By Rochelle Kopp, Managing Principal, Japan Intercultural Consulting
This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese, that originally appeared in the Japan Times
In typical Japanese meetings, there is no leader designated, and the group discussion proceeds in an organic fashion. This may work well for general discussion meetings, but for meetings with a specific agenda or that aim to produce a decision, it’s preferable to have someone designated as a leader. Having a leader makes a meeting flow more smoothly and efficiently. A meeting leader’s role is to ensure that the discussion stays on track, that everyone participates, and that the outcome of the meeting is clarified. In other words, a leader makes sure that not only the content of the meeting is addressed adequately, but also that the meeting process itself is a positive one.
In English, the meeting leader might also be referred to as the facilitator, or the chairperson. Probably the best equivalent in Japanese would be shinkoyaku. In western-style meetings, the leader tends to be the most senior person present, the person who is in charge of the topic being discussed, the person who has the most relevant specialized knowledge, or simply the person who called the meeting. However, it’s always made clear who the meeting leader is. For this reason, typical Japanese meetings with no leader identified tend to be confusing for non-Japanese. This is particularly true when the highest-ranking person present, who non-Japanese would expect to take the lead role in the meeting, ends up sitting quietly with their eyes closed – a frequent posture for senior executives in meetings, designed to show that they do not intend to dominate the discussion.
One task of the meeting leader is to make the opening statement, which sets the tone for the meeting. It’s important that this statement be a positive one. For example, starting the meeting with a statement such as “Well, why don’t we get started? Let’s jump into the agenda right away so we don’t waste any time. Stan, let’s hear the report from Purchasing” or “I don’t know where those people from Accounting are, but anyway we need to get going before the whole morning is wasted” does not set the right mood. Something more along the lines of the following is better: “Good morning, thanks everyone for attending. As you know, the purpose of this meeting is to discuss the difficulties we have been experiencing with the quality of product coming in from our suppliers. With so many experienced people here, I’m confident that we can develop some effective countermeasures.” This opening statement confirms the purpose of the meeting and sets the expectation for what will be accomplished. It also has a positive feeling to it.
The meeting leader should not necessarily dominate the discussion, but rather seek to guide it. Thus, when the discussion gets off track, he or she should gently steer it back to the main topic. And rather than telling the group what decisions to make, he or she should focus on helping to clarify what the group has decided. It’s this kind of non-dominating role that makes it possible to have someone other than the highest ranking person be the meeting leader.