Ever noticed that Japanese have a tendency in meetings to deftly avoid exploring matters in detail or come to decisions? Have you tried asking everyone to share their thoughts, but have been met with silence or hesitation? Then, at a future meeting, you feel this has changed? There is some consensus amongst those present and thoughts are shared but seem to be of the group rather than the individual? Almost as if what was not discussed in the last meeting has been since. And now some consensus has formed, only you're not part of it?
Traditionally, as is well known, Japanese quite often hold off on giving opinions or asking questions that they feel could have a negative or just unknown impact either then or in the future. They also tend to leave it to their manager or someone else to pose or answer questions in meetings. After the meeting is over, however, people will talk off-line. This allows freedom of expression without risk. It is in these small, casual groups of 2 or 3 that they feel more comfortable opening up and sharing their thoughts.
This casual, off-line networking, known as ‘Nemawashi’ has been a part of Japanese business for centuries. It is generally done before meetings to gain acceptance for an idea or plan, but may be used at anytime, as required. This behavior can confound non-Japanese, but it needn't. Don’t fight it, roll with it. Think of it as another piece in your toolkit for influencing outcomes.
Potential fix to influence outcomes
Quick fix: (About you adopting their perspective) “Nemawashi’ is very simple and it’s nothing new. It’s done in many countries, and is especially effective in Japan. Well before you go into a meeting, especially with Japanese, meet individually and run your idea, or whatever the topic, past them, getting their thoughts, opinions and suggestions off-line. This casual setting removes, or at least lessens, any peer pressure making it easier to share. This is an opportunity to get them onboard so you have another ally in the meeting, even if you don't need one. And, it helps you to do a little pre-meeting research.
You can also use 'Nemawashi' to lay the foundations of change. If you start slowly, communicating & getting feedback on aspects of the proposed or expected change in phases, you can lower resistance substantially. In fact, if done well, it is possible to get people motivated to change. This is especially relevant when the change may prove to be unpopular, but does require care.
Long term fix: (About them adopting your perspective) 'Nemawashi' will always be part of Japan and doing business here. That said, we all wish more Japanese would open up just a bit more in meetings and brainstorming sessions. One way to work towards this is to use 'Nemawashi' as a tool to promote stronger, quicker interaction in meetings. What has worked for me is to send out pre-read materials. Naturally, you may not have written materials for every meeting, but it is necessary in the beginning. Send these out and ask people, individually or in pairs, to write down 5-10 questions, potential risks or barriers, whatever seems appropriate to the materials. In the meeting, have them present these & discuss. This gives them time to consider & discuss, preparing them mentally for the meeting. You need to gauge when, but after a number of times, try it without the pre-meeting prep to see if they are more comfortable and mentally ready to be more interactive. If not, go back to the pre-meeting prep for a while longer. Play with different versions of this so it best matches your team and your circumstances. It may take time, but it is well worth it. We can all change, if its done in a way that makes sense to us.
Remember, that even if you don’t get buy-in for that particular instance, your efforts will be appreciated. You will be seen as someone who cares and considers others. This will improve your relationships by continually building trust. After time, people may include you in their 'Nemawashi’.
Customizing your 'Nemawashi': I can only provide a generic fix here as personalities, experience, environment and a potential host of other variables should be taken into consideration. Proceed with care. If you want to share some details, I may be able to support. So feel free to ask questions or just let me know how you go in the comment area below.