Who is in charge?

Here is a funny story about ‘being in charge’ that came about on a multinational project’s ski trip a few years ago.

A group of about 20 engineers and managers from different companies (Japanese, and American) went skiing together in Salt Lake City. We were all working together on a project in Austin, Texas. Our group had a number of high ranking managers, as well as an American guest who was not affiliated with the project and had not met most of the people before the trip.

The whole group was at a restaurant and had finished dinner. (I remember that it was the Red Butte Inn, because I stop by there every time I go to SLC, and had recommended it for dinner that evening.) Everyone was sitting around a very large table, and was chatting and sipping coffee. The American guest was chatting with several of the engineers and managers and asked “So who is the most senior manager here in this group? — Who’s the big boss?” A female manager (American) answered with a wry grin that by her reckoning she was the highest ranked of the various people assembled. The American guest replied politely “Oh, OK”, and gave me a curious look.

The hour grew late and people started thinking about heading back to the hotel. The American lady manager started up out of her chair, and began to gather her things. She ended up standing there looking down at the remaining group who was still firmly planted in their chairs. She eventually sat back down. A few short minutes later, one of the Japanese managers (who was actually the most senior of the executives present) stood up from his chair. It was almost comical, in that the whole group up and down the table immediately got up following his lead, like doing ‘The Wave’ at a baseball game.

Our American guest commented to me later, “I guess that Mr. (so-and-so) was the head honcho!”. He was right.

In Japanese culture, such seemingly trivial things are really important to the dynamics of a group. Who sits in what chair, who signals when to leave, who pays the check, who places the order, who pours who’s drink all come together to form a mutually reinforcing demonstration of respect for rank and status. It can be uncomfortable when foreign team members participate in seemingly relaxed social events like this, and are totally oblivious to the social signals constantly being sent back and forth.

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Kevin Ready

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