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Resolving conflict in a multi-cultural scenario.

An American sales manager of a large Japanese manufacturing firm in the United States sold a multimillion-dollar order to an American customer. The order was to be filled by headquarters in Tokyo. The customer requested some changes to the product's standard specifications and a specified deadline for delivery.

Because the firm had never made a sale to this American customer before, the sales manager was eager to provide good service and on-time delivery. To ensure a coordinated response, she organized a strategic planning session of the key division managers that would be involved in processing the order. She sent a copy of the meeting agenda to each participant. In attendance were the sales manager, four other Americans, three Japanese managers, the Japanese heads of finance and customer support, and the Japanese liaison to Tokyo headquarters. The three Japanese managers had been in the United States for less than two years.

The hour meeting included a brainstorming session to discuss strategies for dealing with the customer's requests, a discussion of possible timelines, and the next steps each manager would take. The American managers dominated, participating actively in the brainstorming session and discussion. They proposed a timeline and an action plan. In contrast, the Japanese managers said little, except to talk among themselves in Japanese. When the sales manager asked for their opinion about the Americans' proposed plan, two of the Japanese managers said they needed more time to think about it. The other one looked down, sucked air through his teeth, and said, 'It may be difficult in Japan'.

Concerned about the lack of participation from the Japanese but eager to process the customer's order, the sales manager sent all meeting participants an e-mail with the American managers' proposal and a request for feedback. She said frankly that she felt some of the managers hadn't participated much in the meeting, and she was clear about the need for timely action. She said that if she didn't hear from them within a week, she'd assume consensus and follow the recommended actions of the Americans.

A week passed without any input from the Japanese managers. Satisfied that she had consensus, she proceeded. She faxed the specifications and deadline to headquarters in Tokyo and requested that the order be given priority attention. After a week without any response, she sent another fax asking headquarters to confirm that it could fill the order. The reply came the next day: 'Thank you for the proposal. We are currently considering your request'.

Time passed, while the customer asked repeatedly about the order's status. The only response she could give was that there wasn't any information yet. Concerned, she sent another fax to Tokyo in which she outlined the specifications and timeline as requested by the customer. She reminded the headquarters liaison of the order's size and said the deal might fall through if she didn't receive confirmation immediately. In addition, she asked the liaison to see whether he could determine what was causing the delay. Three days later, he told her that there was some resistance to the proposal and that it would be difficult to meet the deadline.

When informed, the customer gave the sales manager a one-week extension but said that another supplier was being considered. Frantic, she again asked the Japanese liaison to intercede. Her bonus and division's profit margin rested on the success of this sale. As before, the reply from Tokyo was that it would be 'difficult' to meet the customer's demands so quickly and that the sales manager should please ask the customer to be patient.

They lost the contract. Infuriated, the sales manager went to the subsidiary's Japanese president, explained what happened, and complained about the lack of commitment from headquarters and Japanese colleagues in the United States. The president said he shared her disappointment but that there were things she didn't understand about the subsidiary's relationship with headquarters. The liaison had informed the president that headquarters refused her order because it had committed most of its output for the next few months to a customer in Japan.

Enraged, the sales manager asked the president how she was supposed to attract customers when the Americans in the subsidiary were getting no support from the Japanese and were being treated like second-class citizens by headquarters. Why, she asked, wasn't she told that Tokyo was commit- ted to other customers?

She said: 'The Japanese are too slow in making decisions. By the time they get everyone on board in Japan, the U.S. customer has gone elsewhere. This whole mess started because the Japanese don't participate in meetings. We invite them and they just sit and talk to each other in Japanese. Are they hiding something? I never know what they're thinking, and it drives me crazy when they say things like 'It is difficult' or when they suck air through their teeth.'

'It doesn't help that they never respond to my written messages. Don't these guys ever read their e-mail? I sent that e-mail out immediately after the meeting so they would have plenty of time to react. I wonder whether they are really committed to our sales mission or putting me off. They seem more concerned about how we interact than about actually solving the problem. There's clearly some sort of Japanese information network that I'm not part of. I feel as if I work in a vacuum, and it makes me look foolish to customers. The Japanese are too confident in the superiority of their product over the competition and too conservative to react swiftly to the needs of the market. I know that headquarters reacts more quickly to similar requests from their big customers in Japan, so it makes me and our customers feel as if we aren't an important market.'

Said the U.S.-based Japanese: 'The American salespeople are impatient. They treat everything as though it is an emergency and never plan ahead. They call meetings at the last minute and expect people to come ready to solve a problem about which they know nothing in advance. It seems the Americans don't want our feedback; they talk so fast and use too much slang.'

'By the time we understood what they were talking about in the meeting, they were off on a different subject. So, we gave up trying to participate. The meeting leader said something about time- lines, but we weren't sure what she wanted. So, we just agreed so as not to hold up the meeting. How can they expect us to be serious about participating in their brainstorming session? It is nothing more than guessing in public; it is irresponsible.'

'The Americans also rely too much on written communication. They send us too many memos and too much e-mail. They seem content to sit in their offices creating a lot of paperwork without knowing how people will react. They are so cut-and-dried about business and do not care what others think. They talk a lot about making fast decisions, but they do not seem to be concerned if it is the right decision. That is not responsible, nor does it show consideration for the whole group.'

'They have the same inconsiderate attitude toward headquarters. They send faxes demanding swift action, without knowing the obstacles headquarters has to overcome, such as requests from many customers around the world that have to be analyzed. The real problem is that there is no loyalty from our U.S. customers. They leave one supplier for another based solely on price and turnaround time. Why should we commit to them if they aren't ready to commit to us? Also, we are concerned that the sales force has not worked hard enough to make customers understand our commitment to them.'

1. How are the managers of the Japanese manufacturing firm different from the American managers in the way they approached conflict resolution and decision-making?
2. Why do the Japanese consider the American managers impatient?
3. What would you do to increase the amount of cooperation between the two parties?
4. Why did the Japanese not respond to the e-mails and written messages from the Americans?

Solution Summary

This post examines a case scenario involving Japanese and American managers in a fictitious company. A conflict is introduced and then the solution examines ways in which cultural differences impact both conflict and conflict resolution. The case scenario is provided as well as a discussion of from a cross-cultural perspective. A response of nearly 700 words is provided based on the original case scenario.