Team Management Systems
 

Japanese Executives & Management Today: The need for clear coaching advice at all management levels

By Jean-Paul Leboutet
Copyright © Jean-Paul Leboutet. All rights reserved.

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Still shackled and tumbling, here stand the specialists of organizational design that inspired the US industry fifteen years ago.

The office of Forgeot, Weeks & Partners Japan has opened in 1999, offering to both Japanese and foreign executives three main lines of services - Personal Career Consulting, Personal Coaching, and Team Coaching.

Why Japan and Why Now?

The establishment of a boutique business in this country, specializing in tailor-made services for professional and leadership development, necessarily starts with a personal story. To make it short, just allow me to say here that after five years spent in Japan, and 20 years of interest in the country, I felt confident in our network of consultants to deliver specialized services to Japanese management. My decision was helped by the quality of the tools we use, such as the Team Management Profile (TMP). This instrument is a remarkable blend of Carl Jung's theories and NLP research, presented in an original and simple way for managers to understand. Having acted in and observed many business situations, including what happens at large Japanese groups, and having gained over the years the ability to communicate with the Japanese, I thought it was time to challenge myself by being useful to a nationality I really like. Japan is also country that is different or at least pretends to be.

Today's Japan, more than ever, is a basin of contradictions. Working habits in daily life (such as allowing oneself some laziness by hiding behind rules to abide by, or using the absence of rules to address unusual situations) don't seem to change on the surface. But both management and society have been exposed to profound shocks regarding professional life and future expectations, the problems being reinforced by the media and the discourse of the 'Officials'. These difficulties, as you probably know, have been addressed far too slowly, notably by the civil servants, still so powerful and yet harmless. From this situation, opportunities for individuals to change do arise, but there is always the danger of making decisions or being victims of decisions that go profoundly against a person's or a team's interests, both in the short and long term. And as in any country, many executives, truly dedicated to their work, are ignorant of the basic rules that run the job market. As well there is the internal political game that both pollutes and runs many firms, at the highest management levels1.

Besides, Japan is still driven by pressures which are made at a conscious level, and more importantly at the unconscious level. These 'pressures' in the social system arise from crossed manipulation based on a neurotic complex that the eminent psychoanalyst Dr. Takeo Doi has called by a Japanese word with no clear equivalent in Western languages, the 'Amae' (endearing attitude)2. This is a universal concept indeed, but particularly well spread in Japan's modern society. In this context, the discourse and actions at the government and company levels breach the social contract and create by force, in a globally-tight employment, a new behavior towards work and one's career. So I decided that the time was ripe to help individuals and teams to become more realistic, more efficient and happier in their professional life. The three are, of course, strongly related.

Meanwhile, Japan is consuming its huge accumulated capital in :

  • Keeping as low as possible a fast-growing unemployment rate (4.7% now). This well known process of stable employment often means that capable persons do the work, so allowing lazy or not-so-capable people to get an average salary (an unconscious manipulation of the Amae complex by the lazy ones toward the active ones). This slows down the implementation of adequate organizational redesign, resulting in unavoidable restructuring. In many situations the affected organization is unable to retain its best pool of talents and/or experience. This is not common only to Japan, but is particularly striking here.

  • Investing, in bulk, in the most risky of all investment vehicles : bank deposits denominated in foreign currencies.3

  • Keeping at home or in bank deposits nominal cash balances producing no interest in order not to have to sell properties, a betrayal vis-a-vis ancestors, but also more pragmatically to prevent the realization of capital losses.

This has lasted for 8 to 10 years now and creates a mood somewhere between depression, resignation and repressed anger. I feel sometimes that rather than improving the morale of the next winner of a sports competition, I first need to awake 'Sleeping Beauty', perhaps, for example, with the Team Management Profile.

To conclude this part, I would say that Japan has now totally submitted to the global market4, with anarchical behaviors popping up here and there5. The generations of 20 and 30-year-olds are waiting for a new society to emerge, one that would recognize the national identity, but allow individuals a free and peaceful way to express themselves in a marvelous receptacle of all the world's cultures.

What Emerges From Our Recent Experience?

1. The incapacity or extreme difficulty of many executives to see clearly that their professional destiny is in their own hands and not controlled by market forces.

Our typical private clients are talented people wanting to escape the fatalist syndrome and know more about themselves and the 'rules of the game'.

Of course, there are problems in attracting potential clients, namely the shame attached to someone having difficulties at work or the repression of the need to cultivate one's talents. These together with the lack of experience in expressing one's own lack of capability, lead to what is called psycho-rigidity, a refusal of self-reflection.

In some cases, this resistance to reflection and learning new ways, often typical of the high ranking civil servant, leads in extreme cases to alexithymy (total repression of emotions towards others and oneself). Our practice is not in a position, and refuses to consult with persons suffering from alexithymy, particularly those with borderline paranoiac symptoms. We recommend them to a specialized psychologist. But when signs of psycho-rigidity are grounded mainly in the fear of appearing to behaving differently from the rest of the professional environment - a Japanese specialty so to speak - then we can open the door to developing a new type of executive. The requisite total confidentiality in such a task is not the least factor that makes it possible.

To illustrate the question, let's take an example, which is not (yet) a successful one for me, but is typical of a light form of psycho-rigidity. I received the other day a call from a Japanese gentleman who asked for more information and some brochures, and then arranged a first appointment based on 'a matter of urgency'. The gentleman called back a day later to cancel the appointment, saying that after reading the brochure, he realized that we were not a 'jobs data bank'. Nothing in the written material or in our conversation referred to such activity. We have files of offers and access to Search firms and companies, but this is for information purposes only, in order to undertake the necessary analysis and assessment work, and anyway the point was not even raised in the former conversation.

In the mind of this gentleman, he was looking for a job at executive level - an action probably unconceivable to him years ago. To him this meant looking for the apparent market of offers that float in a 'data bank' where there would undoubtedly be many positions available due to the lack of people with his skills. Such wishful thinking from the client indicates that he is diving into the 'Amae', thinking that everything will be done for him by the Job Data Bank, which is clearly an illusion based on the 'all-mighty ideal mother'. Such 'natural' ways of seeing things is psychologically easier than thinking of what is really appropriate, but it is at the person's own risk both now and in the future. To use the psychoanalytical view, such a mental process, if not controlled by the efforts of the person him/herself, can lead to a masochistic type of action, so that the answer to a sadistic type of aggression by the employer is not one of calmness, realism and efficiency.

I suggested to the gentleman that he might have inverted the order of priorities in his 'urgent search' and said that if anything goes really wrong, it is still open to him to make another first appointment.

Let's conclude on this by both confirming and disillusioning the reader about some cliches :

YES, Japanese organizations are often rigid and teach this rigidity, but not always.

NO, Japanese executives don't stay for life at the same company when they are talented and not themselves the founder of the company. They move frequently, like the elite of other economically developed countries6. There is, however, a problem for talented middle managers who find it difficult to have enriched professional lives.

YES, Japanese young 'high flyers' and managers are very keen to manage their own careers and escape companies perceived as too rigid with no future. However this can be a too simplistic perception, lacking realism and practical sense.

One way for them to postpone the problem is to study (abroad or locally) to get an 'MBA', a very fashionable 'hobby' in Japan nowadays for large masses of aspiring 'future executives'. The combination of less employment opportunities for fresh undergraduates (but not for good university MBA holders) and a hesitation to enter professional life just after university, explain the low employment rate of 60% for university undergraduates this year.

2. How can the Team Management Profile Questionnaire help coaching activities in Japan?

In order to address both Japanese and Western-Japanese team coaching issues, I had the privilege to participate, with the support of the Institute of Team Management Studies, in the design, adaptation and fine tuning of a Japanese version of the Team Management Profile Questionnaire. Our common work with the Institute of Team Management Studies is, I think, scientifically well-grounded. At the profile questionnaire review stage, we avoided the effect of a 'good ' translation which tends to take too much account of the country's norms, and so sets unperceived limits on the freedom of choice, thereby reducing the scope and the responsibility of the respondent in answering the 60 questions. Research is also being carried out on the profile questionnaire's application and on the Profiles in Japanese.

Having received such valuable support and successfully adapted the profile questionnaire to Japan, how are we now going to use it? I see a lot of strengths in the fact that the Team Management Profile provides a very quick answer or hints to a large range of organizational and career issues in a very short time span. Also it is easy for a client to learn how to detect potential conflicts in a team or proceed to a requisite allocation of roles based on members' motivation. Quick, easy-to-read, visual quality, support for further reflection, preventive roles, motivating for participants - these are all things that seem to be perfectly suited to the Japanese eye and to the 'feel busy' personnel managers as well.

Moreover, the consequences go further: the fact that the Team Management Profile helps localize conflict sources in teams may make it a tool to :

  • Crack down on useless 'Amae processes
  • Help leaders manage natural and necessary conflict relationships that often stop the execution of decisions
  • Build more efficient teams in Japan today : just like opening a road between top management's unawareness and the anarchical disruptions in effective leadership that occur from the bottom to the top

3. Organizations at stake.

Because of:

  • Informal groups co-acting to help themselves
  • An extreme capacity to structure production and distribution processes (dating back 300 years ago at least)
  • Powerful marketing capabilities assumed by large and generalist trading firms (the well known 'Sogo Shoshas' in charge of taking in a large part of the foreign exposure risks - both financial and human)
  • Some leaders emphasizing publicly a concern for their companies' employees (Toyota, Matsushita to quote only two eminent companies in a vast sample)
  • Non-transferable pension schemes that 'fix' the employee (a 401(k) type of scheme to be introduced in 2000 or 2001)
  • High economic growth rates

Japan has appeared in the eighties as having the most effective and inspired management. Top managers at some Western companies were reluctant to learn from Japanese approaches and escaped the burden of leading necessary transitional change. They used the excuse of 'cultural' differences, not to learn about the performance problems that stem from 1) concrete resolution of work issues and 2) lack of emotional care for subordinates, two difficult case studies indeed. But in reverse, Japanese management, sure of the Japanese management style, failed to learn how to manage permanent change by the transitional approach, a key issue for the long-term survival of organizations.

Another fundamental reason for Forgeot, Weeks & Partners Japan to exist here and now, and for the Team Management Profile Questionnaire to be used, is that there are many similarities between French and Japanese institutional systems7. Based on my experience of both sides, I have often found similar patterns of organizational decline on a large scale 8:

  • Narcissistic 'group think' which shuts the door catastrophically to new original opportunities
  • Lack of attention to small but revealing 'critical incidents' which often anticipate the BIG mistake
  • Ignorance, up to the highest levels, of the basics in human behavior and psychology, and absence of emotional communication, that is to say absence of life within the company
  • Stupid, when not harmful, assessment processes of talents, capacities and performance
  • Much too many layers in the organization, and when layers are cut, the change being done in an often incompetent or politically-oriented way9
  • Lack of clarity in the reporting lines, and other tricks such as matrix organization (double or multiple accountability) that block a firm in its action

There are two problems here :

  1. As far as my experience of managers is concerned, these issues are not really taught in MBA programs other than optionally. However they are essential to efficient management.

  2. The 'Young Elite' in Japan are discouraged by such types of organization, which have failed through poor financial performance. To take an example, let's remember that in a period of 6 months (1st semester of 1997) the public image of the almighty large banks has been totally destroyed in favor of foreign financial institutions: Japan likes slow and well-explained proposals, but is also capable of a speedy change of mind rarely seen in other countries.

Is Japan Ready For Coaching?

Therefore, our commitment is to help individuals and teams face these hectic days, to see clearly where to go or what to do, and then to help them inspire the change, whether in Japanese companies or in foreign companies based in Japan, or in joint ventures. The Japanese scientific and technical capacities for the 21st Century are already here. It is (just ?) a question of realism and flexibility of mind, not to lose opportunities that can be seized, and not to waste one's own capital, in an aging (aged already ?) society that has already passed the burden of financial deficits to the future generation.

But it is never too late, and contrary to the 50 year-old commonplace legend, Japanese people are curious about the world, imaginative and creative. Simply, morale issues can affect this creativity. See the examples of Hiraga Gennai in the 18th century, Sakamoto Ryoma or Noguchi Hideo in the 19th, Akio Morita, Takeo Doi or Oe Kenzaburo in the 20th, to quote at random too short a list among thousands.

Solutions to the global questions Japan is facing nowadays are to be found in a diversified set of multiple adaptations and initiatives. Japanese individuals and their organizations are becoming increasingly aware of this and seem ready to accept that coaching by a professional and independent supporter can be of high added value.

Footnotes:

1 The "downloading" of former civil servants to high rank position in companies (or "Amakudari") is only one aspect of the phenomenon, which is I think even more widespread in France. See : Bob Garratt : The Fish Rots from the Head, crisis in the board room , Harper Collins, 1997
2 The point is that Japanese children may be educated in such a way that they become excessively dependant on their mother. Then, they unconsciously may aspire to killing the mother (inverted Oedipus complex, called Ajase complex from an Indian legend). They have learned that in order to be protected by an omnipotent, ideal mother (that they project on to the group) they need, themselves, to be caring to others, and so become a part of the projection itself. This is the Amae complex. My view is that this opens the door to unconscious manipulation. See Takeo Doi : "Amae To Seishin Chiryou" , Kanaoka Publ. (Amae and Psychological Caring Methods) - in Japanese.
3 According to a research I led 7 years ago, 40% of the performance and risk affecting 'internationally diversified portfolio' is explained by currencies movements.
4 On the global market, see Bryan & Farrell : Market Unbound , Wiley, 1996
5 According to the French social scientist Emmanuel Todd, countries where the dominant family model is made of strong authority links between parents and children and pre-designed inequality among children regarding inheritance, obedience to the nation's rules is easy to obtain but also revolt or anarchical situations are possible through upsurges from time to time. (Japan, Germany, South part of France). See "The Diversity of World" , Seuil, 1999, republished from 1983 (in French)
6 For instance, Mr. Hajime Unoki, now 70 years old and currently CEO of SkyPerfect TV and a graduate from the faculty of commerce of the reputed Hitotsubashi University, has been successively a worker and middle manager at General Oil (a large Japanese oil company), an Executive at Sony at 29, where he reached the position of senior Director at 54, then Deputy to the CEO, then CEO of Aiwa (a reputed electronic and consumer goods manufacturer), then Chairman of the Board until the age of 67, then Chairman of the Board of JSky TV, before the merger with his current company. (Keieijuku, October 99). I don't emphasize here the seniority question : in capable persons, it is scientifically established that, ceteris paribus, capacities never cease to grow in time. The problem of gerontocracy or holding positions regardless of capacities is not relevant here. This problem's source lies is the predominance of admitted political maneuvers and of affiliation to 'Mafia' type groups, such as being a graduate of such and such University, etc, etc.
7 Including corruption, but the case is more complex in Japan, which stated a strict ethic behavior of civil servants in the Meiji Era (1864-1910), while belonging to the Far East Region, where the concept of corruption is ambiguous and cases are assessed depending on whether an act of corruption serves the purpose of the large family or the clan the individual belongs to. That is why the former Prime Minister Nakasone was reelected deputy of his district even after the Recruit scandal in 1988. For a detailed and articulate explanation of this ambiguous situation in Japan regarding corruption, we recommend to the Japanese reader 'The State called Showa' by Ryotaro Shiba, NHK, 1998.
8 In the list of the problems quoted, our vocabulary and ideas are largely inspired by the works of Dr. Howard Schwartz, Harry Levinson and Elliott Jaques.
9 Boards of Directors usually include managers of a given division or function. However their dependency on the CEO and the Chairman usually exclude free debates. As for external directors, there are still mainly representatives of the main banks in an inspecting position, not an inspiring one.

Copyright © Jean-Paul Leboutet. All rights reserved.


Jean-Paul LEBOUTET is French and founder of Forgeot, Weeks in Japan. Jean-Paul is accredited in both the Team Management Profile Questionnaire and the QO2. He is a former Inspecteur Principal and ex-Managing Director for Japan of Societe Generale. Jean-Paul both writes and speaks fluent Japanese and is the author of Gappei GameTM , a training in Japanese on teamwork and negotiation, as well as numerous psycho-sociology articles. Further information on Forgeot, Weeks in Japan can be found at: www.forwejapan.com.
 

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