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Posted: July 01, 2014

The power of the Japanese handshake

Always take the high road

Erin Gibbs

I’m not going to tell you a fairy tale but it does begin with, “Once upon a time, a very long time ago, in a land far away...”

Almost 20 years ago, I lived in Japan. My first job out of college was teaching English in rural Yamagata Prefecture, Colorado’s sister state. The Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme deployed me to the village of Nishikawa-Machi – Frisco’s sister city. I was the first full-time native English speaker to live there, and I’m sure they thought a Colorado girl would fit right in with the "rustic” mountain and agricultural setting. Although I was excited for an adventure, I was completely unprepared for the culture and language barriers (I had previously studied Spanish and French with moderate success).

The time I spent in Japan as a young professional utterly shaped my world view and business habits – a cornerstone being the concept of allowing everyone to walk away with honor from a business, social or personal interaction. Even the simplest act of exchanging business cards has a tradition and an honor (as in, never stuff someone’s business card in your pocket – that’s their identity you are crumpling).

What I learned during my time in Japan has come full circle, now that I am deeply embedded in growing a business based in my home state of Colorado. It’s impossible to fit a lifetime of lessons into 800 words but here are some universal and critical lessons in leadership I learned long ago. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to achieve them all at the same time – but setting them up as goals to achieve certainly sets you at an advantage:

  •     The power of presentation.
  •     The power of simplicity.
  •     Beauty is in the space in between things, and the message/lesson is often not what is said – but what is not said.
  •     Never lose your cool in public.
  •     The philosophy of “honor”.

My favorite is the concept of The Japanese Handshake. It’s not a bow or an actual handshake; rather, it’s the concept of an interaction or departure (often a termination or resignation) where both sides ‘save face’ – meaning, reputation and respect are maintained for all people involved.

Of all that I was worried about in starting and leading a business – conflict with employees was not part of my initial list of concerns. I naively assumed everyone we hired would love working for us and we would love them back. What’s not to love?

From the start, it was hard to make people happy (note, you cannot “make” anyone do or feel anything. Turns out, being happy is a choice and have you noticed? Happiness is not part of any posted job description. An employer can offer a great job, great salary, superior benefits, advanced work environment and smart colleagues, opportunity for growth and recognition, but people (myself included) must choose to be happy and bring that into the workplace otherwise nothing else really matters. A job doesn’t make you happy… You make you happy.

My experience has been that an unhappy employee, who can’t check it at the door, is a risk to the morale and wellbeing of their team. A strong manager recognizes this and can work to remedy the source of dissatisfaction (if it’s work related) – because we all know that staff turnover is incredibly expensive, both in keeping a malcontent in the office as well as letting them go.

If it comes to an exit – either a resignation or termination – taking the high road is always best. To accept the resignation of a valued employee is perhaps most difficult, especially if they found something “better.” As a family-owned business, it’s something we take personally. However, it’s rare that a resignation comes by surprise. Usually both the employee and our management team realize that person is better off somewhere else. By the time the resignation arrives, we’ve done all we can to make that person feel more valued and accomplished in their role – and they’ve done a lot of soul searching and found their “happy” elsewhere.

This is where the Japanese Handshake comes in.

It’s not easy to extend a hand, take the high road or ‘save face’ when the employee hasn’t been a good fit, caused problems or harm to the team. But it’s always the right thing to do. We call the high road, “the bumpy road” as it’s often unpaved and uncomfortable but takes you to new places of discovery.

By offering a Japanese Handshake to an outgoing employee, you create advantage for the future in case you have future dealings with that employee as well as people in the industry who meet the former employee along the way and hear stories of their time and departure with your company.

I’ll go back to the first two ‘lessons’ that I mentioned above as they relate to business:

  •     The power of presentation.
  •     The power of simplicity.

Even in an exit – the best approach is in the power of your presentation (especially if you are the one resigning) as well as the power of simplicity. Keep your handshake and farewell simple – clean – and save face. Allow your employee to leave with dignity and therein you will uphold the integrity of your own organization.


This can be hard, painful and sometimes impossible. It’s okay to fail. But learn from it, make changes as a result, work on your Japanese Handshake and move forward. It will always serve you well.

Saru mo ki kara ochiru: “Even monkeys fall from trees.” (Meaning, nobody is perfect.)

Erin Reilly Gibbs has played central roles in the development of innovative services and educational content in the healthcare industry. Before founding RMVI Services, she helped MayoClinic.com launch its first edition website and produced the first online video health library as well as online text and interactive health content. Erin led the opening of all of RMVI’s clinics including RMVI’s Diagnostic Center, which ranks in the top 10 percent in the world for vascular diagnosis. Erin also initiated creation of The Compression Center, an innovative approach within each clinic for conservative treatment of vein disease using the latest in compression technology. She can be reached at Egibbs@rmviservices.com or 719.242.8650.

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