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Asian businessman with colleagues. (Mark Hunt/Getty Images/Hemera)
Asian businessman with colleagues. (Mark Hunt/Getty Images/Hemera)

Life at work

'Culture dojo' helps Asian staff join Western conversations Add to ...

Miho Aizu used to be confident about communicating in English. “I visited overseas clients and held three-hour meetings, so I thought my English communication skills were fine,” says the 35-year-old manager at Accenture, the professional services firm, in Japan.

But when Ms. Aizu took part in a training program that brought together colleagues from around the world, she realized that her skills fell short of what she would have liked. “During the team discussions, there were many things I wanted to say, but I felt I had to brush up my English language and presentation skills,” she explains.

When it came to role-playing, Ms. Aizu recalls: “I was told I needed to jump into discussions rather than wait until everyone had said what they wanted to say.”

Her experience is not uncommon in Japan, where cultural inhibitions and a lack of fluency in English get in the way of smooth communication between Japanese and Western colleagues. “There are many people who come to me and say they don’t know what Japanese people are thinking,” says Chikamoto Hodo, president of Accenture Japan. “Our people are more talkative than most Japanese, but they still have a difficult time communicating with foreigners.”

As businesses increasingly expand beyond national borders, Western multinationals are taking the initiative to help staff in Japan improve cross-cultural communication skills.

Goldman Sachs, the U.S. bank, launched a program two years ago to help its Japanese staff interact both more comfortably and effectively with colleagues from around the world.

Dubbed the “culture dojo” – after the halls where training in martial arts, such as judo and kendo, takes place – Sherry Greenfield, vice-president of Goldman’s human capital management division says the program seeks to bridge the cultural divide by providing a forum to share experiences of working for a global business.

“There are many people who are based in Tokyo who oversee all of Asia-Pacific,” says Takashi Yoshi­mura, managing director of Goldman’s compliance division in Tokyo and co-chairman of the culture dojo steering committee. “Goldman Sachs is global, with regions outside North America providing about 50 per cent of revenues. So, in order to make globalization meaningful, it is important to enable local people to work globally.”

Multinationals want to nurture global leaders in Asia, but find it necessary to provide Japanese and other Asian staff with more than the standard leadership training they provide to staff in the west.

Some people easily fit into Accenture’s global leadership program, Mr. Hodo says, “but most Japanese people need an additional scheme.”

Goldman has also extended its culture dojo program to South Korea and China and plans to launch programs in Bangalore and Singapore.

A key objective of all of these programs is to help Asian staff communicate more effectively with their Western colleagues. Many Japanese and Asian people working with Westerners find it particularly difficult to participate in discussions with their global colleagues.

“It is important for them to learn what kind of people they are working with and to participate in discussions, because Asian people don’t stand out even if they are very good,” says Mr. Yoshimura.

Many Western colleagues, for example, feel that Asian staff do not contribute much in conference calls. “But from the Asian perspective, Western participants talk about things that are not very useful and they feel they can’t jump in,” he says.

Mr. Yoshimura adds that this is not just a language problem but a cultural one, too. “As the [importance]of Asia increases, more attention is being paid to this issue,” he says.

In the Western context, even a comment that is not quite to the point is contributing to the discussion. In contrast, Japanese people are less comfortable thinking out loud and feel that if they are going to speak up in a meeting they need to say something significant.

“In my college [in Japan] people didn’t say anything that might make them look foolish, but at Harvard Law School people said whatever they wanted to say,” he recalls. His advice is to “overdo it a little.”

Ms. Greenfield concurs: for many Japanese, “if you feel like you are overdoing it, then it’s just the right level.”

The communication programs also provide guidance to Japanese staff on what is acceptable or even expected of them in Western contexts. At Accenture, says Mr. Hodo, “we teach them that even though it is said there is no nemawashi – behind the scenes lobbying – in foreign countries, there is actually a lot of nemawashi. We teach them when it’s okay to oppose your boss.”

But overcoming cultural inhibitions is only a part of the broader aim of nurturing global leaders in Japan and other parts of Asia.

Yosuke Yagi, senior human resources manager at General Electric in Tokyo, set up a Japan-specific leadership program and says Japanese people are not trained from an early age to be leaders. “In other cultures, they say ‘you should be number one,’ or, in the U.S., they say ‘be yourself.’ But in Japan … parents say ‘be friendly with everyone … be considerate, don’t cause trouble,’” he explains.

GE set up a year-long program for 15 people in Japan identified as having the potential to become global leaders. It also now offers training for its employees in China.

Through this process, this GE elite is encouraged to think about what is important to them, what they want to do and how they can achieve that. “They have to have a core, a philosophy,” which gives them the drive to feel like starting something, says Mr. Yagi, who admits to “pushing participants and embarrassing them” into thinking about what it is they really want to do.

Participants are also encouraged to think about what makes someone a leader and whether they themselves want to become leaders.

There are tentative signs that these programs are having an impact.

At Accenture, Satoshi Tanaka, senior manager of human resources, says: “After various training programs, I am more able to say what I need to say, without worrying too much about the exact words.”

Mr. Yagi says the effects of GE’s program are becoming clear. “They become self-starters,” he says. “Rather than wait for someone to tell them what to do, they have started to go for it themselves.”

The change is even noticeable in the “town hall” meetings that Jeff Immelt, GE’s chief executive, holds when he visits Japan. Until recently, “as soon as the Q&A began, there was silence,” says Mr. Yagi. “Nowadays, when Mr. Immelt comes, people will line up to ask questions.”

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