causes of success.

Not so long ago, I was in the office of the CEO of a European company here in Japan. He said to me, “Steve, I have a problem with my vice president of sales. He is a typical Japanese manager. He makes all decisions on his own, without consulting with anyone on his staff or asking for opinions. He simply issues orders, top-down. I am worried that the best people on his staff will quit out of frustration.”

I have certainly witnessed such behavior among Japanese managers, and for that matter non-Japanese managers too.

Not long after that, I was in the office of the same CEO. He said to me, “Steve, I have a problem my vice president of marketing. He is a typical Japanese manager. He refuses to make any decision without first creating consensus among his entire team. He consults with everyone, asks people’s opinions, and will not do anything until everyone is in agreement. Progress in the marketing department has ground to a halt.”

Such behavior is not uncommon. Yet how is it possible for two completely opposite behaviors to be typically Japanese?

I was recently speaking with the manager in charge of culture change programs worldwide for a major global German company. He had just completed an ideation workshop with a team in Japan, in which people had to be coaxed and prompted continuously to make progress.

“I would have expected more engagement,” he told me. “They weren’t proactive like an American team.” It was only after he uttered those words that he recalled carrying out a similar workshop with a group in Portland, Oregon with similar results.

People behave according to their underlying beliefs in what they think makes them successful, or at least not detract from their success. They avoid behaviors that they believe will make them unsuccessful, even if those beliefs are mistaken. Nationality has nothing to do with it.

Last week, I held a workshop with a team of regional sales directors, all of whom are Japanese, whom their CEO had at times described as “conservative” and “traditionally Japanese.” At various times I had heard expressions like “Asian mindset” and “Japanese mindset” to describe these sales directors.

The sales directors were resisting the CEO’s strategy, which involved changing the way the business sells, the products it emphasizes, and the customers it prioritizes. They had voiced vehement and emotional opposition to the planned workshop two days before it was scheduled.

The CEO called me, and asked for my advice. She was worried we would make no progress, and was considering canceling the workshop. She was worried whether she could even continue working with these directors given their mindset.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “It will be fine.” And it was. I have seen the kind of resistance the sales directors exhibited in other teams in Japan and elsewhere and was confident that it would not pose a problem.

The resistance had nothing to do with being Japanese, but rather the sales directors did not believe the changes proposed would lead to success. All I did was show them how to be successful with the changes. I did not need to convince them. They convinced themselves.

Resistance in the morning dissipated to yield enthusiasm. By the afternoon, the group was taking the lead in charting its own path to success. I had merely pointed the way. The CEO was astonished at the change in mindset in the course of a day. I, however, was not.

There is no such thing as a national mindset. All the managers were still just as Japanese at the end of the day as they had been in the morning. I have understood for a long time that there is nothing more persuasive in changing mindset than success. Nationality has nothing to do with it.

Do you want to change someone’s behavior? Don’t replace him or her with someone of another nationality, and certainly don’t give up on them because of nationality. Click To Tweet

Change their understanding of the causes of success. Show them a better way that works. For the vast majority of people, no matter where they come from, that is all it takes.

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