Managing Foreign Managers

Labor Consultant understands minds of “Salarymen”

by David Baffa

Published in the Japan Times – August 19, 1990

Managing Foreign Managers PDF of the original

Thomas J. Nevins has built a career from the frustrations of Western businessmen managing Japanese employees.

Author of Labor Pains and the Gaijin Boss (1984), Nevins expects his new book, Taking Charge in Japan to be published by the end of this year. Besides his books on the subject, Nevins provides answers on managing the Japanese for the bewildered boss through his own firm, Technics in Management Transfer Inc. (TMT).

Nevins assists clients, 97 percent of which are senior managers of Japan-based Western firms, in discovering why their management techniques – which may have been successful in a host of foreign countries – falter in the unfamiliar grip of Japanese customs and procedures.

“Management has become less human,” says Nevins of the Western business office. The influx of computerization has placed individuals in front of monitor screens, where announcements and memos are generated in writing. Paper has become “a substitute for words,” Nevins claims, referring to such practice as “bureaucratized management.”

According to Nevins, simply bringing the same Western managing style to Japan will not effect the same level of productivity. While written announcements and memos may be effective in the Western office, for example, in Japan they “should at best confirm but have no new news.” Rather, verbal communication and conference is more likely to elicit a desirable response from a Japanese staff, because it is more in line with the Japanese way of doing business. Working together in a large room, Nevins says, Japanese workers have a more personal environment, often including morning meetings in which managers will relay information on a more collaborative level.

Nemawashi, the Japanese method of inter-office collaboration, involves talking freely about problems and concerns, often before raising it with the necessary individual, in order to create a conducive, proper environment. For the Western client and reader, Nevins suggests that “just throwing out ideas” to employees is enough to maintain the properly spirited environment.

‘Japan is home’

“Tourist Tom,” as his friends at Cornell University called him, first traveled to Japan in 1970, when he was 20. After two months he returned to graduate school at Cornell, where he studied labor/management relations. In 1972 he returned to Japan, and has lived here ever since.

Fluent in Japanese, Nevins studied the language primarily on his own, working as a translator for several years before starting TMT. “You have to keep meeting new people to develop Japanese.” Nevins advises, noting that after you get to know someone for a few months, conversations can become limited. Such is “the language of married couples, who often communicate only in guttural remarks and grunts.”

Nevins shares just such conversation now with his Japanese wife of 14 years, he jokes, though initially she was central to his grasp of the language – and the culture. “She was very tough, she did not let me be a gaijin.” Through this relationship, Nevins built a solid understanding of Japanese thinking, and planted firm roots in Japan.

“Japan is home,” he says proudly. Nevins has no plans to move back to the United States, though he does travel there on occasion for business, and to bring his two boys, aged 12 and 8, to summer camp in Maine.


The Japanese business environment, according to Nevins, instills confidence in its employees. Employee confidence, Nevins says, is crucial for a successful business. Most importantly, however, it is important for personal growth.

“You have to love yourself, and what you do, to be successful in life,” Nevins believes.

“Money,” Nevins stresses, “is not success; money follows success. Success is happiness – you have to try and keep trying in life.”

He referred to the life of a tree, arguing that “once it reaches its peak of growth, it starts to die.” Individuals, likewise, must continue to grow, to strive for and attain goals, or they too will gradually waste away. In this regard, Nevins says, “everybody must be self-employed,” or working for their own development.

To get ahead, “you have to just put in that extra half-hour,” Nevins says. “At the racetrack, the best horse will earn maybe ten times as much as the other horses, but only win by a nose every time.”

New Book

Taking Charge in Japan, Nevins says, deals with issues similar to those in Labor Pains and the Gaijin Boss, but is written from atop a wealth of new experiences and understanding. Nevins says his new book is “more practical,” with advice about better controlling Japanese personnel, as well as more discussion on recruiting and head-hunting. In addition, his new book will focus a great deal on self-development. “An individual is just like a company,” Nevins says. “he must R&D himself, make short and long term investments, save capital, etc.” Taking charge, says Nevins, requires an understanding of yourself, and an understanding of the Japanese version of the rules of the game.

Rules of employment, he notes, really do take on a different form in Japan, and are rigorously referred when employees become disgruntled enough to seek litigation. Through his company and his book, Nevins discusses ways to change and enhance the work rules within a company. “Japanese rules of employment,” says Nevins, “could be much better.” The biggest key to gaining ground in the Japanese office, he says, is learning to go “beyond the rules of employment.”