Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Gaijin Boss

Power does funny things to people. As many people know from personal experience, most people who rise to positions of authority behave differently than when they were in subordinate positions. Generally speaking, they tend to forget what it is like "at the bottom" and tend to side more with their superiors or identify with the company's needs more strongly than the employees'.

Those who live in Japan and rise to positions of authority, on the whole, tend to be no exception to this tendency. The difference is that the transformation seems more complete and jarring because the person is not only making a transition from grunt to boss but also from westerner to Japanese. In my opinion, the need to take this extra cross-cultural leap makes many people go to extremes in order to "fit in" better with their Japanese colleagues.

It's always been my impression that the main function of most gaijin bosses in Japanese workplaces has been to act as a buffer and a communicative conduit between the Japanese management and the foreign employees. Most foreigners, particularly in teaching situations, are elevated in status to bridge the gap in cultures and to smooth over any problems as well as communicate the company's needs and wishes more clearly or in a more culturally-acceptable context.

The Japanese are not about forcing people to do things against their will. They are about getting consensus and smoothing things over so that everyone works harmoniously. While many foreigners believe the Japanese work hard because they are wage slaves cowed into submission by the wishes of their superiors, the truth is that there is a lot of tolerance in the Japanese workplace of illness (both mental and physical), skill-based short-comings, and personal quirks. While there are some cases where workers are bullied into compliance, I believe this is the exception rather than the rule.

The job for the gaijin boss is not to cram the foreign square pegs into the round Japanese holes but that is all too infrequently how they behave and the mindset they act from. I've always felt that this has everything to do with ingratiating themselves with their Japanese bosses because they think that this will please them and help secure their position. Some foreign bosses even believe it is their place to dictate behavior to foreign employees very strictly and that the role that they fill is being the one who is resented or hated for it rather than the Japanese. These gaijin bosses tend to lack insight and essentially function as "yes" men for the Japanese. They tend to listen, regurgitate, infuriate, and report back that the message has been delivered. They don't add anything to the communication process.

Since, I've had the good fortune during most of my working life in Japan to have a boss who was very good at being a gaijin boss, I could see what the role is meant to be through those experiences. My former boss always looked at both sides of the equation. He would listen to what the Japanese wanted and if he felt they were being unrealistic or asking for too much, he's tell them so and why. There were a great many occasions where he'd battle with them about the unfairness or what they were requesting before he even brought up the topic with me. In such cases, if he couldn't get the president to ease off on ridiculous requests, he'd convey the message in such a way that made it clear that he understood too much was being asked but he had no choice but to make the request.

Fortunately, my boss's understanding of Japanese culture and his ability to approach the Japanese in a way that allowed them to appreciate the arguments or second thoughts he had frequently resulted in more palatable requests. He almost always managed to reshape a request so that it fit within the framework of the employment contract without stretching the boundaries of what was reasonable in the clause which said employees would 'do other tasks as required by the company'.

There were numerous occasions where my boss ran interference for foreign employees and I'm sure there are more than I was aware of that never reached my ears. One of the more recent ones that I recall didn't involve me but was interesting nonetheless. Part of my former company's multi-pronged business is contracting with companies to provide course design and materials as well as teachers to teach in the companies themselves. The teachers who teach these lessons contract with my former company one job at a time. For instance, someone may sign a contract to teach from 6:00-8:00 pm every Friday for 6 months at Company X at ¥4,000 an hour plus travel expenses. This would be a pretty standard arrangement.

Occasionally, companies would have other commitments that they prefer their employees attend to rather than the scheduled English lessons. If a company were to need to cancel the lesson on the same day, the teacher's contract stated the teacher would be paid for the lesson. The Japanese salespeople who deal with the companies dislike this because the company gets nothing and the teacher gets the money. On one of these occasions, a moderate typhoon had occurred later in the evening (long after the cancellation was made for other reasons and too late in the evening to actually affect attending the lesson) and the salesman who was in charge of the company suggested the company lie and say the cancellation was because of the weather. The standard teaching contract stipulates that cancellations on the same day don't have to be paid in the event of a natural disaster so the salesman made this suggestion to gain favor with the company.

The company happily leaped on the suggestion and the salesman told my boss to inform the teacher. The timing of the typhoon made it completely obvious that a cancellation for that reason was very dubious and my boss argued that they would alienate the teacher and also said that this was exactly the sort of shady business practice which would result in the company getting a bad reputation and ultimately would make it even harder for them to find teachers to fulfill contracts than it already was. He convinced my former company to absorb the expense of the lesson (since the salesman had already told the customer he wouldn't have to pay) and pay the teacher rather than allow them to blithely do something underhanded and screw the teacher over.

I'm sorry to say that gaijin bosses with my former boss's ability to exercise skill in dealing with both sides and demonstrate even-handedness are rare in my experience. Most of the other gaijins I've known who were in positions of authority acted pretty much as mouthpieces for the Japanese because they lacked the insight, ability or backbone to do anything more.


Luis said...

It can often be hard for the gaijin 'boss' in other ways, too. There are differences in what is accepted and not accepted in western and Japanese offices. There are good points and bad points for each. What I have observed is that both sides--teachers and upper Japanese management--tend to expect the best of both worlds. Teachers will demand the rights they expect from a westernized workplace, but will also try to latch onto the advantages of a Japanese workplace; the Japanese management will do the same. The gaijin middle manager (s/he's rarely the "real" boss) has to take the unfortunate role of telling both sides that they can't have it both ways.

The gaijin manager also has to do some shielding, like you mentioned. The Japanese management will do stuff like you related--stuff which would usually fly with a Japanese-only staff (they may not like it, but they'll take it more often than not) would be responded to with outrage by a foreign worker. So the gaijin manager has to play the buffer role you mentioned. But it also goes the other way. S/he has to absorb complaints and statements from teachers that won't go over well with the J-management. Such management often works in a reactionary way: they hear something, anything, which sounds bad, and they react to it. Keep quiet, and they do nothing.

A case in point: at my school, we have frequent faculty meetings. Some teachers get good schedules that allow them Fridays off or better--but then have to come in for faculty meetings anyway. A few talked about this at a meeting recently, nothing big--but when word of it got back to upper management via a Japanese staffer, the management started talking about changing contracts so as not to allow such days off at all.

Which is another problem with J-management: they can't stand the sight of a worker getting some time off while being paid. Even if the worker fulfills all the contractual obligations, all the work is done--it sits poorly with them to see someone they're paying not have to work 9-5 or more.

Another thing the gaijin manager has to work out--if the J-management then comes in and gives busy-work, it ticks off the foreign staff.

Shari said...

My main issue isn't with telling both sides they can't have it both ways. My main problem is those gaijin bosses who essentially tell the foreigners they can't have it their way and cram unfair treatment and unrealistic expectations down the throats of other foreigners.

Part of the problem with the Japanese is that they employ foreigners but expect them to act like Japanese while affording them none of the latitude or benefits Japanese staff receive. For years, I was dealt with differently than Japanese coworkers in regards to a variety of factors - most notably that any time off I took due to illness or injury was treated as an indication of a grievously bad work ethic while my Japanese coworkers were taking half days for headaches and full days for colds. There were also a multitude of perks (financial and security-related) that they had that I didn't. The Japanese expect us to act like Japanese employees but treat us like gaijin.

A good manager will educate the view of the Japanese staff so that they see that you can't expect Japanese-style behavior out of people denied the benefits of the Japanese staff. When that balance is reached, expectations fall into line.