General

Nobody's perfect, but an apology really helps at a Japanese company

by Rochelle Kopp

Contributing Writer

What if you were doing something that drove your Japanese colleagues crazy, but you didn’t realize it? Conducting seminars for Japanese businesspeople who work with people from other countries, I found a common theme that comes up every time I ask what behaviors of their foreign colleagues are hard for them to deal with.

Comments like “They don’t take responsibility for their mistakes,” “They try to blame others for things that are their fault,” “They make excuses” and “They don’t apologize when they have done something wrong” have come up consistently. This was puzzling to me, as I didn’t personally feel that I or any other non-Japanese person would be particularly likely to go overboard on excuses or blame others for things they did.

I spent some time looking into why these Japanese workers felt this way about their foreign colleagues and discovered an expectation I wasn’t familiar with, and that you might not be either — hansei. Because non-Japanese employees tend to skip this one thing that the Japanese feel is essential, negative perceptions tend to arise. By learning how to do hansei whenever you have made a mistake or there is a problem, I believe you’ll be able to avoid generating negative feelings and get yourself back in the good books much more quickly.

The importance of hansei

Hansei is difficult to translate into English. Dictionaries will list it as reflection or introspection, but the closest approximation in the company setting would be something like “reflecting on what one has done wrong and thinking about how to improve.” The Japanese are taught from a young age to hansei whenever they have made a mistake or something has gone wrong. And in Japanese business, it is considered an essential step in moving forward after there has been a problem.

For the most part, the way many non-Japanese employees instinctively act toward mistakes or failures not only is not hansei, it is actually the opposite, which can be quite irritating to their Japanese colleagues. This is something that personally I wasn’t consciously aware of until it was pointed out to me by some of my Japanese clients, but now that I know about it I find myself doing it all the time.

When something goes wrong, as part of the hansei process, your typical Japanese employee will immediately acknowledge that the problem was their fault and take responsibility for it by verbally apologizing for it (in some cases, apologizing even if the problem was not strictly their fault). However, non-Japanese workers often put the emphasis on something other than themselves as the cause of the problem — either someone else or “human error,” or something out of their control like the weather or traffic. Furthermore, many non-Japanese tend to resist apologizing.

In the United States, for example, people tend to only apologize for things that were clearly their own responsibility, with no other causes or extenuating factors involved. Furthermore, due to the prevalence of lawsuits, people tend to avoid apologizing lest they be seen as accepting full legal liability for what happened.

This tendency to deflect from oneself is typical in a variety of cultures. For example, my Japanese colleague Misako lived in Belgium earlier in her career, and tells me that after her first day on the playground the first words in French that her young daughter learned were “Ce n’est pas ma faute (It’s not my fault).” This type of deflection is so ingrained that many of us do it without being conscious of it, but it’s best to be aware of it and try to curb this reaction when working at a Japanese company.

The second part of the hansei process is to offer specific suggestions for preventing the same problem from happening again. This is based on the assumption that you put some thought into the reasons why the problem happened and do some analysis of how you can make sure that it doesn’t happen again. In some business situations, such as a supplier delivering a defective part to a customer, this is expected to be a rather detailed analysis presented in a formal way. In an everyday business situation it doesn’t necessarily need to be so formal, but the expectation is that you will have to put some effort into it.

An apology in action

Let’s look at an example to contrast the Japanese hansei approach with what is often typical in other environments. Say you end up being late for work one day. In countries other than Japan, upon arriving at the office one might breezily say: “Sorry I’m late! There was a big accident and traffic was really backed up.” In this case, circumstances outside of the employee’s control, such as the traffic, are pointed to — even if, in reality, the fact that the employee left home a little on the late side not leaving much slack for unexpected delays was a contributing factor. In contrast, the Japanese employee who is late would be expected to bow their head and apologize profusely, might not mention the traffic jam at all, and would likely offer a plan for avoiding the same thing happening again, such as “I’ll leave home earlier in the future.” This approach would be better accepted in a Japanese work environment.

Here’s a real-life example of how someone used the hansei approach to smooth over a situation with some Japanese colleagues that otherwise might have become a huge problem. I once had the opportunity to talk to an American man who worked at a company conducting outsourced clinical trials for pharmaceutical firms. These trials involved injecting large numbers of rats, who are kept in cages in a large room, with various substances as part of the experiments.

One day, there was an accident in the lab. While one of the technicians was cleaning the cages, one of the rats got loose. While looking for the rat, the technician accidentally stepped on it and killed it. This meant that a data point for the experiment was lost, which is a very bad thing to happen in a clinical trial. The American I spoke to was the leader of the project, and had the unenviable position of having to report this accident to the Japanese company that was the customer for that particular trial. In this situation, it would not be unusual for a client to be extremely upset. Fortunately, he had worked in a Japanese setting previously and had some familiarity with the hansei process.

He drafted a letter to the client, in which he first of all apologized profusely for the unfortunate incident, explaining the facts of what had happened and taking full responsibility for it. He then said, “We have taken steps to make sure that this will not happen again. Since this technician is a talented one, we do not want to remove her from the trial. Instead, we have instructed her that if a mouse ever escapes in this way again, she is to not move her feet and is to call to others to come assist her in looking for it. And that everyone should keep their eyes on their feet while moving, so as to avoid stepping on the mouse inadvertently.”

The others in his lab thought this sounded a bit silly, but he assured them that even in the case of an unusual accident like this one, it was important to show the Japanese customer that they had a specific plan for making sure that it would not recur in the future. And indeed this approach satisfied the customer, who was much less angry than it was feared they might be, and a rift in the relationship was avoided.

The best way to apply this approach will differ depending on the situation. However, if you remember to apologize sincerely, avoid trying to deflect blame to others or to extenuating circumstances, and include a plan for how to do better in the future, you’ll be able to clean up any mess you make much easier.

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.