The Trend Is Your Friend

Assertiveness training is on the rise
By David Wagner
Partner, The Carter Group

Talk to anyone who is in business in Japan and Abenomics usually will enter the conversation. Structural and financial reforms seem to be the topic of the day.

However, in the training world—where I come from—the discussion is increasingly focused on creating assertive leaders who can manage global business situations.

It is then that one realises something: as is the case with economic growth, Japan’s people—not simply its institutions—are behind the global curve.

Certainly, Japan’s economic stagnation has lasted more than 20 years. But communication stagnation, ever present among Japan’s corporate workers, has existed far longer. Yet this equally challenging problem does not attract the same level of attention.

Anyone who has seen a typical Japanese salaried employee try to manage a conference call involving several nationalities—let’s say a Brazilian, Russian, Chinese, South Korean and an American—knows that Japan’s communication deficit with the rest of the world is hurting it dearly.

Let me give you a more concrete example. I was recently engaged by a Japanese firm to conduct a two-day training session for new employees. The session’s goal was to expose the employees to a fast-moving scenario that would test their skills in teamwork, decision-making and time management.

The 30 members of the group of newly hired staff included 10 Chinese who were highly proficient in their ability to speak Japanese.

To my amazement, the Chinese outperformed the Japanese in all categories. They thought outside the box and offered new ideas and solutions faster, more clearly and more efficiently than their Japanese counterparts.

It was a wake-up call to the young Japanese in the room. Multiply this phenomenon by the tens of thousands of firms and millions of Japanese workers here, and one begins to grasp the magnitude of the problem.

Most Japanese business people do know how to transform readily available information into persuasive arguments when conversing in English. Thus, the issue is not one of intelligence.

Instead, lack of experience and limited risk-taking inhibits Japanese business people’s desired outcomes when working with non-Japanese. It is for this reason that training Japanese in assertion skills is key to Japan’s future success.

Failure to do so diminishes Japan’s chances of reaching its true potential in the global community.

In group-oriented Japan, most Japanese are not raised to speak their minds. Since harmonious relations are the goal in the workplace here, decisions are achieved through consensus formation behind the scenes. Thus, when a decision becomes public, key players are already on board.

However, in global business settings, this is often not the way non-Japanese make decisions. Rather, the decisions are made, for example, during meetings and teleconferences. At such times, those who are successful in their job are likely to possess the ability to articulate ideas clearly, respond to others quickly and, thus, convince people effectively.

Getting Japanese to be able to control situations they may face in international business involves, first, establishing a change in mind-set. A good place to start is with the fact that Japanese is not English.

That’s right: Japanese is not English. A common mistake Japanese people make when speaking English is to use their natural, indirect communication style when expressing their thoughts.

Unfortunately, this does not work well because English is a direct language. Thus, getting Japanese people to be comfortable with the notion that emulating the style of others is acceptable is an important strategy for winning in the global arena.

Once the reason for using a different communication style has been understood, and the ability to use it achieved, the focus next should be on delivery.

Practicing the art of structuring information in easy-to-understand segments contributes to an influential result.

Virtually eliminating silence from conversation and replacing it with words that express intent become the next communication target.

Again, a paradigm shift is required. Taking risks and sometimes failing are part of the process.

As Japan’s population continues to decline, increasingly more Japanese will be making business trips abroad, while larger numbers will be moving overseas as firms expand globally.

At the same time, growing numbers of non-Japanese will be moving to Japan. The need for assertive communication should be abundantly clear.

Were I a betting man, I would put my money on Japan rising to the challenge.