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Japanese Cultural Leadership Training: Eye Opener On Power Harassment

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Japanese Cultural Leadership Training: Eye Opener On Power Harassment

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Most expatriate managers only have two or three years on a foreign assignment before they have to go back home. In this short amount of time they are usually under a lot of pressure and can be very impatient to achieve their goals.

Combine this with a lack of intercultural business savvy and it is a recipe for disaster. With the increased number of cases filed for power harassment in Japan, a knowledge of the appropriate Japanese cultural leadership approach is essential.

For example, what would you do if one of your Japanese subordinate’s mistakes, attention to irrelevant details and lack of focus continuously made you miss deadlines? As a manager, how should you handle this situation and provide feedback to this Japanese employee without creating a case for “power harassment?” A senior project leader on assignment in Japan from an American multinational software corporation learned the hard way.

Power harassment (“pawahara” in Japanese) includes a range of bad behavior to workers by superiors such as mild irritation and annoyances to serious abuses in the workplace. One in four workers in Japan experienced pawahara in the past three years, according to a recent survey by the Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry (MHLW). There has been an increase in the awareness of pawahara as well as a sharp rise in the number of claims filed with the MHLW this year.

During an intercultural coaching session with Bob, the senior American project leader, he explained the situation that led to his case for pawahara. “During a challenging project meeting, Kazuo, a team member, avoided answering my questions and really had no inputs. After struggling to get any response from him for about ten minutes and feeling very frustrated I finally tossed my pen on the conference room table and said, “Please, let’s cut the nonsense and get down to work on this! Are you prepared for this meeting or not?”

“How did Kazuo respond?” I asked.

“He got up from his chair, went over to a window, parted the blinds and just gazed outside. I waited a couple of minutes for a response but when I realized he was not going to return to the conference table I left the room.” Bob responded.

“What happened next?”

“Well, the next day the HR director called me into his office to discuss a case of power harassment which Kazuo filed against me. And now the company has decided to launch a series of cultural leadership coaching seminars and facilitated sessions like this one today.”

There are several important differences between Western and Japanese leadership styles. Here are some tips to help Western managers understand Japanese approaches to leadership:

  1. It is a serious breach of etiquette and a possible case for power harassment in Japan to criticize someone directly in a group setting, even when the relationship is superior-subordinate. The Japanese are very sensitive and saying the wrong thing, even in innocence, can damage a work relationship forever.
  2. Japanese business leaders are usually generalists who are also skilled in organizational politics. Their responsibility is group feeling or morale. The bad leader in Japan is one who negatively impacts the morale of the group.
  3. Leaders are able to sense, embody and express the ‘feeling’ of their group. The leader is a good facilitator, mentor and coordinator. Maverick, visionary leaders are rare.
  4. A subordinate employee learns what to do by modelling superiors, and by intensive training in group work, group problem solving, kaizen (continuous improvement) and consensus building.
  5. Japanese leaders often let their mid-level staff speak for them to demonstrate the team’s consensus and total commitment.

For information about GTP workshops contact us at and visit us here

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