Japan is known for its rich and unique culture. Group harmony (wa), private mind (honne) and public mind (tatemae), and intuition through contemplation (Zen) are some of the core concepts underlying Japanese culture. We also find distinctive HR practices and trends leadership emergence in Japan.
Lifetime employment (shūshin koyō) has traditionally been the foundation of Japanese organizations’ HR systems. Many companies in Japan hire new graduates and employ them until they retire. Organizations provide training support throughout employees’ lifetime careers, as well as cross-functional job rotation opportunities to key talent. This helps people broaden their skillsets and experience in different positions across the company.
Employee retention in Japan has traditionally been quite high, and employees look internally for promotion opportunities. Japanese employees may also expect their organizations to take good care of them and advance their careers if they follow the companies’ policies and procedures. This contrasts with other countries and markets such as the United States, for example, where employees believe they are personally responsible for their career progression and success.
Japanese business leaders have a unique style of leadership that creates different expectations for employees than what may be expected from business leaders in American, European, and other Asian markets. In the US, leaders may tend to exhibit stronger individual drive and push their teams for ambitious results, whereas leaders in Japan are expected to exhibit effective team coordination skills. They also may focus more on consensus building with other leaders and ensuring peace and order with their teammates, rather than competing and driving for results. Charisma, overconfidence, and self-promotion are almost necessary for leaders to get noticed and promoted in the US, but in Japan, these characteristics are frowned upon and could be perceived as a threat to the achievement of collective goals and harmony.
Hogan has been working with distributors in Japan since 2013 to offer assessments and select reports in Japanese to the local market. Over the years, we have collected extensive data on leadership in Japan. Based on a sample of more than 3,000 Japanese leaders, our findings paint a unique portrait of leadership emergence in Japan.
What Do Japanese Leaders Want?
Hogan’s Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) measures the core goals, values, drivers, and interests that determine what people desire and strive to attain. Japanese leaders score, on average, lower on the MVPI Power and Recognition scales. This shows that Japanese leaders value noncompetitive work environments where decision-making, responsibility, and credit are shared collectively rather than spotlighted on a few individuals. On one hand, low scores on MVPI’s Recognition scale suggest leaders may value humility and being low-key about their accomplishments. Leaders with low results on the Recognition scale may not prioritize offering verbal praise or celebrating accomplishments. On the other hand, low scores on the MVPI Power scale indicate Japanese leaders may value a participative and a democratic decision-making style by seeking feedback and input from others.
Japanese leaders also score, on average, lower on the Tradition scale. This suggests they may value flexibility and fluidity in how decisions are made and things are done, as well as a focus on progress and modernity. Interestingly, these trends in personality traits are consistent with the Japanese Zen culture, which emphasizes impermanence, transience, and mindfulness.
How Will Leaders in Japan Get What They Want?
The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) measures how we relate to others when we are at our best. It provides valuable insight into how people work, how they lead, and how they achieve success. Japanese leaders tend to score, on average, lower on the HPI Ambition scale, indicating they are supportive, team oriented, and have a flexible agenda to accommodate team, peer, and superior opinions. They may shy away from pressuring direct reports and may avoid engaging in unnecessary rivalries and quarrels with colleagues. In line with the concept of wa, Japanese leaders are expected to promote group harmony, and Japan’s culture tends to promote low scores on HPI’s Ambition scale. This trend is particularly interesting, as we observe that leaders in other markets around the world, such as the US for example, tend to score higher on the HPI Ambition scale.
Japanese leaders also tend to score lower on the HPI’s Learning Approach scale. Leaders who score low on this scale tend to have a pragmatic and purpose-driven approach to learning. They are unlikely to get distracted by extraneous readings or training that is peripheral to what helps them solve problems. Instead, they will prefer to use only what will help them get their work done. We can see how this plays out with Japanese companies tending to foster experiential learning through on-the-job training and job rotation across different functions.
What Will Get in Japanese Leaders’ Way?
The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) measures overused strengths that emerge in times of increased strain, pressure, or boredom. If not managed, these qualities can damage one’s reputation and relationships, derailing one’s career and success. Japanese leaders tend to score higher on the HDS’s Moving Away cluster, especially on the Cautious scale. Leaders that display this pattern are known as careful, thorough, independent, and objective, which facilitates developing root-cause solutions. However, they may tend to shy away from problems, rather than confront them head-on. This may lead others to perceive them as inhibited, aloof, or cold, as well as indecisive and risk averse.
Because Japanese leaders may tend to first build consensus on (a) whether a problem exists, then (b) determining how to solve that problem, these leaders may find themselves naturally sticking to their solutions and decisions. However, under stress, Japanese leaders may easily fall into overanalysis or overreliance on consensus. For fear of being criticized by their peers or superiors, Japanese leaders may feel the need to review all available data, ask for second and third opinions, and gain alignment with all decision-making parties prior to finally making a decision. Instead of sharing their dissatisfaction, unpopular opinions, or worries with others, thereby causing disharmony, these leaders may instead withdraw, feel resentful and disappointed, and deal with these difficult emotions on their own. We find this is consistent with the concepts of honne (i.e., a person’s true feelings and desires) versus tatemae (i.e., the behavior and opinions one displays in public).
What Can We Learn from Japanese Leaders’ Personality Data?
The unique trends of leadership emergence in Japan that we observe in our personality data can offer a deeper understanding of expectations the Japanese workforce may have for leaders. Using personality provides us with a more nuanced and workforce-oriented explanation for the “cultural” differences we see in leadership styles. If we know that Japanese leaders tend to drive purposeful innovation, focus on rigorous problem-solving, and go about this through strong consensus building, we can adapt the ways we interact to plan, strategize, communicate, and lead more effectively.
The average trends we describe are indicative of the emergent leadership style of Japanese leaders. However, the emergent leadership style we see occurring is not necessarily the most effective style of leadership. Indeed, it is imperative to differentiate between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness in Japan. Although Japanese leaders tend to score lower on average on Ambition, higher Ambition scores still predict effectiveness in Japanese leaders. Given the context of the lower Ambition leadership landscape in Japan, however, this energy and drive to succeed must be channeled toward team building and pursuing collective goals. We may conclude that effective Japanese leaders successfully balance getting ahead and getting along.
This blog post was authored by Anne-Marie Paiement, PhD, senior consultant, and Krista Pederson, managing director of Asia-Pacific business development.