encouraging meeting participation

The concept of “psychological safety” in the workplace started in the United States in the 1960s and has become popular both in Japan and Europe recently, thanks to Harvard professor Amy Edmondson’s book, published in 2018 in English, and 2021 in Japanese.

In Europe, psychological safety has become one of the underpinnings of corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives, particularly in terms of ensuring women feel able to speak up without fear of repercussions. In Japan it has become associated with preventing harassment in the workplace, particularly power harassment – related to hierarchy and age related diversity.

Edmondson says she was not particularly thinking about diversity and inclusion or harassment when she did her research. Her interest was in what characteristics high performing teams had, as it seemed to her that with the rise of knowledge work, there was a greater need than ever for people to work collaboratively, even if they were not in the same location. This was already true of multinationals with global teams, and since the pandemic and the rise of working from home, it is true even of teams based in the same office.

Her hypothesis was that high performing teams were those that made the least number of errors, and that those teams would also show the highest satisfaction with their teamwork. Instead, she discovered that teams where there was more mutual respect, trust and collaboration reported more mistakes. She wondered if this was due to complacency in better teams, but further research showed that better teams made it easier to report errors, discuss and learn from them. Teams where there was lower mutual respect, trust and collaboration were probably making more mistakes, but covering them up.

Edmondson highlighted the problem of leaders generating fear of making mistakes in the workplace, but that this shouldn’t mean lowering standards. High performing teams need both high standards and a fearless environment for learning, improving and innovating.

Not so much fear as frustration, in Europe

So how does this apply to Japanese companies operating in Europe? In the twenty years or so that I have run training sessions in Japanese companies I would say that personal relationships between the Japanese expatriate staff and the locally hired European staff are actually very good. Both groups mention that they find their colleagues friendly, respectful and helpful. The issue is between Japan headquarters and those working in the local offices. Obviously for the Japanese expatriate staff there is an element of fear of making mistakes while they are working overseas, as their careers ultimately are dictated by Japan headquarters.

For the local staff, it is not so much fear as frustration. They have suggestions for improvement and innovation which do not seem to have any impact on Japan headquarters, and instead find themselves responding to what seem to be trivial and highly bureaucratic requests.  

It is up to Japan headquarters to acknowledge that they are in a global team with Japanese expatriate staff and locally hired staff and to put processes in place for collaborating, learning and innovating, accordingly.

This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News, 8th November 2023

Please do contact us if you are interested in our seminars in Japanese and other languages which cover the topic of psychological safety and power harassment.

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