Navigating Hierarchy in the Japanese Workplace

hierarchy

About Hierarchy…

People are as equal as the teeth of a comb…

–The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

This message was consistently taught to me while growing up. I deeply believed that all people should be treated the same way, regardless of their position. But since I have been in Japan, this belief has been challenged in many ways.

I didn’t have to question that belief while working in France, which is a rather non-hierarchical culture when it comes to science. I never felt unequal treatment, even from my supervisors or my senior colleagues. I was just considered as one additional group member, even though I was young and inexperienced.

I had a big shock when I started working in Japan. The hierarchy was and still is one of the most challenging aspects of my work in Japan. Even if it is not intuitive for me, I do my best to understand it since it’s the only way to advance towards my goals.

In the following, I will share with you my own understanding of the hierarchy in the work place in Japan and how I deal with it to advance regardless of the difficulties I face.

 

What do you get in exchange for hierarchy?   

In Japan, pyramid-style hierarchical structure is very strong and turns out to be very efficient in this environment. We can see each team, unit or organization as a pyramid, the leader protects and takes all the blame for their subordinates.

In fact, the first character in the word “responsible” or “supervisor” in Japanese means “blame” (責任者: seki-nin-sha), which I found really interesting.

I like to think of this “pyramid” as a rock cairn. The leader is the strongest rock that supports the team in case of flood stream from the outside.

So, the lower you are in the hierarchy, the more you are protected from the outside. However, you are the most likely to make mistakes that will cause the flood that your leader has to resist.

Since leaders are pressured from the outside to justify their team’s or organization’s work, this pressure is felt more strongly by those within the hierarchy who are lowest-ranking and most likely to make mistakes.

Even though I am still not comfortable with all aspects of leadership practices in Japan, I had to change my perspective to navigate such an environment.

But first I needed a point of reference, so I had to come back to Muhammad quote, which continues like this:

…There is no difference between Arabs and non-Arabs except in piety.

–The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

Still this quote doesn’t suggest different treatment but acknowledge that there might be a difference between people. Instead of devotion to God, I can think of it in this context as devotion to Work.

         Yes! In Japan, WORK is a religion!

So, how can you practice this religion and be the most devoted disciple? Have less pressure and contribute as closely as possible at your potential? I will be sharing the answers in future blogposts. For now though, here are 6 tips that will make starting your job in Japan easier.

 

3 Key Questions:

For now, let me tell you how understanding the hierarchy helped me greatly advancing regardless the obstacles. Whenever I have an interaction with my colleagues, I consider these 3 elements:

  1. What is their position in the hierarchy?
  2. What is my end goal in this interaction?
  3. How can I achieve my goal or advance significantly toward it without adding pressure to this person or to myself?

Somehow, understanding the hierarchy helped me to develop more clarity about my goals, and to be more intentional and thoughtful in my interactions with my colleagues. All that makes me more effective and focused in my work.

Of course, there are a lot of challenges with hierarchy that prevent me from advancing. I do my best every day to learn and find different ways to accomplish what I am here for.

 

Takeaway:

Even if your supervisor appears to be mean or pushy, understand their motivation and the pressure they are facing. They will protect you when it’s needed.

 

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