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Japanese-style constant contact

Japanese expect employees to figure out what needs to be done and take some initiative to get it done. In the U.S. workplace, taking initiative often means working independently to develop an innovative idea. But in the Japanese context, working independently destroys the sense of team, and given the Japanese often-implicit-style, it could mean spending a lot of time going in the wrong direction. Therefore, even while taking initiative, Japanese are careful to keep communication flowing. The process of keeping in close communication with a superior or counterpart is summed up in three words: h?koku, renraku, and s?dan – or h?-ren-s? for short.

h?koku means to report. Renraku means to inform or give periodic updates. Soudan means to consult, talk over a matter, confer, or ask a person's advice. Using the h?-ren-s? practice keeps everyone on the same page - and that doesn't just mean you and the person to whom you are talking. By keeping that person informed and involved, you allow him or her to bring other pertinent people into the loop so they can be prepared to act when needed. The Japanese also see this process as being one of the most effective and important ways to decrease risk, because it acts as a check between employees and departments.

Using h?-ren-s? is actually one of the ways you can get things to move faster. Since many people need to be involved to make almost anything happen in a Japanese company, if you wait until the last stages to involve your Japanese manager, coordinator, or colleagues, they've had no chance to lay the groundwork with others. There's a good chance you'll then end up impatiently waiting while the Japanese seem to take forever to make up their minds or get you a reply.

The h?-ren-s? process provides such a critical function in the Japanese corporate environment, that when Japanese managers do not receive h?-ren-s? from their subordinates, they become very insecure. Their subsequent insistence on using a h?-ren-s?-type practice usually makes Americans feel as though they are being micromanaged and is perceived very negatively. In the Japanese culture, however, this high-contact style is an automatic approach to almost every activity, so Japanese managers are often bewildered to hear from American subordinates, that they feel they are being micromanaged. The Japanese ask themselves, "How can we possibly prepare others and avoid risk - not to mention make sure employees are on the right track - without h?-ren-s??" 

Understanding the advantage you gain by adopting the h?-ren-s? process will help you shift your perspective from seeing it as a burdensome activity to thinking of it as a strategic, upfront investment for significant time-saving later. Over time, if you show reliability, the need for continued consultation and status reports decreases - but it still seems to be appreciated.

by Diana Rowland, author Japanese Busines: Rules of Engagement

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