Sometimes progress can only come from the pain of reality. In this case, a strong dose of cultural awareness was the result of a painful clash with the reality of different management styles and culture approaches to decision making.
The first Japanese manager I worked for at Sony Electronics was very much a Theory Z manager. He really worked to empower his people and enable them to drive their businesses. He encouraged his people to try new and creative alternatives and to incubate new business opportunities. Under his management, I was able to really excel at the immediate business responsibilities. Additionally, I asked and received support for several new business attempts that were creatively outside of the traditional scope of the specific job I was hired to perform. What I did not fully appreciate at the time was the degree to which this particular manager’s approach was different from that of the typical Japanese manager.
After several years of pleasant bliss, one of the creative side projects I had started showed enough financial promise that I was transferred to another Japanese boss so as to allow more focused time to be spent on the new business opportunity. This new boss was much more a Theory X style manager. However, in the introductory weeks of our new relationship, my new manager, being very aware of my prior manager’s participatory manner, spent a great deal of time promising that he would help me build a long term management position within the company as the project became successful. I took these promises at face value and immediately began to build the leadership team required. Simultaneously, I began execution of the business planning process. What I didn’t realize at the time however, almost derailed the entire project.
My quick and relatively autonomous action, which would have been rewarded by my former boss, was seen as a terrible breach of protocol by my new boss. He was insulted by my decisiveness and the fact that I took two end points and executed the middle ground without seeking his consensus on the ground in-between. It was not the outcome that was in question but the self-reliant approach to my decision making. This unintentional breach of consensus protocol, while serious enough in my new boss’ mind, escalated into what was perceived as a sign of disrespect for an elder when I didn’t immediately understand why he was so upset with my approach to advancing the business.
Only after seeking advice from my former manager and asking him to intercede on my behalf, was I able to begin to recover from my dance with this form of cultural conflict. Not fully adjusting to the impact of the different management styles may have been a simple misstep but compounding the situation by unintentionally ignoring the highly traditional consensus oriented Japanese style of decision making, resulted in some very stressful months while relationship repair attempts were made.
Today, this same manager is still very much a Theory X manager and I still cringe at the consequences of his style. However, I’ve learned the need to keep him posted every step of the way and to seek his consensus on every decision as it goes. For me, the process seems painfully slow, but to ignore his bias would be to assure that the project would grind to a halt. The need for a dose of patience to deal with a value difference in the decision making process is the end lesson learned.