Feedback for innovation and transformation
In the workplace, it’s not unusual to receive generic feedback such as “good job” as a performance comment or “learn to read the air” as a development tip.
While employees everywhere seek feedback, if it’s overly vague, too frequent, or brutally honest, it can sometimes be more harmful than receiving none at all. There are various reasons why managers may feel uncomfortable giving feedback.
The concept of using “feedback” as a management tool has been around since the 1950s, but it has only recently gained popularity in Japan. In fact, the Japanese government’s 2018 labor law reform mandated that companies establish a system for evaluating and providing feedback to their employees. Studies have shown that a vast majority (90%) of Japanese employees would like to receive feedback to enhance their skills, while 87% believe that it would help them perform better. Only 30% of employees receive it regularly, however. The importance of effective feedback cannot be overstated. Having better conversations around our performance inevitably encourages increased engagement, faster transformation, and more successful progress and innovation.
To truly reap the benefits of feedback, it needs to be more impactful. How and when it’s given is often influenced by the corporate culture, and in more traditional Japanese companies, where harmony is often valued over open discourse, innovation and change can be restricted.
On the other hand, modern or non-traditional Japanese companies often promote ‘brutal honesty’, where people and things are constantly critiqued, and feedback is frequently provided. This kind of culture can lead to frustration and burnout, even if individuals initially improve their skills and capabilities.
Finding a middle ground is crucial – we need feedback cultures that prioritize empathy, personal care, and a desire to help others grow – in other words, impactful feedback that can truly make a difference. So why is feedback often not given in Japan, and what should impactful feedback look like?
Obstacles to giving feedback to thrive and excel
When working with multinational companies in Japan, our clients (both foreign and Japanese leaders) often face significant challenges related to Japanese business and societal norms, as well as communication styles. It is a deeply ingrained concept in Japanese management to maintain positive relationships and avoid conflict by emphasizing the concept of wa (harmony). Japanese managers may use their default feedback style if they are not fully onboarded to the multinational company’s feedback culture. It is also common for Japanese organizations to be hierarchical, so employees are often restrained from challenging their superiors or providing honest feedback. In addition, the indirectness of Japanese language may affect the formulation of feedback. In spite of these challenges, there are Japanese companies, such as Toyota, that do foster a strong feedback culture.
Reflection point: How does your company’s culture encourage or hinder feedback to thrive and excel?
A common theme that we come across when coaching clients is overworked managers, in addition to systemic challenges such as culture and communication. Despite having the desire to provide feedback and foster their employees’ growth and development, they are often “playing managers” who supervise their teams but also perform operational duties. It may be difficult for them to observe their teams in action and provide real-time feedback. We encounter this phenomenon of ‘playing managers’ at all levels of the organizations in Japan. However, for managers to provide more impactful feedback, they need the time and energy to observe their teams.
Reflection point: How do your managers plan their time and energy to give feedback?
We also frequently encounter managers who are under-equipped with both management as well as feedback skills. When managers lack the basic skills, such as goal and expectation setting, organizing work, time management, delegation as well as training on-the-job, they often lack the advanced skills such as giving feedback and coaching as well.
Reflection point: How skilled are your managers to give impactful feedback?
Feed forward instead of judgmental feedback
To make feedback more impactful, we need to shift our focus and attention. Instead of simply giving feedback, we should provide “feedforward,” which means looking ahead and suggesting ways to improve future performance. Additionally, instead of sharing our judgments, we should play back observations and be curious about the other person, which can facilitate their learning. By shifting our approach to feedforward, we can make it more constructive and help individuals grow and improve their performance.
Our traditional method of pointing out mistakes and weaknesses is to look in the mirror afterward. In feedback, we tell people what we think of their performance and how they should improve, such as how to deliver an effective presentation, lead a team, or develop new strategies. Nevertheless, neuroscientific research finds that simply ‘telling people’, not only causes them to feel stressed, which often leads to a fight-or-flight response, but it also commonly inhibits learning. The purpose of feedforward is to help the other person be relaxed, allow for reflection, and decide what to do next.
SBI-style feedback to boost motivation and learning
To start practicing feedforward in a curious, receiver-focused manner, you can use the SBI (Situation – Behavior – Impact) model. Changing your mindset from “I know what the standard is, and I will measure you against it” to “I am curious about how you did xyz” can create a culture of both learning and inclusion.
This approach requires that you are interested in helping the other person grow, that you provide timely feedback, and that you share observations and are curious about the other person. You are encouraging others to think critically and to learn from their experiences instead of simply being judged against a standard with this approach. When you provide feedforward, you foster an atmosphere of support and collaboration that allows meaningful dialogue and growth to occur. Using SBI, you can foster an environment of learning and growth with more engaged employees by putting them at ease and making them feel trusted.
Here two examples of how a Japanese manager could give feedback on stopping something and starting something.
If you aim to create a productive and inclusive work environment, consider the way in which you give feedback and if, for instance, SBI could be a good approach. How and when you give feedback reflects more on you than it does on the recipient. What changes will you make?
Udemy, Workforce Learning Report (2018),
Randstad, Talent Trends Japan Report (2019)
Gallup Asia-Pacific Study ‘State of the Global Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for Business Leaders Worldwide” (2018)
The Feedback Fallacy, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, HBR (2019)
Randstad, Talent Trends Japan Report (2019)