Sandra is an employee whose direct supervisor is Japanese. She has been with the company one year. She works very hard, and thinks that she has been doing a good job. However, she cannot recall ever having received any verbal praise from her supervisor. She is starting to feel nervous that perhaps her supervisor is not happy with her performance.
Sandra’s case is not unusual. In fact, many non-Japanese who work with Japanese have similar feelings. Used to getting a lot of positive feedback from their supervisors, it’s often a shock for non-Japanese when they start to work with Japanese, who seldom give verbal praise.
Although it’s typical for American employees to expect recognition verbally from their supervisor when they are doing a good job, it’s not typical in Japan. Japanese tend to not be good at expressing thanks and recognition in words, even in their own language. There are several reasons for this, the following are some of the major ones:
· Don’t want to praise things that aren’t perfect. There is a concern among many Japanese that if something is praised, people will assume that there is no room for improvement. This violates the spirit of kaizen, continuous improvement, which says that anything can always be made better.
· Worry that people will stop trying hard if they are praised. There is a fear among some Japanese managers that praise will go to a subordinate’s head, and cause them to rest on their laurels. Again, this violates the spirit of kaizen.
· Belief that working hard is considered normal so it doesn’t require any special praise.
· Belief that the response to praise will be a request for a salary increase. This one is something specific to interactions with non-Japanese. On numerous occasions when I have been teaching positive feedback skills to Japanese, they express the concern that if they give praise to a non-Japanese employee, that will simply be used as a reason for asking for a raise. I think that Japanese are quite unnerved by the tendency of people from other countries to boldly bring up salary matters, and want to avoid anything that would put them in a poor negotiating position. (When this concern comes up, I answer that I think that the reverse is true – people who don’t feel appreciated are the most likely to want more money, because they miss the emotional reward and thus want as much financial reward as possible.)
· Tendency to express satisfaction and thanks through methods other than words. If you are doing a good job, your Japanese boss might give you more work and more responsibility. Some non-Japanese perceive that as being “dumped on” when reality it’s a type of praise, because you are seen as capable of doing it. On the other hand, if you find yourself being given less work and being shunted off to the side out of the mainstream of what is going on in your department, that should be interpreted as negative feedback. Other signs that you are doing well might include being invited to an important meeting or dinner, being introduced to a high-ranking visitor, or being given a gift. A great example of this occurs in the movie Karate Kid, in which an elderly Japanese karate teacher takes a young American boy under his wing. At the end of the movie, the teacher gives the boy a gift of one of his prize possessions – one of the classic cars from his collection. In typical American style, the boy gushes “you’re the greatest!” In response, the karate teacher says “Well kid, you’re not so bad yourself.” This understated comment was probably the closet this man would be able to come to giving verbal praise – his action of giving the valuable and meaningful gift was a better indicator of his true feelings about his pupil. In your worklife, it’s unlikely that someone will ever give you a classic car, but do be on the lookout for symbolic gifts – true gifts such as a small souvenir brought back from a trip to Japan, or the gift of time, attention, or trust with important matters.
Of course, when they spend time outside Japan, Japanese notice that people seem to want recognition. However, some Japanese doing business outside Japan mistake the desire for recognition as a desire for celebration. They throw big parties at the end of the year or on important occasions. Of course, these are good ways of thanking employees for their hard work, and are not unwelcome. But this type of group celebration can be rather impersonal, and a more personal touch is also necessary in order to make each employee feel that their individual efforts have been recognized.
Many Japanese hear the way their colleagues, particularly Americans, talk, and feel that they would be unable to use the same strong praising words. “Great”, “fantastic”, “terrific”, “wonderful”, “super” – the thought of having to say such things makes many Japanese wince. In my consulting work, I have overcome this by teaching Japanese the technique of behavioral-based feedback – rather than using overblown terms, simply identifying what the good behavior was, and what its positive impact was. This more “fact-based” approach tends to be more comfortable for Japanese.
Suggested Strategies for Non-Japanese:
· Realize that verbal recognition is rare in Japanese culture. Don’t worry or take it personally if you don’t get a lot of verbal thanks or praise.
· Look for signs of non-verbal recognition from Japanese colleagues – being given more responsibility, being put on important projects, invitations to meals or golf, introductions to important visitors, opportunity to travel to Japan, souvenirs brought back from trips, etc.
· Although you may not be getting verbal recognition yourself, be sure that you are giving it to your subordinates. You may need to make up for the overall lack of recognition in the company environment.
Suggested Strategies for Japanese:
· Your non-Japanese colleauges don’t necessarily want decoration, they want recognition. Group decoration through large-scale, visible celebrations such as parties is of course welcomed by non-Japanese. But also important is individual recognition.
· Individual recognition does not have to be fancy – simple is fine. The more personal, the better. A few words of “thank you for your hard work” or “I really appreciate how well you are doing your job” from one’s manager can be worth their weight in gold. This kind of recognition increases motivation, and makes non-Japanese want to work harder.
· Practice giving verbal recognition to your non-Japanese subordinates and colleagues who have done good work. Set yourself a goal of giving verbal recognition to at least one person a day for the next two weeks. This will help you become more comfortable doing it. Then, aim to make it a habit in your way of speaking.
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