After I had spent over a year working at a Japanese bank in Tokyo, I felt like something was wrong but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I knew I was doing a good job, and my work was going smoothly, but something was missing. Then, one day on his way out of the office for the day, the general manager of my department passed behind my desk. Without stopping, he blurted out “I’d like to tell you that you’re doing a good job, but I’m afraid it would just go to your head and you’d stop trying so hard.”
As he waltzed out, I sat there in shock, because I now knew what hadn’t felt right to me — I hadn’t been getting any verbal feedback, and now I understood why.
Pointing out the positive
In my home country of the United States, if you perform well at work, then you are likely to receive some positive verbal feedback, but it’s not as common in Japanese culture. In Japan, you may get nonverbal indications that your work is valued: You may be given more work, more responsible or complex work, or invited to important meetings or to meet visiting VIPs. You might be invited out for dinner, or given o-miyage (souvenirs) when someone comes back from a business trip. You may even have someone spend extra time pointing out areas where you can improve — which looks like negative feedback but is actually a form of positive feedback in the Japanese workplace. But you’re probably not going to have anyone say, “Thanks for the fantastic job!”
The Japanese do not tend to be verbally effusive with positive feedback and, in many cases, feel it’s unnecessary or even strange. As an example from outside of the workplace, one of my American friends is married to a Japanese man. They have a happy marriage but evidently there is one thing that really bothers her — her husband doesn’t say “I love you” every day, something she expected would happen when she got married. Her Japanese husband is puzzled by this, and his response is: “Why do I have to say it? Isn’t it obvious, I’m still married to you, aren’t I?”
Japanese culture often prioritizes actions over words, and many people tend to be uncomfortable with and suspicious of overly effusive praise. A Japanese subordinate who gets a big dose of positive feedback from their boss may think that she’s just buttering them up for something, and feel that it isn’t sincere. In fact, in Japanese politics homegoroshi (“killing by praise”) is a technique used to embarrass a rival by showering them with overblown praise. And like my general manager, many Japanese feel that praise has a deleterious effect, causing people to rest on their laurels and stop improving.
So if you’re working with Japanese colleagues, it’s important to get used to the fact that you probably won’t be getting as much positive feedback as you might have been accustomed to in your home country, even though you are doing just as good work. Rather than rely on verbal recognition, look for signs that your work is appreciated and is being utilized.
If you’re managing Japanese subordinates, you’ll want to be careful with positive feedback as well. Too much and your subordinate may feel it sounds fake. Make sure your feedback is grounded in concrete examples rather than simply a bunch of superlatives, and any positive feedback should be given one-on-one, as singling out one person for praise in front of others will engender jealousy and negatively impact teamwork.
Some Japanese managers give a lot of negative feedback, while some don’t give any at all. I find that some Japanese managers give a lot of feedback in the form of small corrections, with the intention of that being a form of training. This is actually a good sign, that the manager thinks you are worth the investment of time. Because there usually isn’t a counterbalancing verbal positive feedback statement, it can be easy to interpret this kind of feedback as being purely negative, when it really isn’t.
On the other hand, when it comes to major issues that bother them about their employees’ work, I find that many Japanese managers tend to completely avoid giving negative feedback. This is often due to a general reluctance to have to deliver a message that the other person doesn’t want to hear, and a concern that the recipient will over-react to the negative message and either become upset or lose motivation.
Japanese managers tend to exhibit this same avoidance of feedback with Japanese subordinates also, but it’s often even more so with non-Japanese subordinates, due to the language and culture barrier. I’ve seen many situations in which a Japanese manager was extremely irritated by something their non-Japanese subordinate was doing, but didn’t give them clear feedback about it. In many cases, the Japanese manager finally got so fed up that they ended up firing the employee.
It may seem unfair that many Japanese managers won’t actually tell you directly what it is you’re doing that annoys them, but there are ways to find out. The first is simply to pay attention to subtle signs that the manager might be sending, including things like frowns and sighs. The second thing you can do is try to gently pry some feedback out. In order to do this, I recommend sitting down with your manager (perhaps over a drink in the evening, which is the traditional setting in Japan for this kind of conversation) and asking “Do you have any advice for me about how to improve my work?” or “Is there anything you would like me to change about my work?” This kind of specific question is going to be more effective than just asking “do you have any feedback for me,” which might leave many Japanese puzzled as to how to answer, because it’s not something that a Japanese subordinate would be likely to ask.
When giving feedback to Japanese colleagues, keep in mind that many of them aren’t used to receiving it because they don’t get much of it from their managers. Also, many Japanese tend to be very hard on themselves, so if your negative feedback is too heavy-handed you run the risk of discouraging them. I recommend keeping negative feedback to your Japanese subordinates very concrete, with specific examples of what you would like them to work on.
Feedback is a foreign concept that doesn’t have a good native Japanese equivalent, which is why it’s rendered in katakana rather than having an original kanji. So it’s not surprising that it’s not part of the standard communication repertoire in the Japanese workplace. Understanding this, being a good observer and asking good questions can help you bridge the gap and get the information you need to be effective.
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.