synthetic zero

March 19th, 2011

As part of a discussion on a private conferencing system about how the nuclear disaster in Japan happened, we got on the subject of Japanese decision-making, and the idea of “wa” or harmony. Some participants with experience in Japan expressed the view that Japanese decision-making is quite different than Western decision-making, more consensus-based; others who have also lived in Japan felt that this was a “snow job” and in fact consensus was just used by the powers that be to enforce their will on people, get them to go along with decisions they don’t really agree with.

I wrote the following in response to this, arguing that it’s a little of both, in reality:

The Japanese consensus approach can have the effect one of the participants described (i.e., a way of shaming people into going along with something they don’t really agree with) but it simply isn’t just a “snow job”. Japanese decision-making really is different, they go about making decisions differently. I have done contracts for Japanese companies, my father is Japanese, my mother is Japanese-American; our family decision-making style is radically different from the style I’ve seen in most American families.

There are dual pressures in a Japanese consensus situation; the first is the group wants to accomodate the needs of everyone in the group, and the second is people in the group are subtly expected to go along with what the group consensus appears to be headed towards. The former is the “positive” side of consensus and the latter is pretty necessary otherwise Japanese groups (families, companies, etc.) would never be able to decide anything, but it can also lead to some bad things happening as well, where people go along with bad decisions.

I grew up in the US so my experience of “Japaneseness” is skewed by this, but whenever I visit my relatives in Japan, etc., they have a similar style, though perhaps a bit more extreme in various respects. In both my family and my relatives’ families (in Japan and here) there really is an emphasis on consensus, harmony. It’s not just a “snow job” as John seems to cynically suggest — I always felt my parents took my concerns or issues quite seriously. At the same time, I felt a strong desire to accomodate them as well. It’s a two-way street. If anyone had a strong objection to a proposed decision, we’d pivot and go in another direction. Didn’t matter if it was my mom, my dad, me, or my brother. I observe the same thing in my relatives’ families. Obviously not every family in Japan is the same; I’m talking about my own relatives as well as my family who I think are representative of at least a certain common style in Japan.

There’s a downside to it. I feel myself, though I grew up here, a strong desire to go along with the group decision, if the people are close to me (coworkers, etc.) I remember this one time when my company (Electronic Arts at the time) held an offsite team-building exercise. We were supposed to decide as a group how to best deal with a situation where we were stranded in the arctic due to a plane crash. The idea was each of us were supposed to give our own individual answers to the questions, then we were to discuss as a group and come to a consensus.

Of course, the theory was that the group decision was supposed to be much better than any individual decision. I was assigned to a group of programmers.

The result: The managers group did really well. Their score was the highest of all the teams. And their group score was significantly better than any of their individual scores. My esteem for EA management went up a bit.

Our team of engineers didn’t fare as well. Our group score was dismal. And I had participated in the discussions, and had agreed with what the group had decided. I had gone along with it. The irony was, my own individual answers were actually almost all correct. My individual score had been close to the managers’ group score. I learned from this that perhaps I am a bit too Japanese sometimes. And also: if you dump a bunch of nerds into the Arctic, they might all die…

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