No manager, Japanese or otherwise, has ever said to me that they wish they had more meetings to go to. It may be, though, that Japanese business people are better at finding value in a seemingly pointless meeting than many Western business people. Admittedly, in some cases the value is simply in catching up on lost sleep.
In Japan, meetings are viewed as a necessary part of relationship building, and it’s implicitly accepted that the official reason for a meeting may not be the real objective at all. It does lead to mismatched expectations for international meetings, however.
One common meeting format is the aisatsu- (greetings) or kyaku- (customer) mawari (going around). Senior executives from Japan headquarters will request local operations to fix up meetings with their counterparts at key customer or partner companies. Unfortunately, if expectations are not managed, the Western counterparts end up wondering what on earth the meeting was for.
The Western side might have been anticipating that the Japanese company was on an acquisition hunt, or about to propose some kind of joint venture. But to the Japanese executive, it was simply about relationship building and information exchange, and if some kind of mutually advantageous new business proposition arises from it, in the years to come, so much the better.
Another meeting that is common internationally is the “getting to know you” meeting, where all players in a new project get together in the same room, and introduce themselves to each other, often in a quite personal, informal way.
This happened recently to a group of British engineering contractors – the Japanese lead contractor invited them all to a meeting to kick off the project and of course they all came armed with Gantt charts and schedules only to find themselves talking about which football team they supported. In the Japanese contractors’ mind, this was the moment for everyone to get to know and trust each other.
Japanese business people are quietly proactive in finding added value to meetings that they have been asked to attend. They realise that it is in the interstices that new ideas and deeper relationships form.
I recently arranged a meeting for a virtual team to come together for the first time in the Tokyo headquarters. The headquarters arranged the usual factory tour and visit to the corporate history museum followed by a series of presentations on what each function and region was doing.
The Western participants initially complained to me that they found the sessions dull and patronising, but then started to talk about how valuable it was nonetheless to see their colleagues face to face for the first time, and that quite a lot of planning had taken place on the train journey to the factory, and problems solved over a beer or two in the evening.
“Oh really” I responded, trying not to look like that was precisely the point of my instigating the event in the first place, “it’s good to hear you managed to get something out of it, nonetheless.”
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly. This and other articles are available as an e-book “Omoiyari: 6 Steps to Getting it Right with Japanese Customers”
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