Global Leadership Blog

Solving Culture Clashes in Teams: A Japanese-American Example

Imagine having little access to your boss. The only communication you have with him or her is via a weekly email consisting of status updates and a list of to-dos. And by the way, you’re supposed to carry out the list of to-dos without question or context. Depending on the culture you’re from, you’d be completely demoralized or you might thrive…

I recently worked with an organization made up of Japanese and Americans where team and leadership interaction was viewed very differently. While a very successful company, the culture clash made team communication, well, complicated. The team was not functioning optimally and all concerned had a tough time adapting. During the work session, I made three observations I think all cross-cultural teams can learn from.

Rules: Different societies have different concepts of rules. For example, in the US, laws related to workplace compliance are strictly enforced, but too many rules in the day-to-day working environment can be seen as restrictive. Americans would prefer to see rules as “guidelines” or “best practices” for operating and its critical a leader get buy-in on those. It’s just not in the American DNA to blindly accept rules, after all, the US was founded by Puritans rebelling against their homeland. The Japanese, on the other hand, see rules as bringing order and discipline and providing a sense of security. Their culture has a history of long tradition and Japan has a more stable society. They are more risk adverse than the US so they appreciate having a set of rules or guidelines to follow.

Power distance: Each workplace has its own grade of power distance. In America, structures are flatter and power distance is smaller. American team members are used to going to their superior with an issue or challenge, discussing it with them, being asked their thoughts, and being mentored on how to deal with it. Conversely, in Japan, the structure is more hierarchical and power distance greater. Japanese team members are expected to have the capability to get answers on their own and only approach their superior if in dire need. The difference boils down to America being an Individualistic culture with more freedom for taking initiative and Japan being a collectivistic culture where group priority and the will of the hierarchy reigns. The US view is that the team is part of a collaborative environment where the leader brings individual contributors and their specific expertise together to achieve a goal. There is a lot of informal interaction between subordinates and leaders. They may even chat about issues in the hallway. The Japanese view is that workers are individuals who are part of a group led by a leader. This leader guides the group on what they should be working on. If a subordinate has a question or problem, it can be seen as a challenge to the leader who isn’t doing their job right. Therefore, if you’re managing Japanese employees, you will need to keep tighter communication and check in with them because they may not tell you if they have a problem. (You can read more about individualistic and collectivist cultures here).

Delegating: How you give and take orders or delegate tasks in the workplace can vary greatly depending on where you’re from. If you are a Japanese manager delegating tasks to an American, it’s important to seek buy-in to those tasks. Research shows that this buy-in is critical in motivating US employees because Americans like to work towards an overall goal and feel as if they are contributing something meaningful. They need to see the big picture. If you are an American manager leading a team of Japanese members, the main driver is loyalty to the team and those in positions of power, the greater context of what or why isn’t as important. Thus, when working with Japanese business partners, US leaders will want to be more explicit in giving orders and appeal to a Japanese team member’s sense of duty.

Being aware of these differences is the first step to overcoming clashes in teams. After the Japanese and American team members became aware of these fundamental cultural distinctions, they were able to develop an action plan to work together more effectively and efficiently.

Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication. More About Melissa Lamson