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Negotiating and 'mind-meeting.' (differences between American and Japanese negotiation techniques) (Accessing the Japanese Market)

How Americans and Japanese come to the bargaining table with different perceptions and expectations of the negotiating process.

The very definition of negotiating can vary culture to culture. Before one even comes to the table, such differences in the meaning or purpose of the negotiation affect the negotiation. For example, while Americans generally view negotiation primarily as an opportunity to accomplish or resolve a substantive issue, many cultures view negotiation primarily as an opportunity to build a relationship; resolving a particular issue is simply not the first goal. Such cultures often view the initial meeting as the beginning of a larger negotiation encompassing many meetings.

Americans are sorely mistaken if they expect an agreement at the end of their first meeting with their Japanese associates. The Japanese view the negotiation as a collaborative process of "mind-meeting," which can mandate several meetings before substantive issues are even discussed. Americans who have traveled halfway around the world to meet their Japanese counterparts for the first time in Tokyo on Monday and expect to be back in their office in Detroit on Friday with a signed deal will surely be disappointed.

Similarly, Americans tend to view negotiating as a competitive process of offers and counteroffers, while the Japanese tend to view the negotiation as an opportunity for information-sharing. Many Americans return from negotiations with the Japanese extremely frustrated: "They just kept pumping me for information," "They wouldn't give me any answers, but they sure could ask questions," "I got nothing I wanted, although they expected me to divulge the most proprietary information," etc. These responses indicate a culture clash between the United States and Japan over basic differences in the expectations of the negotiation process. At the beginning of a business relationship between an American and a Japanese, the immediate substantive issue is simply not on the table as far as the Japanese are concerned.

As well as viewing negotiation in either competitive or collaborative terms, different cultures often display correspondingly different attitudes toward conflict. Americans tend to accept conflict as inherently natural to the negotiation; they expect both sides to "struggle" for what they want, one side getting its way, if necessary, at the expense of the other. We tend to view conflict as functional, sometimes with an accompanying "winner-take-all" attitude, and respond to conflict directly and confrontationally. Not surprisingly, cultures such as Japan view conflict at the table as dysfunctional. Correspondingly, these cultures seek to avoid conflict and are indirect, as opposed to confrontational, in their response to it.

The maintenance of wa, or harmony, in Japan is such a basic and critical value that it significantly affects much of the behavior during negotiation, as well as determines attitudes toward it. In their effort to maintain harmony, to avoid conflict at the table, the Japanese will employ indirect and avoidant behavior. They will also place priority on face-saving, status acknowledgment, and the establishment of an ongoing system of mutual obligation, expectation, and fulfillment (as symbolized by their often elaborate -- and expensive -- gift-giving and hosting customs).

Selection of Negotiators

Another aspect of negotiation that can affect the process even before both sides get to the table is the differing criteria various cultures use to select their negotiators. Gender, competence, experience, status, age, even personal attributes can all be used as criteria in choosing individuals to send to the table. If two cultures using different sets of negotiator-selection criteria meet at the table, you can be sure that there will be a clash of expectations about many aspects of the negotiation.

An American recalls, "It seemed natural for me to begin shaking hands with the Japanese as they entered the room. Only later did I realize that I had shaken hands with their most senior member last. I should have waited until he entered and shaken hands with him first." The Japanese choose their negotiators on the basis of seniority and status in addition to gender. It is rare to see a woman on a Japanese negotiating team, let alone in a position of senior responsibility. And while the Japanese may be accustomed to the Western notion of shaking hands, bowing is still very common and is a ritual for showing respect for status and age. Usually the younger, less senior person bows lower and longer as a way of establishing the proper relationship between the two individuals.

The American continues: "At dinner that night, a member of their team discreetly informed me of my faux pas, so I made sure for the rest of the negotiation that I addressed all my concerns to the senior man. However, that created its own problems for me, since he never gave me an answer to anything! Was he that hurt over my unintentional snub the first day?"

Actually, the American was probably right in addressing his concerns to the senior man. His expectation of getting definitive answers out of him, however, was probably wrong. Because the Japanese choose their chief negotiators on the basis of status and seniority, these people may not be the ones most informed about the details necessary to make a decision. In fact, their assistants may be better equipped with the facts to respond to your questions. However, assistants are not usually empowered to approve decisions.

Because Americans typically choose their chief negotiators on the basis of their substantive knowledge of the issues at the table and on their negotiating experience, the gender or age of the negotiator can be incidental (and using such criteria in the U.S. might also be illegal). Gender and age, however, often play key roles in the selection of a negotiator in other countries.

Propensity to Take Risks

Cultures can be highly risk-avoidant: slow to make decisions, apparently always in need of more information, dependent on rules and regulations, heavily bureaucratic and hierarchical. On the opposite side, cultures can be very low risk-avoidant: entrepreneurial, making quick decisions based on little information, tending to disregard or find ways to work through or around hierarchy and bureaucracy.

Interestingly, a high level of uncertainty over the future can, in a strange twist, actually promote a high level of comfort with risk-taking. In such cultures, the thinking goes this way: "It might be foolish to plan excessively for the future, because we are not ultimately in charge of it. Therefore, since the consequences of today's actions are mitigated by the unknowable, by some other force, let's let the dice roll; we're not responsible." This ambiguous and apparently contradictory relationship with fate and the future explains the often surprising degree of risk-taking we sometimes see in basically conservative cultures -- the making of serious choices for quite unstudied or unexplained reasons.

The Japanese can, for example, require great amounts of information before making a move yet be dedicated to making such moves for reasons that cannot necessarily be substantiated with data. They may need reams of details in order to plan a step into a particular market, but their decision to enter that market in the first place may have been reached by nothing more than their arbitrary and determined desire to enter that market. In such a situation, they may fail again and again in their specific, risk-avoidant, information-based plans, but they will go back again and again to that market until they succeed there, simply because the larger, perhaps riskier, decision to be there in the first place had already been made.

Group vs. the Individual

Group or individual orientation affects the negotiation process in a number of ways. In group-oriented societies, the other side will probably be a team, as opposed to an individual or a few individuals. Decisions will probably not be made at the table but, rather, will be discussed among the group members after the meeting is over. Group orientation means that individual initiative, or individual attempts to take extra responsibility, or to do a super job for the sake of getting the credit, will not occur. Merit is bestowed on the entire group, whatever the individual efforts responsible for success.

Decisions will probably take longer, and deals will have to be designed so that the group is the beneficiary, as opposed to the individuals that make it up. Individual will and the expression of individual desires are generally not appreciated in group-oriented cultures. Highlighting the benefits inherent in the deal for the individuals on the other team in a group-oriented culture will not win you points.

The U.S. still glorifies the lone, rugged individual, succeeding against all odds. For Americans, pragmatism and individualism are keys to success. "You can do anything if you try hard enough." The group, for Americans, traditionally is represented as the bureaucracy; it just gets in the way, just messes things up.

Closely aligned with group or individual orientation in a negotiation is the distinction that cultures make over how decisions are reached. Are they made by the group or by an individual, and, if by a group, are they determined by consensus or by a majority? If made by individuals, are the decisions autocratic and extremely centralized or diffused among many individuals throughout the organization?

Decisionmaking Systems

In Japan, for example, decisions have almost always been made by consensus. The time the Japanese take to make their decisions may seem interminable to the Americans awaiting a decision, but the information exchanged at the table must be taken back to all parties concerned and decided upon in many mini-meetings among themselves.

This Japanese decisionmaking system is known as ringi seido, or "reverential inquiry about superior's intentions from below." Some have said that the group orientation of the Japanese comes from their eons of work in the rice fields, where teamwork was essential to a good harvest. Whatever the unique combination of factors, the Japanese retain today the need to have the entire group in agreement (harmony, again) on an issue before it is implemented. Therefore, there is always much discussion, but this will inevitably occur out of sight of the other side, and certainly so if the other side is non-Japanese.

Traditionally (and this is changing, too, depending on the industry), lower levels "inquire" about the intentions of the next level up. Ideas and decisions move from the bottom up, with each level seeking approval from the next higher level. At each step upward, consensus must be reached by the players before the issue is "recommended" upward again. The final form reaches the decisionmakers at the top, who then put their stamp of approval (often literally) on it. By this time, of course, all players have discussed the issue at length and have "bought in." Therefore, although the decisionmaking time in Japan may seem extremely long to the impatient American, once the decision is made, implementation is usually quite rapid, since all concerned with the project are already intimately familiar with it.

And it is at this point that the Japanese get their turn to complain about how slowly the Americans move. Americans may make decisions more quickly, may even decide them directly at the table, but then the project, once decided upon by the top, must move back down through the organization, getting everyone's "buy-in," understanding, and compliance along the way -- usually after the decision is made.

Dean Allen Foster is founder and director of Cross-Cultural Associates in New York. He has conducted training programs for multinational corporations, academic institutions, and government agencies in the fields of international negotiations and cross-cultural communications. This article is adapted from his book, Bargaining Across Borders: How to Negotiate Business Successfully Anywhere in the World, Copyright |C~ 1992 by McGraw-Hill Inc.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Foster, Dean Allen
Publication:Directors & Boards
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Words:1929
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