The Joy of Gnarly Cross-Cultural Gigs and Reducing Secret Meetings

The client approached me for help. Productivity was down, tensions were high, the American staff felt disrespected, and Japanese managers were perceived by the locals as arrogant and unwilling to adapt their management style to American culture. Same old story.

This time I really did have my work cut out for me. More accurately, the client’s staff had their work cut out for them. But it was too early to break the news that outside consultants can’t solve a company’s internal problems, that my job is to help them better define their “current situation” so they can figure out for themselves how to best solve their own problems. This explanation would come soon enough. For now I would tread lightly and work on educating both sides to understand the deeper causes of their intercultural struggles.

The endgame in my workshops is to get both sides talking to each other without all the accumulated misunderstandings and accompanying emotions muddying the waters. It’s kind of like marriage counseling, just without the marriage part.

My approach is a bit unconventional but there’s a method to my madness. I spend several hours un-muddying the waters by educating American and Japanese staffs on each others’ cultures separately, then bring them together for a joint session at the end where a meaningful dialogue can unfold. It’s never easy.

At the beginning of each separate session I have participants make a list of what they like about working with the other culture, and also what drives them crazy. As you might expect, the “drives-them-crazy” lists are always longer than the “like” lists, a statement about human nature for sure. I also spend a good part of the separate sessions explaining the meanings, misunderstandings, and cultural ramifications of the listed comments. This provides badly needed context. Then in preparation for the final joint session, both lists are translated so both sides clearly understand what the other side is saying about them.

Sounds dangerous, right? That’s what I thought the first time I launched this program ten years ago. Happy to report that not once have I had to break up a fight. But it isn’t a love-fest either. It’s like incrementally turning a battleship around in the water with no single definitive turning point.

In my world, every workshop takes on a life of its own, so no paint-by-the-numbers magic. Lots of improvisation but it starts with education. Then I build on that foundation with humor, facilitated dialogue, self-reflection and structured brainstorming on improving relationships. But if I have a “go-to” technique it’s humor, a natural output of discussions that take place in the joint sessions. Indeed, cross-cultural interactions are ripe with humor, but only if you’re paying attention and seize those opportunities. Sometimes humor even happens by accident.

I once facilitated a joint session between Japanese and Americans in which the Americans had complained (as they always do) that the Japanese held “secret meetings,” implying they were intentionally withholding information from the Americans. The expression “secret meetings” took the Japanese by surprise. They simply took for granted that behind-the-scenes negotiating was how decision-making was supposed to happen.

In the course of the training the American participants learned that that these private meetings weren’t aimed at shutting out the Americans, that their Japanese counterparts in fact routinely held small private meetings off-line even in their own country when working only with fellow Japanese. This revelation went a long way in placating the American staff.

At the end of the session, after the Japanese had thoroughly reflected on comments made by American counterparts, the Japanese managers addressed the “secret meeting” complaint. Not knowing the proper English words to describe their off-line meetings, they defaulted to the “secret meeting” description. With a straight face, one of the Japanese managers faced the American audience and proclaimed in earnest, “We are so sorry. It is true that we Japanese have many ‘secret meetings.’ So our corrective action will be to reduce the number of secret meetings!”

To the Japanese presenter’s utter surprise, the Americans burst out laughing. They understood from context what he was trying to say. But try, if you will now, to imagine if context had not been provide upfront: it could have easily been a communication disaster!

The Battleship Does a U-Turn

Admittedly, this particular workshop was a tougher nut to crack than most I had administered in the past. In the initial American session the tension was palpable. It would take most of the session to get the American managers’ collective heads wrapped around the problem.

The Japanese session was a bit easier, although they were shocked to hear just how much resentment had built up with American counterparts.

Then in the final joint session the battleship did an unexpected and sudden U-turn. After hearing numerous comments from the American staff that they felt “disrespected” and “unappreciated,” the top Japanese executive present asked me to interpret. Here’s what he said:

“I suspect that I am guilty of offending you, and for that I want to offer my sincere apology. We Japanese come from a tiny-island country with no natural resources. America has kindly allowed us to build our factory here in this huge, wonderful market, and it has greatly benefitted our parent company. We are very grateful for that. So we have absolutely no intention to insult or belittle you. We will do our best moving forward to change that perception, and would like very much to work together. We are on the same team, have the same goals, and want to work together as one team.”

I could almost hear the tension escaping from the room. The Americans immediately softened, it was written all over their faces.

The rest of the session was fun, engaging and productive. Everyone left the room at the end of the day with the agreement that they would all work harder to communicate, cooperate, even socialize outside of work. They also agreed to hold similar joint sessions periodically to ensure proper follow up, and keep the lines of communication open.

Postscript

At the end of all my sessions I get a “report card” from each participant, ranking the effectiveness of the training on a scale of one to five (one being the worst, five the best). Also included is a comments section. This session yielded a 4.5 average ranking, a score to be proud of for sure. But two comments really stuck with me: in both cases, the participants said that they had low expectations coming into the training. Both said they were “very surprised” at how effective the training was, and thanked me for administering the workshop.

Nothing beats turning a battleship around in the water, turning conflict into harmony, and connecting cultures. Can’t wait for my next gnarly gig.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

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7 responses to “The Joy of Gnarly Cross-Cultural Gigs and Reducing Secret Meetings

  1. What a fantastic success story! Congratulations:-) Which aspect do you think is the most important out of those covered in the training? Is it the initial ‘education’ about cultural differences, the help of ‘putting feelings on paper’ session or the ‘we will try to do x,y,z from now on’ part?
    I also love the ‘what drives us crazy’ part and the comparison to marriage. The truth is that you love and hate your spouse for the exact same silly things… The key to success is to turn the hate to love & appreciation of our differences.
    Once again, well done!

    • Thanks again for commenting wolikag! Not sure I can isolate the most important aspect, but I can say that without background education, the other components of the workshop don’t work, as knowledge is the foundation upon which everything else is built. On the other hand, without face-to-face dialogue the educational part is meaningless: folks need to drill down to their concrete issues and work it out themselves. But the last part (self-reflection) is the most powerful: getting people to turn their pointing fingers around at themselves and focus on the only thing they control–their own behavior. Getting there isn’t easy but it’s absolutely essential for taking the next step and building trust.

  2. Aloha Tim! Thank you. I am involved in restructuring work for nonprofit organizations right now and one of the first challenges is “changing the culture” from a non-sustainable one to a sustainable one. I am employing your Japanese-American cross cultural understanding improvement techniques in my work now even though all the participants are Americans!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Grif. That’s a real compliment that you’re employing my method.

      And best of luck in selling lots of copies of your recently published LQ book!

  3. Thanks for sharing. It is inspiring to hear the statement from the Japanese executive!

  4. Hi Tim,

    This reminds me of a realization I just made about one of my Japanese colleagues in a previous job. When I left the organization, I was convinced he was a untrustworth two-faced lying back-stabber. We had several meetings together where we would talk about things and make plans and whenever I brought them up in the official meetings later, he would sit there stone cold and never support me if people didn’t agree – left me hanging out to dry ever time.

    I was also convinced that my Japanese colleagues totally ignored me in their nemawashi “secret meeting” sessions, effectively elimiating me from any real decision making in the organization. I think you know where this is going, but imagine my internal embarassment when I recently realized that through these private sessoins, I was part of the secret meeting nemawashi system and it was I who violated the system by throwing out ideas for consideration before the whole nemawashi circuit had time to be completed. Several years too late, but I’m glad to have finally figured this one out!

    • Thanks for sharing that Scot!

      Hopefully we can hook up again in the near future. (Slammed right now and traveling soon, but perhaps late July or August?) Regards to honorable wife. ;)

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