Japan HR Leaders Discuss Leadership, Change and Engagement in the Japan Context

The Chapman Consulting Group today concluded a week of group meetings with Japan HR Leaders. We convened nine separate groups in this series, with between ten and twenty Japan HR Country Heads in attendance at each one. Thanks go to the Japan HR Leaders from each of the organisations that helped to co-host these group sessions: Linklaters, Syngenta, State Street, Nike, 3M, Fast Retailing, and Gap. Extra thanks must go to the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, who co-hosted an HR Leaders meeting in their historic Oak Room, and to Coca-Cola who offered the group of HR Leaders a very special extra tour of the Japan Coca-Cola R&D facility.

In a new venture for our Japan HR networking series, we collaborated in six of these Japan HR Leaders meetings with Dr. James Eyring, COO of Organisation Solutions. James led interactive presentations on the twin themes of successful change management and leadership, and in each case we found that the research conducted in other geographies around the world was also highly applicable to HR and business in the Japan context. The content of these meetings was very well received by the Japan HR community, and we hope to work together with Organisation Solutions on more tailor-made information for Japan HR Leaders in the future. For the remaining three meetings, the HR Leaders met to discuss performance and engagement in Japan, and inparticular how to increase employee loyalty even when harsh economic conditions are negatively affecting company performance.

Observations from all the groups in attendance included the following.

1. Employee Engagement

  • Employee Engagement Surveys can work well in Japan just as in other markets, but there needs to be a strong track record of acting on them. If a company doesn’t communicate back to its employees about how it will act on the results of the survey, the process will very quickly lose its credibility.
  • The process of acting upon Employment Engagement Surveys must therefore belong to the Business, and not the HR function. The HR function should only help to design and orchestrate the Survey, but it’s the business that needs to ‘own’ it and act upon it.
  • The responsibility for Employee Engagement can often be given to top managers, but it can be more effective to give this to middle managers, who are closer to the general workforce. The companies that showed the best Employee Engagement were the ones where middle management felt true ownership of business decision and were able to effectively communicate the message down to the employee base.

2. Successful Change Management

  • The background preparation that needs to be done before a change is made is critical for success, because it’s impossible to ‘train’ an employee to accept change after it’s been enacted. It’s better to ensure that there is already a relationship oftrust and fairness between the employee and the company before planning a change.
  • Therefore communication, communication and then more communication is not always the answer to successful change management, because this can be like treating the ‘symptom’ rather than treating the root ‘disease’. You need to gain (or rebuild) trust in management before you even start of your communication strategy.
  • Trust is a very difficult thing to create overnight, and it requires an open understanding about the fairness of decision-making. This includes both the fairness of a decision-making process (i.e. the criteria upon which decisions are made) as well as the fairness of outcomes (i.e. the results and the impact on individuals).
  • One of the best ways to improve understanding amongst employees is to create mechanisms that allow for the employee to feel as though they have played a part in devising the decision-making process, so that they feel ownership of the resulting outcomes.
  • HR Leaders who have been hired into a new company with a specific remit to engender change must think carefully about where they spend time in the early stages of a change process. It can be easy to fall into the trap of focussing too much care on rushing ahead with communications ‘down’ to employees. But it’s important to focus early attention ‘up’ towards using the right leaders with the right leadership qualities.
  • Additionally, you need to be as targeted as possible on the change that you want to make, so that the fall-out can be as limited as possible. When changes spread unnecessarily into multiple departments or over long periods of time, the effects can be more difficult to manage and contain.

3. Truths About Leadership

  • In many Western cultures, an emphasis these days is put on Leadership in a ‘transformational’ context, where praise and respect is put on charismatic managers who can energise an organisation and be a visionary figurehead. However it’s important to realise it’s just as important to have ‘transactional’ leadership, which is a more day-to-day matter of setting tasks, monitoring productivity, and rewarding achieved goals.
  • Again, many Western leaders put a great deal of focus on helping people to accentuate their key strengths. But research suggests that teams don’t appreciate leaders who put too much emphasis on these perceived ‘strengths’ and would prefer them to do more in areas where they have weaknesses.
  • In both these two examples above, the ‘ideal’ in leadership is always a manager who understand the need for balance and equilibrium, and who has the self-awareness to know when and how it is appropriate to push the boundaries of these limits.
  • In measuring talent, aptitude, and leadership ability, it’s very easy for companies and HR Leaders to over-rely on standardised tests and measurements such a 360 Degree assessment tools. However research suggests that the degree of error in these tests is larger than people realise. So while assessment results can still be useful as a tool, it’s important to remember that they’re just a tool, not a solution. They need to be used in conjunction with other measurements and factors, and then a subjective judgement still needs to be made.


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