The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably changed the workplace. Many companies have shifted from physical offices to virtual spaces, allowing employees to work from home and relying on digital platforms more than ever to keep colleagues connected even if they can’t see each other in person.
The truths in business consultant Laura Kriska’s book, “The Business of We,” however, remain unchanged. “When you think of COVID, the ‘We-approach’ is the only way to go,” she says to The Japan Times.
For Kriska, the We-approach has been decades in the making, and its genesis started in Japan. Born in Tokyo to missionary parents, Kriska moved back to the United States after two years, but elements of Japanese culture remained with her. In college, Kriska decided to study for one year at Waseda University in Tokyo as an exchange student, eventually completing her degree in Japanese Studies when she returned to Denison University in Ohio.
But it wasn’t until she was offered a two-year position at automaker Honda’s corporate headquarters — becoming the first American woman to fill the role — that she started to put together her vision for the future.
“I worked with 10 Japanese office ladies — all lovely, young and single,” Kriska writes in her book. “We supported the 40 directors of the company by serving tea, cleaning ashtrays and sharpening pencils. Despite my strong desire to be part of the team, I just didn’t fit in. The way I looked, the way I spoke Japanese, my unintentional failure to follow the rules — both written and unwritten — caused an ‘us versus them’ dynamic. I was definitely, and conspicuously, the only them.”
This experience of corporate otherness — covered in detail in her first book, “The Accidental Office Lady” — led Kriska to a lifelong devotion to bridging cultural divides in the workplace.
The We-approach starts with what Kriska labels as “small gestures,” such as pronouncing someone’s name correctly, bringing in snacks to share, or, in Kriska’s case, organizing a Halloween party to get to know colleagues better. These small gestures add up to healthier relationships, which inevitably create better odds that the business will be successful. In Kriska’s case, her Halloween party led to the revelation that many of her female colleagues disliked the work uniform, and Kriska led a successful campaign to change Honda’s dress code policy.
“Some of my colleagues,” Kriska says, “felt the way I did about the uniform, that it was out-of-date, not stylish and not appropriate for a professional woman to wear.” By getting to know her colleagues better, Kriska was able to voice a concern that many of them shared.
Kriska places the various acts of the We-approach into three levels: ‘safe,’ ‘challenging’ and ‘radical.’ If an employee, for example, learns a few words of a colleague’s native language, this would be considered a safe gesture. Where it becomes challenging is when the employee chooses to use those new words during a conversation with the colleague. If the business relationship has worked so far, the employee could then think of radical actions, such as requesting to management a change in work schedules to accommodate important culturally sacred holidays.
The book features examples that show why such approaches are necessary. Kriska witnessed firsthand one example involving the president of a Japanese company who’d been transferred into an American subsidiary. According to Kriska, he “nearly destroyed the fragile relationship between the Americans and Japanese in the company” by calling for meetings about important production initiatives with only Japanese staff. His attempt to make sure he would be understood in his native language inadvertently led to alienating anyone who could not speak Japanese.
The consequences of this breakdown in communication were profound. To Kriska, many Japanese executives are too fearful of making language mistakes when interacting with non-Japanese employees. “Too often the concern about doing something wrong outweighs the benefit the organization would gain by including a diverse range of voices,” Kriska says.
Kriska’s book also offers many original, workshop-tested assessments, surveys and questionnaires that managers can utilize to better understand their workforce. Whether faced with a growing minority of employees from another culture or generational misunderstandings, Kriska is interested in healing the division through honest dialogue and action. Managers in particular, as she notes in the book, have the responsibility of taking the first step in bridging communication gaps.
“Shedding one’s protective armor in order to narrow an ‘us’ and ‘them’ gap can be difficult,” she writes. “Managers need to exhibit courage and encourage their employees to do likewise.”
The book also includes a valuable 10-question self-assessment, designed by Kriska as a simple but effective tool that provides “immediate information on how well a person has integrated into a target cultural group.”
“The Business of We” is a book of refreshing clarity and vision. Its lessons, gained from years of cross-cultural experience, will benefit the ever-changing workplace. As many of us continue to work remotely, Kriska’s book is a keen reminder to encourage ourselves and others to, in her words, “push connection across difference.”
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