Difficult people and Japanese Companies

The Japanese words “Otsuboné” for women and “Rojyu” for men (some people may use different words for men) is used for someone in the office who has long years of service and have good internal connections but has a largely negative influence on morale in the office. They exert emotional control over the office by creating a moody, bullying and gossiping culture. With them around, trust culture can diminish quickly, and a suspicious and defensive culture forms. Colleagues approach them gingerly to get things done, and if they do not agree with or feel like doing whatever they have been asked, then everything can stop.

Both the “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu” words come from the 17th century “Edo” era, and they were the head of household and advisors respectively who both served their leader, the “Shogun”. Those original words do not have negative connotations – but signify that they have underlining power by controlling information flow and the network around them.

When I speak to CEOs and Managing Directors of Japanese organisations in Europe about the frequent existence of “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu” and the problematic nature of them, they are delighted to discuss it. They have experience of these individuals every day.

Many Japanese organisations in Europe have Japanese expatriates in important positions and specially in small operations “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu” can see themselves as rocks: their leaders i.e. expatriates may come and go every few years, but they will be always there to protect the business. New expatriates courteously learn about the operations from “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu”, through tinted glasses of controlled information and preconceived ideas.

In addition to that, the roles of HR and managers are different in Japan and Europe. In larger companies in Japan, a centralisedHR division controls hiring, rewarding, firing (although this rarely happens other than through redundancies) and talent management. Japanese organisations in Europe are most likely to be subsidiaries of larger organisations in Japan. This means that expatriates from Japan are not used to their role in performance management and their responsibility to ensure appropriate consequences towards problematic individuals. This is rarelyemphasised.

There may be difficult people in any organisation, but this environment is rife for “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu” to prosper. They may not answer you or volunteer critical information because they want you to come to them. Information is power. They may attempt to belittle new comers by saying “you are not serving long enough to understand the issue” but may fail to explain the substance. They easily fall into phycological manipulation rather than fact-based conversation. They may not take responsibility for their own performance but also their leaders may not have held them to account for years.

The consequence of having “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu” is often serious for small organisations in Europe. Good performers who can find a job elsewhere (a different labour market dynamic to Japan) will not stay because they have low expectation that their performance will be fairly evaluated, mistrust their leader’s abilities to deal with “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu”, and tired of petty office politics. Good performers leave and everyone else stays.

How to deal with “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu” in your organisation:

  1. Identify: Identify the behaviors that are hurting the organisation and business.
  2. Communicate: In a quiet room, explain to the person how their behavior is affecting others, what you as their leader expects from them instead; outline an improvement plan and schedule. After the verbal conversation, follow up by email for the record.
  3. Give opportunity to improve:Stick to the agreed plan and review the behavior at the scheduled time.
  4. Act: If the improvements are not seen at the end of the agreed interval, you may need to consider ending their employment. It is a part of a leader’s job. You may feel regret but think about it: they are “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu” in the current environment, perhaps not in a different environment and ultimately can be more successful.

When dealing with “Otsuboné” and “Rojyu”, it is worth mentioning that you should be careful of reinforcing their behavior unconsciously by, for example, involving them (or not involving them) in some projects just because they are difficult. I understand this temptation and have seen this happen many times in different organisations. Instead, the project leader who is selecting project members, should objectively evaluate their actual expertise and competencies necessary for the success of the project.

If expatriates come to Europe in positions which have subordinates, I would recommend selecting someone who has already developed a European style of leadership experience since mastering it takes time even for European leaders. However, if not, the person is required to recognise the importance of HR management skills, ensure they get the right training and create some support system. Placing expatriates in a special role, more like an observer role, may also be a solution. Some companies have already applied these structures to their success. Expatriates will be able to add value more quickly from focusing on offering different perspectives and managing the communication bridge between the organisation and HQ in Japan, rather than catching up and learning how to manage subordinates the European way.

If local talent is important for delivering the objectives of a subsidiary, a strong definition and implementation of environment where these talents can flourish is very important.

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