Culture Clash


Sunday, December 2, 2001

in large groups is not
a global practice

'Tokyo is beautiful when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom," Peter Nolan said to himself as he entered the Honda Motors office building. "I wish I had the same positive feelings about last week's meeting attended by company executives."

Peter was from Cleveland, Ohio, and had two degrees in mechanical engineering. He worked for an automobile parts manufacturer and had been given an assignment to develop markets in Asian-owned factories. He contacted various Honda plants in Ohio and Indiana and eventually was invited to company headquarters in Japan.

Peter was introduced at one of the company's biweekly meetings and was asked to say a few words about himself. He took this opportunity to talk about his marketing goals and to present his thinking about combining the best of American and Japanese management practices in the automobile industry. He thought that there would be a few encouraging comments or some insightful questions, but his presentation was met with a chilly silence. Secretaries later told him that various company executives had become unavailable for previously scheduled meetings.

There are well-established norms in Japan for making business decisions, and Peter broke them.

At meetings in the United States, people can bring up issues that have previously not been discussed and they can expect open discussions. In Japan, a person who wants to introduce an issue needs to discuss it with others in various one-on-one meetings. These are held behind closed doors and are scheduled at the convenience of Japanese managers and executives. Objections and suggestions for improvement are shared and dealt with in these meetings. Much later, the decision may be announced at an open meeting that is more a ceremony than an opportunity for further discussion. The danger of bringing up new issues in open meetings is that someone may feel unprepared to make appropriate comments. They might become embarrassed in front of their Japanese colleagues, and this is an emotion they want to avoid.

This incident and analysis developed from discussions with James Wills and Kiyohiko Ito of the University of Hawaii College of Business Administration. The Japanese term for this decision making style is nemawashi. The term is an adaptation from an agricultural practice where farmers are very careful about the roots of trees that are transplanted from one place to another. Applied to the business world, people who might be involved in decision making or implementation are "roots," and these must be given special care and attention.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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