Nemawashi

 

Time to take off the green, and turn to elsewhere on the globe: I love when I can put an international spin on this old blog of mine. As many of you know, I teach business English and American corporate culture, and though I’ve had students from all over the world, most of the ones I teach now are Japanese. Some seemed puzzled by my lessons on conducting a typical American business meeting. They’re puzzled mainly because the textbooks don’t seem to represent the reality they experience in US conference rooms, but of course the books present a perfect, formalized sort of meeting where no one shouts or swears or spills coffee or runs out in tears, and every point on the agenda is expertly discussed. But I sensed there was something else besides this dissonance between reality and ideal. Finally one of my students filled me in on nemawashi, or the Japanese way of conducting business, and once I understood it, I was quite intrigued.

The word nemawashi is actually quite old, and refers to the act of transplanting a tree, by “digging around the roots.” If you’ve ever brought home a bush from Home Depot, you know you can’t just slog it into the ground: It takes a lot of tedious preparation, digging deep, preparing the soil around it…And so, in Japan, you don’t just show up at a business meeting, see the agenda for the first time and immediately start discussing, or arguing about it. The tree has already been set firmly into the ground, so basically all the meeting participants are just contentedly patting the soil down, and acting in harmony. All the work, or drama, of the meeting has been done before hand: Through days or perhaps weeks of phones calls, emails or conversations where sticky points are hashed out individually or with small groups of people, and ideas can be judged beforehand more or less by consensus, so you don’t have the embarrassment of presenting a bad idea to your boss in front of everyone. The idea is to achieve harmony—how Zen is that?—among all participants, boss included. Everyone is, if not overwhelmingly on board, more or less satisfied with the outcome.

Since I heard about this, I’ve been thinking about what other areas of life you could apply this to. Family, especially if you have an extended family as large as mine, comes to mind. Sometimes there is a big decision that has to be made, maybe regarding aging family members or money matters, that invariably gets addressed at a holiday or wedding or funeral, the only time when everyone is together, but not the best time to make crucial decisions. You can see efforts toward a kind of nemawashi in politics, in Congressional lobbying and back-room deals, but somehow it doesn’t seem to work very harmoniously there. And lots of American companies have a toxic kind of corporate culture, which likely affects their bottom line, so it wouldn’t hurt them, either.

I’m thinking this idea of institutional harmony could work with this huge divide  growing starker by the day in the Catholic church, with traditionalists versus the progressives. I’m in the progressive camp, in case you hadn’t noticed; we call nemawashi “dialogue,”(though I truly hate seeing that word used as a verb, and “starting the dialogue” is turning into a meaningless cliché). I am not taking up arms for the Church Militant, but would like to see some fairly radical change, and soon. And this seems a good time to announce the next phase of this blog, which ties in with my new writing project. If you’re not interested, then just move along; there’s plenty of other fun, profane and godless blogs to read on WordPress, many that are much  better than mine.  But if you’re curious, stay tuned…

2 thoughts on “Nemawashi

  1. Kathy – I have seen ‘nemawashi’ in action. The drawback to following it in American contexts is that Americans expect a certain amount of “making a decision” to be done in public and at the meeting. It is all too easy to announce the decision at a meeting which excludes some people from participating in whatever process was needed to come to a decision. Which leads to people insisting that they see the process in action – which further leads to more and longer meetings. Which has drawbacks of its own as well if a decision must be made by a certain deadline.

    There must be a balance here somewhere between the two styles.

    Like

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