Bouncing Ideas in Japan

Ideas are meant to be discussed and dissected, at least that's what I thought. However for new leaders managing a Japan team, don't freely dispense your ideas or suggestions. You may have the best of intentions. However when you dispense new ideas, it may imply that someone's work is not good enough in Japan.



Once, I delegated a project to a team member. "Since it's a first task for you, why don't you come up with a plan first? Once you thought about it, we can brainstorm in our next 1-on-one?" I have said.


He came up with a plan. I thought it was good but I wanted to help him make it great.


"Shall we bounce ideas? See how things may work on other perspectives?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, nodding.

"Hey...have we consider this...? Oh, here's another thought...." I was getting into the excitement of throwing all ideas on the table.


Working in Hong Kong for a long time, having discussions like this feels natural. Put all ideas on the table. Determine which are the dumbest one and start eliminating one by one. (Also getting interrupted while you are talking is the most natural thing in the world, but that's a different topic...)


However, I sensed the very subtle change in the air. The mood has shifted. Ever since I started working in Japan, I have learnt to read the air better.


"You know...we are just bouncing ideas. It's not a feedback on you, in case that's what you are thinking," I said.


"Well...I should have thought about this more carefully," he said.


This is culture differences at play in Japan. In Erin Meyer's book "The Culture Map", she talked about how Japanese's preferred style is to dispense negative feedback indirectly.


In my team member's mind, when I brought up suggestions, it implied that his work is not good enough.


In my mind, suggestions are just ideas. Ideas are meant to be discussed, dissected and rejected. Making sure we cover all perspectives to bring out the best in the project was more important to me.

(Source: https://erinmeyer.com/tools/)


I work in Tokyo, Japan. Majority of employees in our Tokyo office are Japanese. To a certain extent, even though I work for a global company that has a headquarter in New York, each regional office has its own culture nuances. I think there's really no good or bad. There are things to learn from each other. Most importantly, we should all learn how to adapt and flex our communication style.


If you are a new manager for a Japan team, be mindful. Don't just freely dispense ideas, especially unsolicited. You may think you are brainstorming. You may have the best of intentions. However, you may be perceived as giving critical feedback.


There are a few DOs I learnt being a leader in Japan

  • DO explain your intention. It's to make your project great.

  • DO offer your reassurance. This is not a criticism.

  • DO ask if your team member prefers to hear all your ideas first. I've some team members who are more comfortable with this. Some want to cover all details before having a discussion with you. Some adventurous ones may want to independently attempt themselves to learn something.


There is no right or wrong way. At the end of the day, it's finding the best way that works for everyone. As a leader, your job is to elevate so find the best way that works best for your team.