Nemawashi is widely used in Japan, but it often has a dark and negative image since it takes place behind the scenes. It is sometimes regarded as crafty, and according to Naotsuka, many non-Japanese people think of it as cheating, lobbying, and politicking. However, nemawashi is indispensable when making decisions in Japan, and in fact, it can be a positive force, depending on the situation. In order to work harmoniously in Japanese society, nemawashi is very useful in reducing unnecessary friction, and when people do it effectively and achieve something of worth, they will develop good reputations and are soon promoted.
What Is Nemawashi?
Nemawashi is an informal process of quietly working in the background to gather support to reach a consensus. The result is that a decision is made informally before that same decision is made in a formal manner.
In the west, decisions are often made by coming together for a meeting, openly debating the pros and cons of various aspects of the decision, and then either taking a vote or having the decision made by someone in a leadership position. There are typically winners and losers in this process, and people's differences may be very public in some cases.
Nemawashi allows those who oppose a certain course of action to be heard in private, and their concerns addressed before a proposal is discussed openly. If the concerns cannot be addressed, and a consensus not achieved, then the proposal is never formally brought up for approval. The result is that no one is seen as being on the losing side, and no one loses “face.” It also has the advantage that everyone is working together.
Characteristics of Nemawashi
Nemawashi involves low-key consensus-building that uses both persuasion and problem solving. This is accomplished through conversations, either in small groups or one-to-one. The goal is to resolve all differences behind the scenes so that there is no public debate and no public airing of differences of opinion.
Problem solving is an important part of nemawashi. As a proposal is shared with others, objections and problems are identified. They are then discussed and solved. The result is that the final proposal is stronger, and will better achieve the desired results.
Another characteristic is that nemawashi provides time for people to think and adjust their opinions, a process that can take several days or weeks. Nemawashi is not something that is done quickly.
How Does Nemawashi Work?
Nemawashi begins with someone who has an idea, course of action, or proposal they wish to see approved. They'll typically start by identifying key decision makers and bring up their proposal informally. This may happen during a lunch, or when meeting other people in a hallway. Or the person making the proposal may intentionally visit the office or desk of those he wishes to speak with.
A more formal meeting is sometimes scheduled to give two people the opportunity to talk over the proposal. In some cases there may even be a “pre-meeting” held before a larger, more formal meeting. In a pre-meeting the issues that will be considered in the formal meeting are discussed, and disagreements resolved so that no one is embarrassed in the formal meeting.
The objective for all of these types of meetings is to present the idea or proposal, and get the reaction of the person you are talking with. Are they strongly opposed? Do they have some concerns? Do they have suggestions for improving it? Are there other people they recommend speaking with?
Based on the feedback from the nemawashi meetings the person making the proposal will refine it, or if there is strong opposition, they may completely rework it. Then the process is repeated.
In real-life nemawashi is not as clear cut. It may take place both informally and formally simultaneously, with conflicting suggestions needing to be addressed. No two nemawashi processes happen in exactly the same way. However, the fundamentals are that it is an iterative process involving discussions with all decision makers until either a consensus is reached, or the proposal is abandoned.
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