Japanese managers criticize in meeting

We have this one Japanese manager who has made a habit of chewing people out during meetings.  Every time we’re about to have a meeting, we all look at each other and ask, ‘Who’s it going to be this time?’

Soon after I joined the company, I was given a project to complete.  I worked on it very hard, including a lot of overtime and work at home on the weekend.  Then, when I presented it to the executive committee, the president proceeded to rip the proposal apart — not to mention my pride.  I wondered if I had made a mistake in joining this company.

Non-Japanese employees of Japanese firms frequently mention the penchant that many Japanese managers have for public criticism.  Whereas Americans would prefer to receive negative feedback in private, Japanese seem to prefer to give it in public.  And in some cases, the negative feedback goes one step beyond into the realm of “chewing out,” or just plain yelling.

What might be behind the tendency for Japanese managers to criticize in public? My discussions with Japanese and non-Japanese businesspeople and my own observations have led me to develop the following hypotheses.  Depending on the situation, one or all of them may apply.

•     It’s not a personal attack.  Japanese managers are often surprised when they hear that non-Japanese do not like receiving negative feedback about their work in public.  Japanese tend to feel that such discussions are about the work itself, not the person as an individual.  Yet from an American viewpoint the same conversation may be perceived as a personal criticism or even attack.  It seems that non-Japanese put many personal feelings into their work that are then on the line when criticisms are made, while Japanese are more likely to distance their personal feelings from discussion of their work.

•     It’s an opportunity for others to learn.  Many Japanese managers feel that by discussing problems in front of others, they are killing two birds with one stone: addressing the individual’s need for improvement as well as educating everyone around him.  Thus they see public negative feedback as a managerial technique.

•     High potential people are criticized most harshly.  Strong criticism is seen by many Japanese managers as an effective way to motivate employees to try harder and learn more.  Thus, they tend to be harsher on those who have the most potential to develop.

•     Lifetime employment makes Japanese less fearful of criticism.  Because Japanese have traditionally assumed that they have permanent employment at their company, when they receive strong criticism they are less likely than non-Japanese to worry about their job security.  One Japanese described this situation to me as “like a family.  Because you have an assumption of stable ties, you have more freedom to be harsh when needed.  Just because a mother yells at her child doesn’t mean she’s going to disown him.”

•     Japanese put up with it because they don’t have a choice.  Another way in which the lifetime employment custom may influence public criticism behavior is related to the lack of a fluid labor market for Japanese to turn to.  If you can’t just quit and find another job, you are willing to put up with more unpleasant behavior from your manager, which includes public criticism and yelling.  Thus, Japanese managers are not directly confronted with turnover as a result this behavior the way they might in other countries, because Japanese employees are unable to vote against it with their feet.

•     Yelling episodes are a result of culture shock.  The need to express oneself in English and manage non-Japanese employees can be extremely stressful to Japanese expatriates.  In some cases, expatriates may resort to raising their voice when they are frustrated with their inability to effectively communicate and influence their environment.

•     Public criticism is a way to display control.  In many cases, public criticism seems to be done as a power play for a manager to demonstrate his control over the non-Japanese.  For example, in the second story at the top of this article, the president may have been sending the new American employee a message about who is really boss.  Or, a middle manager may reprimand his American subordinate in front of a higher level manager in order to demonstrate that he has the American subordinate fully under his control.

Both Japanese and non-Japanese need to become more aware of this issue of public criticism.  Japanese need to realize how devastating public criticism can be to a non-Japanese employee’s morale and self-esteem.  Non-Japanese need to realize that public criticism is often the result of Japanese cultural patterns such as those described above, and is not necessarily intended personally.

If your manager is someone who does a lot of public criticism, the following are some things you can do to try to prevent it.

Find out what sets them off.  Try to identify what things trigger a bout of public criticism, and do your best to avoid them.

Approach your supervisor frequently one-on-one for feedback and advice.  This will give him an opportunity to give you feedback privately, and could head off criticism in a public setting.

Get approval for work along the way.  Sometimes unhappiness with how some work was done can set off public criticism.  One way to prevent this is to make sure you check in frequently with your supervisor while you are working on things, so he can feel involved  and give you his comments before things are completed and cannot be changed.

Be contrite.  If something goes wrong, say that you are sorry, and give your plans for how to improve in the future.  Japanese supervisors expect this kind of attitude from subordinates, and if they do not see it they will become irritated and even enraged.

Don’t fight back.  In cultures such  as the U.S. where debate is natural and disagreeing with people of higher rank is accepted, it’s not unusual to argue back when criticized in public even by a supervisor.  However, in a more hierarchical culture such as Japan’s, this is quite unusual, and can make the situation even worse.

Get your supervisor cross-cultural training.  Good cross-cultural training will help your supervisor to better understand your culture, and why public criticism is counter-productive.

Spend some “social time” bonding with your supervisor outside of work.  Having lunch, dinner, or drinks together, or playing tennis or golf, are a good way to deepen your rapport with you boss.  Spending time together outside of the office is common for superiors and subordinates in Japan, and it’s well worth the investment in strengthening your relationship.  Japanese supervisors often use such social settings as opportunities to give feedback.  It will be more pleasant to get feedback in this setting than getting it in the form of public criticism.  Being willing to spend time building the relationship will also be shown as proof of your good attitude, and can help to curb potential public criticism.

Let your supervisor know that it makes you uncomfortable.  This is a somewhat risky tactic, but can work well.  Simply tell your supervisor “It makes me very uncomfortable and embarrassed when you criticize my work in front of others.  I want to do my best and improve, but I would appreciate it if you could let me know your suggestions when we are talking together alone.”  This type of message is best delivered in one of the outside work, relaxed social situations mentioned above.

Related articles