Sony’s Cross-cultural Training Aims to Foster Workplace Zen

By Sonja Ryst

Apr. 13, 2005

Even before Sony Corp. picked the Welsh-born head of U.S. operations, Howard Stringer, to replace chairman and CEO Nobuyuki Idei, the Tokyo-based electronics titan was encouraging its staff to cooperate with foreigners.

    When employees from different countries clash at Sony’s offices around the world, consultants who have cultural expertise often coach the opposing sides to overcome their misunderstandings. At subsidiaries such as Sony Corp. of America, new hires have been taking classes on how to interact with people from other cultures.

    Addressing the misunderstandings that can arise increases “productivity in the workplace,” says Naomi Sato, director of human resources at New York-headquartered Sony Corp. of America.

    Sony used the training for a team of about 35 people at a manufacturing plant in San Diego. The staff, which hailed from places as varied as Japan, Paraguay, Russia and the United States, wanted to speed up production of flat-screen TVs.

    Sometimes the Americans didn’t get it when the Japanese indirectly said no, so they’d go ahead on a plan before realizing that some co-workers weren’t participating. Or a Japanese staffer might wait for an American boss to come back and help do test runs on products, misunderstanding the expectation to do the job alone.

    The group met with David Eaton, chief executive of Eaton Consulting Group in Boston. They discussed the problems together and agreed on solutions that would work for both sides, such as writing down their directions and responses to one another for more clarity.

“That guy is being a jerk”
    Sometimes the cross-cultural trainers help to defuse hostilities. An American employee at Sony Ericsson in North Carolina said last October that he might quit because his Japanese supervisor expected him to work 16 hours a day.

    Joe Wray, a vice president of human resources at Sony’s joint venture with Swedish mobile operator Ericsson AB, contacted Japan Intercultural Consulting in Chicago. Wray says he already had some understanding about the different attitudes that Japanese and U.S. employees have about work, but using a consultant to explain them legitimized his own observations for the staff.

    The coach spent a day with the Japanese supervisor at his offices in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, highlighting key cultural differences such as the way dual-income families in America must juggle their work and homemaking time.

    “A lot of times people say, ‘That guy is being a jerk’ or not trying hard, but if you have the cultural background you can realize it’s not them being bad. They’re just doing typical things,” says Rochelle Kopp, managing principal of Japan Intercultural Consulting.

    One day of cross-cultural training at her firm can cost about $2,100 and might involve 15 to 30 employees. Japan Intercultural Consulting says that it has provided on average about 30 to 40 days per year of sessions to Sony, which has used the company’s services since 1996.

    Sony’s training managers in the United Kingdom started creating an employee survey in recent months that will measure the success of cross-cultural training programs; they expect to have their first results from that project by this fall. Sony Corp. of America declined to say how it evaluates its programs in the United States.

    Rochelle Kopp founded Japan Intercultural Consulting in 1994 after she learned about Japan as a U.S. employee at the Tokyo headquarters of the financial services firm Yasuda Trust and Banking. She hires cross-cultural trainers who have bilingual skills and experience in intercultural environments. Most have worked at both American and Japanese firms.

    U.S. students at the introductory seminars find out that if they stick their chopsticks upright in their food at business lunches, it’ll look like death to the Japanese, who put chopsticks into the rice bowl offerings that they leave on their loved ones’ graves. Managers discover that some Japanese will say, ‘That would be a bit difficult’ to mean ‘It’s impossible.’ ” Americans get tips on how to use visuals at meetings that nonnative English speakers can easily grasp.

    Mack Araki, vice president of corporate communications at Sony Corp. of America in New York, said the classes helped him accept the American style of meeting. The Japanese tend not to speak until the other person finishes talking, he says, but Araki learned in class how to jump in an out of a conversation with an American.

    In classes for multicultural teams, sometimes the teacher puts the Japanese and U.S. students into separate rooms, where they list the challenges and rewards of working with one another before meeting again to discuss. “The validation of the positive things that everyone brings to the party was very eye-opening, even for people that had been here doing this for 20 years,” says Debby Swanson, director of strategic learning and leadership development at Sony Electronics Inc. in San Diego.

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