The recent passage of a bill requiring companies to set numerical goals in hiring and promoting women should improve the working environment for them, a Harvard Business School professor has said.
But Linda Hill cautions that Japan still has far to go in creating the kind of diversified workplace needed for innovation.
“Transparency will put companies under pressure … and it will allow women to make choices,” said Linda Hill, a guest panelist at the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo last month, speaking to The Japan Times.
For Japanese companies to be innovative, they need to create a workplace where women can demonstrate their potential, said Hill, co-author of “Collective Genius,” which examines the work of leading innovators.
She said problems might emerge once more women join companies, as they are less likely to be viewed as potential visionaries because of their different approach to problem-solving.
“My worry is, do we know how to evaluate those women,” she said.
Prejudice could cloud judgment when companies hire or promote female workers, at times depriving them of the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder, said Hill, an expert on corporate leadership.
In the past, American companies would reject female applicants who did not play team sports, Hill said, as they presumed the women would not be good leaders.
Companies need to offer opportunities for female workers to learn how to lead and demonstrate their potential if firms want to diversify their workplace, she said.
And the role of corporate leaders is to create an environment that triggers innovation: Hill describes this as collaborative problem-solving among people of different backgrounds and expertise.
“To sustain success you need more leaders who know how to develop talent that would know what to do what’s necessary, leaders who know how to embrace diversity more,” she said. “Japan needs leaders who can get the most out of diverse thinking so they can indeed innovate.”
Hill has observed Japanese companies trying to change their managerial strategies and to become more innovative. These include Mitsubishi Corp., where Japanese workers including executives are required to communicate with colleagues from other countries in English.
“Whether or not that diversity is celebrated and amplified depends on (who) at the top looks at those ideas,” Hill said.
The tight chain of command common in Japanese corporate culture may also make it difficult for innovative ideas to reach senior management decision-makers.
“In such cultures, you’re much more likely to have people think things need to be fairly top-down: I’m the one who leads and you’re the one who follows,” she said. In those cases, employees tend to wait for instructions rather than making proposals on their own.
Hill has spent more than a decade studying some of the world’s most creative companies, including Google Inc.
She believes Japanese employers need to create an environment where workers feel “enough psychological safety” to have the confidence to submit ideas to their supervisors.
“We know that most … (attempts at innovation) don’t actually work. They’re false starts,” Hill said, noting that such attempts may be difficult at established companies because workers are afraid of losing face.
She said Japan is not the only country where business leaders struggle to maintain a balance between the chain of command and workers who seek to convey innovative ideas to decision makers.
One theory of management, that of visionary leadership, created in the U.S. in 1990s and adopted by many firms as a managerial strategy, states that all leaders need a vision of a better future. The leader pursues a top-down approach to achieve the corporate goal.
“But if you want to build an organization that can innovate, you have to figure out how to balance that with a more bottom-up approach, since most innovation comes from collaborative work.”
She stressed that differences should be amplified, not minimized.
“The idea that you have conflict, that you need to be able to debate those ideas, is one of the parts of the puzzle that would be more difficult because of the culture (in Japan) and particularly across levels,” Hill said. “And if you can’t have that debate, you don’t get a robust marketplace of ideas.”