Let’s stop saying Japanese are… or Singaporean are … We are Asian. That’s it.
This is a memorable phrase that I still remember from the time when I was working as a business consultant in Singapore. This impressive phrase was uttered from a Singaporean, who was in charge of HR function at a certain large Japanese company. One day, we were discussing how to design an effective teambuilding workshop for greater collaboration and understanding between the Japanese and Singaporean staff. All I was thinking then was how both sides could overcome the line between the two groups. For the Singaporean HR manager, however, there was no line between the two groups; there was only one group, which is “Asian”. The answer to greater collaboration and understanding was to start by shifting our mindset so that both Japanese and Singaporean are as one, as “Asian”.
I have been working as HR and Organizational consultant for over 10 years in many Asian countries. Currently based in Bangkok, I have set up and am president of an Asia-focused HR consulting firm, Asian Identity. There are quite a few Japanese companies in Bangkok, the hub of automotive manufacturing in Asia. Since AEC (ASEAN Economic Community) was established in 2015, this region will be more integrated economically, enabling many industries to invest their capital more vigorously. Thus, Asia is gathering attention from all over the world as the next market. As the region rapidly develops, one of the top management issues is, how we can manage different cultures and ethnic groups amongst the diverse regions.
As you might imagine, if there are more than two ethnic groups working together in the same place, it’s inevitable to see some conflict over opinions or working attitudes. For instance, punctuality in the workplace, quality issues of products, and initiative at work, are common gaps I often observe between Japanese managers and Thai staff, in the workplace of Japanese companies in Bangkok. I, also as a manager, often think about how I can resolve such conflicts and maximize the strengths in my own organization. Every time I face some organizational challenge, the words of the Singaporean, “ Let’s stop saying Japanese are… or Singaporean are … We are Asian. That’s it.” come to mind.
When we talk about effective “leadership”, various skills are mentioned, such as visioning, communication, strategy design, and so forth. However, more important than skills, I believe, is the mindset of having “trust” in people and the team and towards their potential to be better. If you don’t believe in the possibility of the team and people’s growth, then team performance won’t be achieved. As Carl Rogers, a psychologist with a PhD from Columbia University, revealed in his therapeutic research, humans are naturally equipped with huge capacity for positive growth if they are trusted by others.
Thus, if you work in an Asian organization as an Asian leader, I recommend that you trust your own team by following these two approaches. The first is to appreciate that we have something in common: we often share our history and culture in the larger context. Over 100 years ago, a Japanese philosopher Tenshin Okakura, having discovered a similarity between India and Kyoto by taking a look at tea cups from both countries, exclaimed “Asia is One”. We could leverage our cultural similarity for better understanding and compassion within the team.
The second is to appreciate the possibility of synergy, by combining different strengths and creating something new. For instance, a successful Japanese company in Thailand is incorporating both Japanese orientation for detail with Thai creativity. Something new and valuable can be created from different strengths, if there’s an effective leader to guide and incorporate such diverse skillsets.
This series of columns is going to be written for Asian leaders, for Asian people who desire to be a future leader, and for all the business people who have interest in business and organization in Asia. I’ll continue to write meaningful insights, by utilizing my own experience in Asia, as a business consultant as well as a manager who is trying to make my team happier!!