Cross-cultural misunderstandings often are based on differing cultural values. These differences can very often be seen in the workplace where they manifest in behavior that does not seem to make sense from the viewpoint of the other culture.
When we’re speaking about Western business culture, one trait that is very highly regarded is reliability because the fulfillment of promises and contracts is the basis of all business done here. In many JCO workshops, however, Japanese participants will almost always voice the following complaint: “I was relying on my local subordinate to finish a task I had asked him to do. But when looking over at his/her desk at around 17:00 I find that they have left already with the work still not finished. Don’t people have any sense of responsibility here?”
If we, in turn, ask the local staff they will not only disagree with that assessment but fervently reply: “If I promise to do something I always keep my word!”
So we are dealing with individual conflicting impressions of the same event. It is worthwhile to take a step back and look at the cultural values first.
In Japanese, there is a well-known saying “tsuru no hitokoe” which could be translated as “one cry of the crane suffices”. In Japan, this bird is a symbol of authority and wisdom. So in a rather hierarchically structured society like Japan, one has to obey the call of the crane – which of course stands for “the boss” in this case – without any delay or second-guessing.
Going back to our scenario it is now easier to find the reason for the common misconception we introduced at the beginning.
In Japan, when a boss asks a subordinate to do something, even if he does so rather casually, this job now takes top priority. In other words, it shoots straight up to the top of the subordinate’s to-do list. In most Western countries, very strong emphasis is put on one’s own field of responsibility which results in subordinates that will usually have prioritized their own tasks for any given day.
Within the framework of this work culture, a task given by the boss can slide right down to the bottom of the to-do list as there are normally other pressing matters that need to be dealt with first. If the manager does not explicitly state any urgency his work will be relegated to the next day if time runs out.
Looking at this case from both points of view, neither side is to blame. Still, there will be problems that could end up negatively influencing a working relationship.
We do not advocate taking over the other side’s values but strongly recommend using clear communication to assess the expectations of your Japanese boss or colleague. Simple questions such as “By when do you need it? I think I will be able to finish by tomorrow afternoon. Would that be okay?” go a long way to prevent misunderstanding based on differing cultural perceptions of personal duty.
Lastly, if you keep the deadline you give every single time you too will soon be regarded as highly reliable in the eyes of the Japanese.