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What should I, an American working with a global team of software engineers, understand about Japanese business etiquette in a case when a Japanese colleague has not completed work that they agreed to do, and is also not responding to emails asking for status of that work?

EDIT: I'm not looking for generalized advice for how to handle the case when a colleague isn't communicating. What I'm specifically looking for with this question is what I should know about Japanese business etiquette in a case like this, and how I might want to handle this issue differently with a Japanese colleague vs. an American or European one.

Here's more background:

I work with an international, cross-company virtual team of software engineers who help to define industry standards in a particular technical area. The team is a mix of employees of tech companies who build products that use these standards, and volunteer nerds (like me) who enjoy helping to improve the future.

Three months ago, a colleague on this team (whom I haven't met in person and have interacted with a little bit--but not much--on GitHub and JIRA) agreed to lead a small project on behalf of the wider team. My colleague works for a large, global tech company and has good English fluency and good technical skills. He is senior and accomplished.

The project involves doing some research and producing a short document that will recommend a solution for our wider team about how to solve a particular technical problem we all face. My guess is that this is a 1-2 day project including research and write-up.

He sent a kickoff email to five team members (including me) who have the most context about this problem. His kickoff email showed that he'd done a few hours of work so far, and the last line of this email was: "I will write a proposal for [description of problem]".

The next week I replied to the kickoff email thanking him for leading this project and asking a few follow-up questions, like what is his expected timeline for completing the work, as well as some technical questions.

Since then, my Japanese colleague has not responded to this email thread. I sent two follow-up emails (one a month later, one two months later) to ask for a status update. My latest email was very short: "Hi [name] – Are there any updates on this project? Is there anything that we can do to help?" Another colleague posted a similar question on a related JIRA issue, again with no response from our Japanese colleague.

He's still doing other work, so I don't think that he's been reassigned. My best guess is that this project is not a priority for him or his managers, but he doesn't want to tell me this. In my previous (admittedly very limited) work with other Japanese colleagues, I observed that they were reluctant to say "no" to a direct request, so I'm wondering if ghosting is just an email version of that reluctance.

At this point I'm not sure how to proceed. I'm not too concerned about the delay because this problem isn't urgent to solve right now. But I do want to know if the project is or is not going to get done soon (or at all!). If not, then we can plan another way to get the work done.

I'd like to learn two things:

  • Is this work likely to get done in the next 6 months?
  • Is this work not planned to get done at all (e.g. priorities have changed)?

I've worked with Japanese colleagues a few times in the past, and I remember that handling disagreement and disappointing colleagues is handled differently (more subtly/indirectly) in Japan. But I don't have enough experience in how to navigate the cultural difference this time.

Got any advice?

Here's a few options I've considered:

  1. Continuing to ask for status every month. This hasn't worked after 3 months, so seems unlikely to work if I keep repeating. I suspect that it will only make my Japanese colleague more uncomfortable/annoyed with me.
  2. Reply with a note asking for status, but also providing an "out" for my Japanese colleague, e.g. volunteering that someone else could "help" (meaning actually do the work) next month when they finish another project.
  3. Just assume that the work is not going to get done and ask someone on my team to do it.
  4. Wait until the next monthly meeting of our wider team (20+ people), and add "get status update on project X" to the agenda. My colleague attends these meetings, but I'm concerned about embarrassing him if no progress has been made.
  5. Something else?

I'm leaning towards option (2) or (3), but wanted to get more advice first. Thanks!

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    Dump this onto your manager's lap; that's what they're paid to do.
    – C'est Moi
    Jul 26, 2023 at 20:57
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    @C'estMoi - In this case I'm a volunteer. There's no manager. :-) My colleague has a manager (whom I don't know) and I'd be really hesitant about dumping it into his lap. I asked another colleague what they thought we should do, and his opinion was that we should just do it ourselves. Hence my preference for (2) and (3) above. Jul 26, 2023 at 22:13
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    It is unclear what the hierarchy/structure is. You mention a team of software engineers, being a volunteer, and that your colleague "works for a large, global tech company" (which implies that's not your employer). Who is this person to you? Is there a stakeholder who you both work for? Is this volunteer work with no real obligation? Is this person being paid for any of their work - either via employment or via a freelance contract?
    – Flater
    Jul 27, 2023 at 3:39
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    @Flater - We're all part of an industry standards body. Some of us are employees of tech companies who build tech that uses this standard. Others (like me) are volunteer nerds who devote a few hours per month to help improve the future. Where I'm looking for advice is specifically around how Japanese business etiquette differs from US or European business etiquette in this case. Jul 27, 2023 at 5:24
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    @JustinGrant: Why are you assuming that this is rooted in cultural differences and not just the fact that (a) there is nothing to force this person to cooperate on your timeline and (b) this person (regardless of their culture) might simply not have the work ethic you expect them to?
    – Flater
    Jul 27, 2023 at 6:23

2 Answers 2

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It's not a priority, so he's not working on it.

Neither you nor his local management are behaving as if it's important. So he's rationally treating it as not important, and doing other work first. He's put it on the nice-to-have, never-get-done pile.

If you think it's important, then using whatever planning process you have, make sure it's clear that it's more important than items A,B,C, and D, which are competing with it, over a specific timeframe, like the next two weeks. If it's still getting squeezed out in some complicated matrix arrangement, say you understand he is busy with other priorities, and get someone else to deliver it.

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Just assume that the work is not going to get done and ask someone on my team to do it.

Do this, it's pretty clear the chap has resigned. Don't waste time and effort chasing him around from thousands of miles away. Make sure any credit that goes with it doesn't have his name on it.

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