The stress that Japanese and non-Japanese have in meetings
Meetings are one of the most stressful things that Japanese employees face when they are posted overseas.
In addition to the hurdle of English, Japanese participants find that, unlike at meetings in Japan, there is no way to know how the meeting will flow. People speak at will, regardless of their department or position. In many cases, other people interrupt and start talking before the first person has finished speaking, and you don’t even know what is being discussed. And when the Japanese member keeps quiet, he is suddenly asked for his opinion: “What do you think, Mr. Tanaka?”
Non-Japanese employees face the same kind of stress when they participate in meetings at Japanese companies.
There are many people in the meeting, but only a few speak up. Most of the time, they just read out the handouts. They all stare at the handouts and do not look up. Even if they have an opinion, they are hesitant to speak up. The purpose of the meeting is unclear, whether it is for information sharing, brainstorming, or decision making. At first glance, it looks like a place to make decisions, but it turns out that everything has already been decided before the meeting. And anyway, the meetings are too long.
For Japanese people, meetings overseas are chaos, and for foreigners, meetings at Japanese companies are a waste of time. The way meetings are generally conducted overseas and the way meetings are conducted in Japanese companies are very different, to the point of extremes.
“Decisions are made outside the meeting.”
The most common purpose of meetings in Japanese companies is to share and exchange information. Most participants listen quietly and take the information home with them. Even during the question and answer period, it is not uncommon for the meeting to end without any questions being asked. This is because the process equivalent to a discussion often takes place outside the meeting.
For example, ringi is a process unique to Japanese companies. Proposals that come from those in charge on the frontline are circulated in turn to positions at higher levels, where they are approved after questions are cleared up and necessary revisions are made. At the time of the meeting, a consensus has already been reached among all parties involved, and there is no room for debate. That’s why it’s important to have everyone involved in the meeting to approve the proposal (even if no one speaks up).
Foreign employees do not see the consensus building process that is going on outside the meeting. That’s why they have questions and complaints such as, “I don’t understand the purpose of meetings,” “Why is it so difficult to express doubts and disagreements in meetings,” and “Why does everything seem to have been decided by the time the meeting takes place?” “I thought that participation in a meeting means speaking up and contributing to the discussion.”
On the other hand, the purpose of meetings held overseas is often to bring opinions and questions to the table for discussion. All attendees are expected to express their opinions and contribute to the discussion. For Japanese people, who are not used to speaking up in meetings or “interrupting” discussions, the hurdle is high. However, if you don’t speak up, people around you will wonder why you are participating in the meeting, or if you have no desire to contribute to the discussion. This can damage your reputation.
Three points for creating a “hybrid” style global meeting
When it comes to meetings, we often see criticism of Japan’s slow decision-making process and discussions about the need to change to a more global approach. However, it is not a question of whether the global way or the Japanese way is better, but rather whether it is possible to understand the differences and create a “hybrid model” that takes advantage of the merits of both.
Here, I would like to introduce three tips to make global meetings involving Japanese and non-Japanese participants more constructive and satisfying for all participants.
1. Use an agenda
The use of agendas is useful for both Japanese and non-Japanese participants in meetings in Japan. Agendas are not uncommon in Japanese companies, but there are some tips on how to use them.
First of all, you should not only set the “theme/agenda” for the meeting as a whole, such as “management plan for the next year” or “new product introduction,” but also decide how to proceed with the agenda and how much time to allocate to each agenda item. Also, clarify whether the meeting is for information sharing, brainstorming, or decision making.
For example, “Meeting to discuss countermeasures for defects occurring in Product A.” Agenda: background, 10 minutes; identify issues, 15 minutes; discuss and decide on countermeasures, 20 minutes; implementation of countermeasures and assignment of roles, 15 minutes. If you know the flow of the meeting, you can share it with the participants in advance. If the participants know the flow of the meeting, they will know how to prepare and will be able to summarize their thoughts. It also prevents the participants from getting sidetracked and taking longer than necessary during the meeting.
For Japanese who participate in meetings overseas, an agenda will help them know what will be discussed and when, so they can prepare their own ideas.
In addition, the meeting facilitator will have a clear idea of how the meeting should proceed, which should help to avoid chaos. Foreign staff members participating in the meeting in Japan will also be able to participate with a sense of conviction because they will understand the purpose of the meeting.
2. Explain Japanese approval process, “nemawashi” and “ringi“, to foreign employees
Conventional decision-making in Japan emphasizes consensus and is extremely time-consuming. Since the direction of the decision is decided by “nemawashi”,
informal groundwork before decision making, and “ringi”, “circular decision” made outside the meeting, if you want to participate in the decision-making process, you need to move from the early stage and participate in the consensus process.
When foreign employees work for Japanese companies, especially when they participate in meetings, it is first necessary to explain and have them understand the characteristics of such Japanese-style decision-making, including nemawashi and ringi (approval process). Without this, they will not understand the purpose of the meeting happening in front of them and how they should participate in the decision-making process.
On top of that, it would be a good idea to modify the decision-making process somewhat.
For example, Japanese companies sometimes decide something in a meeting, then hold another meeting afterwards with other parties (such as managers from other departments) which may result in changing the earlier decision. This is not a problem in itself, but it can be confusing and frustrating for foreign staff because this does not happen often overseas. It is a good idea to try not to change the decisions made in the meeting, and if there is a possibility that they will be changed, let all participants know.
3. Visualize the points of discussion
There are several points that should be kept in mind when Japanese people participate in meetings held at overseas locations.
For Japanese who do not speak English as their first language, it is difficult to follow the discussion. This is also true for foreigners in Japan. If possible, have someone act as a scribe and write down the points of discussion on the whiteboard during the meeting.
If it’s an online meeting, you can use the whiteboard function or chat function of the meeting tool, or share the screen of the presentation software. By visualizing the points of discussion, it is difficult to go off on a tangent or miss the point of the discussion, and it also saves the time and effort of taking minutes, which is beneficial to everyone attending the meeting.
If a Japanese person is assigned to an overseas office as a manager, he or she should be careful not to make decisions based on incomplete understanding due to poor comprehension of the English discussion. If you are not confident that you understand the discussion well, it is a good idea to check the points of discussion written on the whiteboard and ask questions if there are any unclear points.
When holding a meeting at an overseas location, it is best to avoid convening all the people who might be involved in the meeting in a Japanese sense. Overseas, the scope of duties of individuals is often more clearly defined than in Japan. It is better to confirm the roles and ask only those who are truly relevant to the purpose of the meeting to participate, so that the rest of the work can proceed smoothly.
Tips for Foreigners Participating in Decision-Making at Japanese Companies
I would like to point out some things that foreigners participating in meetings at Japanese companies should keep in mind.
First of all, even when you don’t understand something someone says in a meeting, it is often best not to ask straightforward questions such as, “I don’t understand what you mean,” or “Why do you say that?” The speaker may be using ambiguous expressions on purpose for some reason. It is better to use leading phrases such as “How should I interpret that?” This is especially important if you are contradicting someone who is more senior than you.
If you have a new proposal, avoid making it suddenly at a meeting. Consult with your superiors as well as the relevant departments in advance to lay the groundwork. This way, you can think about how to deal with any issues that might arise in a public discussion.
As a tip when making a proposal, it is good to mention similar cases of other companies as much as possible, or mention that there was a request from the customer. In addition, if it is a large proposal, it is also helpful to use techniques such as only showing the first part of the roadmap, rather than the entire roadmap, so that the budget does not look large. This is because if the time frame and budget are large or cross-departmental, decisions will need to be made at a higher level, which will require a lot of laying the groundwork and a lot of meetings.
In this article, I have described the characteristics of Japanese meetings and decision-making, and introduced some tips on how to hold “globalized meetings” that can be implemented immediately. However, there are many other ways to change to a hybrid style rather than abandoning the Japanese style and changing to a global style. I hope that these three tips will help you to adopt a hybrid style that suits your company.
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