Three Simple Words for Building Trust in a Japanese Office

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Being a foreigner in a Japanese company can be a daunting experience. Differing work ethics and cultural gaps pose many challenges to employees who hail from overseas, even after mastering the Japanese language to a high level.

Office expectations are not always communicated clearly and, even for new Japanese employees, it can be tricky to fit into the company without the background knowledge of business etiquette. Although there’s no single list of points that can address this issue, there are some key concepts that go a long way towards bettering the situation.

One exceptionally useful management concept that helps foster better communication between employees is the notion of ‘Hou-Ren-Sou‘. It’s a play on words – a homophone for the Japanese word for spinach – and is comprised of three characters, each an abbreviation of a separate word that together result in stronger collaboration and better information flow within the company.

The three pillars to this concept are as follows:

報告 (ほうこく) – Reporting
連絡 (れんらく) – Informing
相談 (そうだん) – Consulting

Together they produce 報・連・相 (ほう・れん・そう).

When being entrusted with an assignment, company employees are expected to follow this protocol. Failure to do so results in concern from management about your ability to get the job done and a missed opportunity to strengthen relationships and build trust with colleagues. Building trust within the company is one of the most incredibly important aspects of working with Japanese people (although certainly not exclusive to Japan), and it greatly affects all current and future projects you may deal with. As I heard it put at one PR seminar ‘80% of the work and success in public relations is building trust within the company’.

Although hou-ren-sou is not the definitive answer to building good relationships with Japanese colleagues (there are many other cultural and linguistic points that can be made), it is a good starting block.

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Reporting (Houkoku)

When entrusted with a project, reporting back to your boss on the status of your work is essential. To what degree will depend on the company and the work itself, but a useful gauge is to note when your boss asks you ‘what is the status of the project?’. If you’re hearing this, it means you haven’t reported enough.

To really understand this point, it’s necessary to put yourself in the position of your boss and consider things from their point of view. This can be tricky if you’ve never been in a managerial role yourself, as you may not be able to fully appreciate the plethora of things a manager must constantly be aware of.

However, thinking of others (which in many cases means thinking of things from the perspective of others) is the cornerstone of success in a Japanese company because it grants you the ability to anticipate needs before they are spoken – a trait highly valued in Japan.

Your boss likely has greater things to worry about than following your project closely, so a frequent report on what’s going on will help them to fit the pieces together with other things going on in the company and in turn enable them to trust you, which leads to greater things down the line.
 
Informing (Renraku)

Informing sounds very similar to reporting, but the key thing to note about this pillar of the trio is that the informing is done to the stakeholders – usually colleagues and those involved or affected by your project. This is linked to the Japanese concept of nemawashi – ‘digging around the roots’ referring to preparing a tree for transplant. Again, this is all ‘common sense’ if you’re good at putting yourself in the position of others.

If you don’t let your colleagues know about a project in advance, they will be very surprised to learn about it when it is formally announced, usually at a company meeting. This in turn will lead to them feeling ignored and they will likely become an obstacle to the project’s moving forward.

Discussing the details in advance and gauging their opinion and thoughts will safely lay the groundwork for moving a project along smoothly, and as a bonus you’ll likely also pickup ideas and advice you hadn’t thought of in the process.
 
Consulting (Soudan)

Finally, we arrive at consulting. If you’ve been given a project to handle, chances are you have somebody senior to you. Even if not, there’s always somebody who is better than you. Asking for advice, confirmation or feedback on parts of the project is crucial to seeing it through successfully. This could mean many different things, from having a senior point out a serious flaw you had missed, to needing your boss’s approval to use a chunk of the company budget or simply receiving wisdom from those more learned than yourself.

This also links in with ‘informing’ and ‘reporting’ because it allows other people to be a part of the project, fostering stronger team spirit and good relations with colleagues. The project then becomes a group effort and responsibility shared (although you remain ultimately responsible for the work). This teamwork culture is another big part of life at a Japanese company.

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As you can see, just delving into this single business concept has uprooted and touched upon many different norms found within Japanese business culture. While certainly not the only way of doing things and perhaps not the best, it is an inescapable part of communication that goes beyond mere language learning. Success in Japan and dealing with Japanese businesses hinges on one’s understanding and skilful application of this sort of knowledge. It may not come naturally at first, but keep trying!

Have you experienced difficulty getting your ideas recognised at a Japanese company or suffered with poor relations with colleagues? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Laurie says:

    My superior shared this information to me awhile back but still I find practicing it to be far from second nature. Is this concept taught in companies when you start or is it something Japanese society instills at a very young age?

  • TC Anil Ucar Mutsu says:

    Its just same in Turkey 🙂

  • Caitlin says:

    Ohhhh. Is that why they always tell me about different schools at company meetings? It’s not too obsessive at my school, so I don’t mind (it’s nice to know how my coworkers are doing as well) but I’d wondered in passing why they told us about all the other branches.

  • Lucas Spoel says:

    It’s insecurity, I believe, that brings about the 報告 (ほうこく) – Reporting, 連絡 (れんらく) – Informing,

    相談 (そうだん) – Consulting. It is a good initiative if it is implemented properly. From what I read the way it currently is used is not effective, instead of being productive it is destructive. And that is why some Japanese are not the most productive people on the planet. I sometimes wonder how the big corporates like Sony, Toyota, etc. operate.

  • William Hoblitzell says:

    Lots of hyucking here about Japan’s special or unique “お持て成し” workplace values, but Japanese firms may want to revisit some of these workplace traditions. I’d wager that the needless mask wearing and hourensou practices are causing a lot of inefficiency and endless meetings.

  • ikari7789 says:

    More like hou-ren-suck. The amount of reporting required of me at my company takes up so much time sometimes that there isn’t any time to actually complete the work. While I actually like the concept of hourensou, I don’t think getting attached to every mailing list, having to give report presentations (proper presentations with pretty power points and all), and constantly having to tell someone what I am doing is conducive to a productive environment. If you’re going to have someone report, just ask for a brief summary. If you’re going to ask someone to inform, have them think about who they’re informing. If you’re going to have someone consult, make sure they have thought about what to actually consult before doing so. It will just save everyone’s time in the long run.

    • Gakuranman says:

      This is actually a very valid criticism of the system. While there are many merits to be found in building better relationships with colleagues, the need for everyone to be informed of things and the need to consider each person’s situation in relation to the project slows down progress. This is especially so in larger corporations and the public sector, like my previous job working at a city hall.

      • ikari7789 says:

        I’m in a larger corporation and I receive information completely unrelated to both my position and project(s). I’m pretty sure I receive about 200-300 emails a day. If they truly want me to be knowing the content of all of these, it would be a full time job on it’s own.

      • Philippe Platon says:

        This is true but if the housensou process takes a long time, it is well repaid afterwards by swift and loyal execution of a fully validated project. The key issue is whether the consensus is obtained on a minimal compatible solution or on a truly effective plan.

  • edsonsantoro says:

    Every month in our company they repeat this to everyone on “Zantai Chõrei”, asking repeatedly to report, inform and consult. This article give me understanding of why my colleges are getting better than me, even making the same quality of jog. Thanks

    • Gakuranman says:

      Thanks for chiming in! I’m glad to hear it deepened your understanding on this practice. If only if were as easy to implement as to explain!

      • edsonsantoro says:

        I think the key problem with hourensou plan is inform what matters for who matter. Here, they inform us about problems related to a different plant of the same factory, why?! Completely non sense, what we could do for they, since we don’t fully understand the situation?! Nothing! And why we still listening these reports?! I don’t know. Like Ikari said, and I agree with him about it, in a large project, I don’t need to know the problems related to different managers, about the things I don’t have control. Looks like they want to everyone knows everything… It would be better, in my opinion, each project section have their own hourensou, and the managers of these sections their own hourensou with the project leader..

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