This post is also available in: Japanese
Many of our Japanese client companies are embarking on global initiatives, in marketing or human resources, and consciously involving overseas employees in them. It’s great to see positive, forward thinking even in these difficult times, but comments I have been getting from the Europeans involved in these initiatives have been puzzling me.
Normally, discussions in our European training sessions about decision making in Japanese companies revolve around nemawashi (literally, going around the roots of a tree) a consensus based, largely bottom up, decision making system common in Japanese companies. This decision making process may be an entirely bottom up initiative, or triggered by a vague top down directive.
Consensus based decision making is not uniquely Japanese of course. In Europe, plenty of national and corporate cultures prefer some kind of consensus based approach, instead of top down imposition. However, when the Europeans involved in the global initiatives have tried to get a consensus based dialogue going with Japan, they instead been met with passivity from their Japanese counterparts.
One British director told me that he had suggested to his Japanese team that they come up with a proposal for a new workflow. Because they looked puzzled, he scribbled on a whiteboard very roughly what he had in mind. To his concern, the final proposal simply replicated his rough sketch. “When I put ideas to teams in Europe that I have led, I expect them to push back. After all, they often know far better than I do what can or can’t be done”.
Another British manager proposed a series of discussion sessions with Japanese marketing staff, to give feedback into a new brand strategy, only to be met with a request that the European team “just tell us what to put in the advertising”.
This could of course be due to a reluctance to have open confrontation, particularly in English. But I also sense an attitude that because the initiatives are “global” and come dressed in English “marketing” and “strategy” terminology unfamiliar to Japanese people, the Japanese employees feel it is not their area of expertise, so they should just let the “Western” side of the team take the lead.
Yet this is precisely what these European managers are trying to avoid. They want to take an approach to creating strategy which is culturally sensitive. After all, “global” these days does not mean just the West, but China, India and elsewhere. The European managers were rather hoping their Japanese colleagues would have a better cultural understanding of how to incorporate the Asian operations into the initiatives than they did.
How then could the Japanese employees engage in a dialogue in a way that does not make them feel uncomfortable? I would suggest the “coaching” style, which comes naturally to many Japanese people I have worked with. This means that instead of openly stating a disagreement, the listener asks questions which help the presenter to see the problems in their proposal themselves, rather than be told what is wrong.
Overall though, Japanese managers should have more confidence in themselves as leaders of a Japanese style globalization, which may, let us hope, work rather better than Western style globalization has so far.
This article originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly and also appears in “Shinrai: Japanese Corporate Integrity in a Disintegrating Europe” available as a paperback and Kindle ebook on Amazon.
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