How to work with a micromanaging Japanese boss

by Rochelle Kopp

Contributing Writer

Putting together the slide deck for the presentation had become a never-ending ordeal for Dave. Every time he turned a draft in to his Japanese boss, it would come back with yet another set of things to correct.

“How many times do I have to go through this?” he asked me, adding that many of the changes his supervisor requested were minor formatting issues — in the larger scheme of things, why did it even matter whether the font size was 24 points or 28?

If Dave’s experience sounds familiar to you, I’m not surprised. I’ve heard stories from many people — both non-Japanese and Japanese — who were frustrated by their Japanese boss’s desire to micromanage every detail. Such extreme meticulousness can hit particularly hard when you’re from a culture that values autonomy and believes that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Why is it that some Japanese managers want to exert control over even the most minor aspects of work, engaging in seemingly endless rounds of revision until things are absolutely perfect in their eyes? Well, this behavior is likely just a manifestation of the qualities that make Japanese businesses effective: teamwork, attention to detail and the pursuit of perfection. And if you know what to expect and how to deal with it, a micromanaging boss can become a lot more tolerable.

Spinach on the job

The key to understanding Japanese-style micromanaging comes in three easy syllables: hō-ren-sō. Note: This is not to be confused with hōrensō, the Japanese word for “spinach.” One is good for your health, the other is good for your business.

Popularized in the 1980s by Japanese executive and author Tomiji Yamazaki, this homegrown concept is a combination of hōkoku (reporting), renraku (touching base) and sōdan (discussion). Yamazaki believed this approach to be the best way for a manager and their subordinate to work together, and it has become a staple of new-employee orientation at many Japanese companies.

While perhaps a bit old-fashioned, hō-ren-sō is still considered to be a basic business skill that all employees in Japan should possess. Compared to how managers and subordinates tend to work together in many other cultures, the hō-ren-sō approach differs in both pace and patterns.

In my experience working in the United States, for example, a manager would give her subordinate an assignment and the subordinate would “take the ball and run with it,” working independently to prepare a finished product. Because the initial instructions would have been detailed, the subordinate would typically not need to go back to his manager with questions while working on it. The subordinate would then present his work to his manager and either the task would be finished or there would be a final round of fine-tuning.

In contrast, a Japanese manager will typically provide less-detailed instructions in the initial phase of development, allowing the subordinate some latitude in bringing her own ideas and way of doing things to the project. After getting an initial plan, outline or set of ideas together, the subordinate would then be expected to return to her supervisor for hō-ren-sō, showing him what she’d done so far and getting feedback. The subordinate would then take this feedback and work on the project more before returning to her supervisor for further comment. This process is repeated multiple times over the course of the project, keeping the supervisor aware of how the project is shaping up at every step of the way — and giving him multiple opportunities to offer suggestions.

An important part of this process is that the subordinate is expected to initiate hō-ren-sō by coming to the supervisor, rather than the supervisor having to come to the subordinate to ask her how things are going.

Dave’s situation at the start of this article illustrates a typical clash of Western and Japanese ways of doing things. Dave is working under the assumption that he should “work well independently” (a skill lauded on school report cards across North America) and bring the project to a state of what he believes is completion before showing it to his Japanese manager. When the manager receives it, however, he thinks that Dave is taking the first step in hō-ren-sō, initiating the back-and-forth process common to Japanese workplaces.

My recommendation is that if you are working with a Japanese manager who prefers this kind of hō-ren-sō — and I find that most do — then don’t proceed too far in your project before giving them a look at what you’re doing. This ensures that you don’t go too far down the wrong path accidentally, which can be easy to do when you’ve been provided with vague instructions at first. Checking in will allow you to get input at a stage when it’s helpful rather than later when it’s an annoying setback that causes you to do some of your work over.

Why can’t I just do it myself?

A common complaint from non-Japanese employees who work with Japanese bosses is a feeling of a lack of independence. In many countries, employees have autonomy over their work, so that the final product becomes a personal creation of sorts — have you ever heard someone in a U.S. office refer to their work as their “baby”?

In Japan however, work is something that is birthed by many people, and that’s why the hō-ren-sō process is considered a strength in the world of Japanese business.

In addition to this group process, the way that managers are evaluated by their superiors also plays a part in their tendency to micromanage. A manager is considered personally responsible for all of the work that comes out of her section or department.

When I was working at a Japanese bank in Tokyo, I once prepared a memo in Japanese that had a word choice that one of the firm’s directors found annoying. I was the one who wrote the memo and chose that particular phrasing, but despite my insistence that I was the one who should be blamed if it wasn’t appropriate, my manager insisted on taking responsibility for it. He argued that he should have caught and changed it, so it was right for him to take the blame. In an environment in which there is zero tolerance for mistakes, what results is a massive amount of checking and double-checking of subordinates’ work by their supervisors.

Japanese companies tend to have multiple layers of management (often more than necessary, in my opinion). Each layer will take a look at a piece of work before it is finally approved, and each may suggest changes or adjustments. Indeed, some Japanese have told me that if they are given something to review then they feel they must make some kind of suggestion or else they risk being viewed as not having added any value. This can result in minor changes that aren’t necessarily real improvements.

Japanese firms also tend to care a lot about process and appearance. Thus the attention to elements such as font size, which might seem minor and irrelevant to many non-Japanese employees. Rather than “whatever gets the job done,” there is a “relentless pursuit of perfection” approach to every task, even for things that will only be used internally at the company.

Unfortunately I can’t offer a magic wand that will make Japanese supervisors stop micromanaging — it’s a practice that is embedded in the culture. However, hopefully by understanding the culture behind the process you will be able to minimize the back-and-forth and come to some kind of peace with the collaborative approach to a task that the Japanese prefer.

Rochelle Kopp is a management consultant working with Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga.”) You can find her on Twitter at: @JapanIntercult.