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Toyota and trust: Was the Akio Toyoda apology lost in translation?

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Mr. Toyoda may be the official president of Toyota Motor Corp., but his title denotes a very different role and set of responsibilities. 

Hence, despite Japan’s innovations in technology and engineering, and world-beating brands like Sony, Nintendo, and Toyota, there are no equivalents to a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Martha Stewart. Indeed, a surer sign of a successful corporate leader in Japan is that he (they are almost all men) remains virtually invisible to the public eye, while his organization thrives.

It’s not easy, of course. In any culture, keeping a group of human beings operating harmoniously is a tricky balancing act among competing interests. Face saving, allowing others to maintain their dignity even when they have erred, is tantamount to ensuring that all group members feel respected. Openly admitting a mistake, or forcing another to do so, invites embarrassment and disharmony. Far better to indirectly make or exchange concessions; indirection eludes confrontation, thus avoiding conflict.

Toyoda’s testimony on Capitol Hill was beset by trans-cultural misunderstandings before it even began. His initial decision to decline an invitation to testify and instead relegate duties to the US division probably made sense in Japan, where Toyoda lives and works far from his US-based subordinates. 

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