Local staff often ask us what we tell Japanese participants in our seminars. So here is the translation of a newsletter JCO sent out to expatriates that are working in subsidiaries of our Japanese customers outside of Japan.
“Hidden Agenda” (Translated from Japanese)
Since 2006 JCO has been very active in improving mutual understanding between local and expatriate staff in Japanese companies. In fact, the founder of JCO was working in a Japanese company when he realized that, regardless of good personal relationships between Japanese and local employees, there was always a lot of guesswork involved when it came to what the other side actually thought or intended.
After having worked with staff from hundreds of Japanese companies all across Europe and the US, JCO’s trainers have identified common points that employees struggle with when working across cultural borders. These seem independent of whether a company would be considered traditional or progressive from a Japanese point of view.
Here is one of the keywords that local staff often use: the “hidden agenda”. “Hidden agenda” refers to the fact that there is sometimes a certain lack of transparency regarding the background of a decision or strategy, even if these directly impact work and business on the local market.
Let’s listen to what Phillip, a middle manager in a Japanese company in Germany, has to say: “I have been working in this company for 5 years and generally have a good relationship with my Japanese colleagues. I know a lot about the market here and have a clear idea of what the company has to do. I often discuss this with Japanese colleagues and they seem open to what I suggest. But time after time I saw that after discussion among themselves and with HQ, very few things that I proposed are implemented or even considered.
What makes it so frustrating for me is that I don’t get any indication of what the final decision might look like until everything has been decided and it is too late for any change. So all other my local colleagues and me are actually convinced that our Japanese expatriates have a hidden agenda that they follow without telling us about it.”
When JCO talked to the Japanese colleagues, however, everyone insisted on not having such a “hidden agenda” but insisted that the actual reason local proposals were sometimes hard to implement quickly, depended on the way the headquarter in Japan operated and planned.
But as in private life, in business feelings also play an important role, even though these feelings may be based on misunderstanding and misconception. If local staff suspect that their ideas and proposals won’t impact most decisions in the long run because of a “hidden agenda”, we may come to understand their frustration.
Let’s look at the root cause of this misconception. As opposed to Western companies, in Japan, there is a strong separation between official and non-official information. Things that aren’t decided yet or may still change significantly, will usually not be put in writing and shared via email, especially while “the ball is still in the air”. The fear is that everything that is written down might be considered official. Things are rather discussed orally until there is a consensus on the best way forward.
But also in subsidiaries outside of Japan, these informal discussions are very often only among Japanese staff. At the office, these talks may regularly occur later in the evening or even take place after working hours over a drink. So local staff rarely get to take part at this stage of the decision-making process. Most locals are totally unaware that it happens at all as they wait for an “official” update on what is being discussed. So it’s no wonder that they might feel only being involved once everything has been decided already.
And even if important background information is shared in writing/by mail, these documents tend to be in Japanese which makes it almost impossible for locals to understand the content.
So we can see how the idea of a “hidden agenda” is connected to a lack of information sharing, both official and non-official. Japanese employees (managers and non-managers alike) must address this issue so that this misconception is corrected. Upon doing so, the impact on the actual business will be immense. It is another step towards becoming truly global!
(End of translated text)