“You got it wrong!”

A very important client. German. Head of a thousand-person engineering organization. I had done nine months of work for it. Dinner at a restaurant. I finally meet him.

Friendly, relaxed, anything but self-important. He had every reason to be formal, intimidating, testing. None of that. All signals were positive. At least those in the first few minutes. Then he picks a fight with me. Verbally, intellectually, of course.

„You know, Herr Magee, I was against you doing any work for my organization. I think you have it wrong.

ACT 1 – Meeting the man

I was very tired. Had just executed a three-day management workshop. The participants were active, asking good questions, challenging me when it was legitimate, demanding that we go deeper whenever I had hit a nerve.

I try to pack as much into a day as possible, probably overdoing it. My body was still on German time. It was seven p.m. U.S. East Coast. For me it was one o´clock in the morning.

I got out of my rental car, walked across the parking lot, went through the entrance of the restaurant. The cold air hit me hard. Why does it always have to be so frigid in American restaurants, buildings, other public spaces?

I’m in the Southeast of the U.S. It is early summer. Very warm, sunny, the breeze too soft to cool anything or anyone down. Finally I would meet the person whose organization had been giving me work for the last six months.

His company: a major German multinational, which just a few years before had been merged with an American competitor. His organization: a thousand-person engineering organization, with two major locations. One in Germany. The other in the U.S. He is German. I am American.

ACT 2 – “I think you have it wrong.“

The hostess brings me to him. One of those places where you step up to sit at the table. The place was packed, all sorts of ages represented, the music surprisingly not disruptive. I had never met the man, but sure had heard much about him, and was both curious and nervous.

We shook hands. His meaty, firm, dry and warm. The forearm brown and muscular. Mine? A bit pale, thin, but taut. He had a big smile on his face. Friendly, relaxed, anything but self-important.

As the head of a critical engineering organization in a division of one of Germany‘s largest and most famous global companies, he had every reason to be formal, intimidating, testing, as if to say „I client. You service provider. Me master. You slave.“

Nope. None of that. All signals were positive. At least those in the first few minutes. Then he picks a fight with me. Verbally, intellectually, of course.

ACT 3 – “Your thinking is naíve and superficial.“

Was it a slug to the jaw or pat on the back? Too tired and too unprofessional to control myself, I snapped back that he was the one who has it wrong. „And what‘s more, your thinking is naíve and superficial.“

Now, for those who have little or no experience with Germans, you can‘t hit back much harder at a German than to say those kinds of things. It goes to the heart of their self-understanding.

Tired and unprofessional, yes, but unfamiliar with Germans, no. They like to rough it up intellectually, mentally, with ideas. Often on purpose just to test the other person. Again, we had just met. My beer, or was it juice, hadn‘t even arrived at the table.

No small talk. No pleasantries. No „how is the training going?“ His organization would shell out a large amount of Euros to me in that first year, and here I was slapping the guy right back.

He ate it up. I did, too. We debated with each other for well over two and a half hours. It went on to be the beginning of a four-year engagement, and an inspiring four-year conversation.

But wait, in our very first meeting, in the very first minutes, we basically said to each other: „You got it wrong.“ Shouldn‘t that have killed my consulting engagement, killed the business relationship?

ACT 4 – The customer isn’t king

Germans reject any relationship which even hints at a master-slave relationship. As suppliers, vendors, consultants – call them what you want – Germans want first and foremostly to be treated respectfully.

Seldom are they willing to sacrifice their self-respect, their self-understanding, doing whatever the customer demands, accepting anything the customer throws at them, even if it is profitable to do so. Germans would rather turn away the business. For them, the customer is not a king.

And here‘s the flipside of that logic. The German customer doesn‘t want a slave. They want an expert with backbone, who focuses on what is best for the customer, even if it involves telling the customer what she or he does not want to hear.

Even if doing that can threaten the business relationship. German customers don‘t see themselves as king. They‘re customers. „We have a need. You have the expertise. Let‘s work together.“

And Germans especially respect people who have the ability to dig deep, to „drill through the thickest boards“ as one of their common figures of speech goes. They want to be challenged, their ideas and operating assumptions.

When a German hires someone – whether as an employee or an external service provider – they want that person to know more than they do. It‘s implicit in the transaction that there is a gap to be filled, an area where they do not have the knowhow.

During my four-year engagement for this customer I had witnessed on several occasions – and had heard of several other – how he treated folks who did not challenge him, who were not prepared, who kowtowed to him, who did not “stick to their guns.” It wasn’t a very pretty scene.

ACT 5 – We accepted each other

My client’s expertise, and his organization‘s, was engineering. But they were a product of two companies which had been merged a few years before – one German, the other American.

My expertise was in explaining where Germans and Americans, who happen to be engineers, diverge in their fundamental thinking, where these divergences could cause them problems, and how to handle them.

So we went into battle with each other during that dinner on a warm American summer evening. My message was clear: A corporation‘s culture is deeply imbedded in its national culture. Even if it has become global, it has its roots somewhere, in some country, in some national culture.

He listened, was intrigued, also had good arguments for his point of view. The debate became secondary, however. He had accepted me. And I him.

ACT 6 – The Cost of Cultural Misunderstanding

Let us assume that there are, indeed, fundamental differences between the American and the German approaches to the customer-supplier business relationship. And let us assume that the difference illustrated above is one of those differences.

High-Level Relationship Management
Your company has people at high levels managing the most important business relationships: with your customers and with suppliers. If the cultural differences are not understood, what effect do they have on your company’s business relationships? What does it cost the company?

Company-Internal Business Relationships
Just as critical to your company’s overall success is the complex web of company-internal business relationships. These are the hundreds – depending on the size of the corporation, perhaps thousands – of daily interactions between teams, departments and divisions. They are collaborative relationships involving transactions, so-called hand-offs.

What negative impact could the cultural differences have on those collaborative relationships, on their productivity? What does it cost the company?

You and Your Team
Now ask these same questions of your company-internal business relationship, and those of your team. What does it cost you and your team?

“The Office”

The Office“ is an American comedy television series adapted from a British series of the same name. The series depicts the everyday lives of office employees in a branch of a fictional paper company.

The office’s manager, Michael Scott, constantly interrupts his workers in an attempt to inspire them and win their approval. His efforts usually fail in a humorous way. Although this is a comedy, the manager’s frequent attempts to keep updated on his employees’ work and interact with them personally is similar to actual office environments.

Lincoln visits troops

President Abraham Lincoln was know for making unscheduled visits to Union officers and troops. Successful American leaders never lose touch with their people. Conversely, capable team members find ways to remain in constant communication with their team lead and other important members of management.

American Optimism

Mark Shields is a long-time political journalist. He has had a nationally-sydicated column for decades, and is well known from his weekly analysis with David Brooks – a New York Times columnis – on the PBS NewsHour. Listen to minutes 7:28 to 9:25.

Underpraise vs. Overpraise

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Today on January 31, 2019. See all articles here.

Whereas Americans tend to gush positivity, Germans often come across as stingy with praise. This can lead to bad misunderstandings in firms and teams where Germans and Americans must work together, says an American consultant in Germany, in the 8th part of a series.

Germans and Americans handle feedback differently. Whether given formally in a performance review or informally, feedback relies on assumptions, intentions and signals. If those are misunderstood – as they often are between American and German team members – feedback can backfire and damage the morale and motivation of an otherwise well performing individual or team.

The German approach to feedback is to differentiate strictly between a realistic assessment and overly enthusiastic gushing. Germans generally think that praise should be given only in direct response to empirically demonstrated performance. Praise in front of the team is rare, as are official awards.

The German fear is that public praise could lead to envy on the part of other team members and thereby undermine cohesion. 

Furthermore, Germans tend to feel uncomfortable working in an atmosphere of peer competition. Even German top performers would rather do without the praise and the bonus to preserve a cooperative working relationship with their colleagues.

Germans also believe that the success of a team is often difficult to attribute to the performance of specific members. That’s why praise in front of the team or any kind of reward can lead to embittered discussions about how performance is defined and measured. Germans believe that it is too easy to mistakenly praise one colleague for work results produced by another. They are quick to suspect injustice.

Germans also believe that too much praise can lead employees to „rest on their laurels“. That’s why Germans, when they praise at all, do so in moderation. They want to signal that there is always room for improvement. In their minds, this is itself a form of motivation.

The assumption is that being one‘s own most severe critic is the prerequisite for working independently, for self-management. This German logic is revealed in expressions such as Nicht geschimpft, ist genug gelobt, or “not criticized is praised enough”.

Germans learn at an early age to expect more critique than praise – from parents, teachers, coaches. Young Germans are trained to be self-critical, to be wary of undeserved praise. Experts in education and child-rearing warn of the dangers of excessive praise. It can, they believe, tempt people to overrate their abilities and to lose touch with reality.

Some studies, though, suggest that this approach is not always in the best interest of employees and their companies. More than half of all German managers and subject-area experts feel that they deserve more praise. Only a quarter are satisfied with the current level of positive feedback; 14 percent say they receive no praise at all for their work.

Great job!

American attitudes toward feedback are totally different. Americans see themselves as positive thinkers: as both motivators and self-motivators. Praising is seen as sign of leadership, and as especially important when a team is struggling or plagued by self-doubt. 

One concrete symbol of praise is official recognition in the form of awards. Americans want to be rewarded for good work. Awards ceremonies, small and large, are thus considered a normal instrument of positive feedback.

To German team members, this kind of American praise often feels exaggerated, inflationary, or simply unwarranted. The Germans fear a creeping self-delusion. Germans simply don’t use terms like “great”, “fabulous”, “fantastic”, “amazing”. 

At the same time, German team members receiving feedback from Americans often fail to recognize the criticism that may be carefully wrapped in praise. Even though the American managers feel they have been quite clear, the Germans are often not sure what their weaknesses are and how to improve.

So Germans working in American teams should be prepared to hear lots of praise. They should accept it graciously and be happy about it. After all – who knows? – they might even deserve it. And German managers leading Americans should be much more generous with praise than they would be in their home culture: Praise, motivate, cheer your team on to victory.

Americans working in German teams, by contrast, should prepare to rely on themselves for motivation more than on their managers. They shouldn’t pine for praise that never comes; they should just get on with it and develop inner strength.

American managers of German team members, meanwhile, should tone down their praise a bit, and practice the German art of sober understatement. Their German team members will take them more seriously.

And if the Americans do decide to single out individuals for extra praise, they should remember to celebrate the whole team and be careful not to create stars. Germans really don’t like stars.

Systematize vs. Break Down

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Today on April 20, 2018. See all articles here.

Germans and Americans make decisions in totally different ways, which often leads to clashes. In his second piece in a series, John Otto Magee, an American living in Germany who advises companies in cross-cultural management, explains the dilemma.

Germans think systematically. They formulate their understanding of a decision to be made in a very broad and interconnected context. Therefore Germans do not always consider it helpful to take complexity and, as Americans say, “break it down” into its component parts. They aim to do the opposite, to see particulars in their interrelationships. They look for patterns, strive to understand complexity as a whole, as a system.

That’s one reason why Germans spend a lot of time debating Fragestellung – literally, the way the question is formulated. This is the definition of the matter to be addressed. Before Germans make a decision, they expend great effort into first being sure that they agree on the decision to be made. So they engage in a discussion upfront: What is the nature of this decision? What are its implications for other areas of our work? Are we addressing the right question? Are we in agreement about what decision we are making?

This German yearning to understand the system as a whole is baked into the language. When a German gets confused, he or she says: Ich habe den Überblick verloren, literally: “I have lost overview”, or “I can no longer take in the complexity from one elevated vantage”. Germans place supreme value on Überblick (overview), on understanding a system as a whole.

The next step after Überblick is Durchblick, or “through-view”. Somebody who has graduated from having an overview to also having “through-view” truly know knows what he or she is talking about, and understands both the details and the big picture. But while such an expert “looks through” a subject, he still maintains Umsicht, a “view around” at all tangential topics. This is a cautionary principle to mitigate risk.

This difference goes beyond style.

Americans rarely engage in such Germanic discussions about the systematics of a decision at hand. They talk instead about who or what is served by a good decision. They “break down” complexity into its component parts, on the premise that this leads them to what is essential.

This American habit of breaking things down is already instilled in grammar school. In English Composition, American children are taught to write short, simple and clear sentences ordered in a logical sequence. Good composition avoids sentences with complex grammatical twists and turns, of the sort that are standard in German. The goals are simplicity and clarity.

Ernest Hemingway, considered one of America’s greatest writers, shied away from convolution in grammar and style. He never used big words or complicated sentences, yet he succeeded in painting vivid images. German diction, by contrast, sounds to an American as Mark Twain put it: “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”

This difference goes beyond style. Americans do not engage in lengthy discussions about the essence of a decision to be made. Their approach to all decisions is primarily motivated by pragmatism. Decisions lead to actions, which in turn lead to further decisions to be made. Americans avoid getting weighted down in what they view as over-analysis.

So Germans see Americans as moving through the decision-making process impatiently, without having thought through the complexity of the issue. Americans think that Germans consider too many factors not directly relevant to the decision, thus wasting time and momentum.

Americans think that Germans waste time and momentum.

This situation can become unhealthy and self-defeating. Each side is determined to get its way, to have the say. Unfortunately, neither recognizes what lies at the heart of their battle. Both want their fundamental approach to making decisions to become universal for the company. All involved are aware of the negative effects on the organization. Decisions, even routine ones, begin to demand far too much time. Teams begin to work against, instead of with, each other. Each side suspects the other of political maneuvering.

But, wait! It doesn’t have to be this way. The inherent strengths in how Americans and Germans make decisions can be understood and combined. Germans should remain systematic in their approach. It’s one of their strengths. At the same time they should try to become more pragmatic, and sometimes narrow the scope.

The Americans, meanwhile, need to engage with their German colleagues in their seemingly philosophical discussion about the nature of the decision to be made. They may find a broader perspective to be of value. Once the Americans are full participants in such a discussion, they can influence the decisions from the beginning. And they should never forfeit one of their great strengths: the ability to break complexity down, or what the Germans awkwardly translate as herunterbrechen.

Soccer vs. Football

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today on September 15, 2018. See all articles here.

Germans and Americans have very different expectations about leadership. That often leads to problems when they work together in business, explains an American consultant living in Germany, in the fifth part of a series.

Germans and Americans differ in many ways, as you know if you’ve read the previous installments in this series. Yet another difference has to do with how they lead and want to be led. There is a cliché that German leadership tends to be top-down, hierarchical and “command-and-control.” There is another cliché that American leadership favors flat structures, empowerment and subsidiarity. Neither of these is true. In fact, the opposite is true. The real cultural differences are both more subtle and more interesting, and offer plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings.

Let’s start with the German leadership logic. Germans – both those doing the leading and those being led – prefer generally formulated missions. The leader will specify the what, but not the how. Overall responsibility for fulfilling the mission (i.e., the tactics) rests primarily with the implementer but is shared to only a limited degree with the team leader.

From Prussia to soccer

This style of leadership has deep historical roots. Führen mit Auftrag, a multifaceted leadership concept roughly translated as “Leading by Mission,” dates back to the famous Prussian Reforms of the early 19th century, when the Germans analyzed why they were so swiftly and thoroughly defeated by Napoleon‘s armies. In this leadership culture, the officer issues to his troops a mission, a goal. It is then up to the next level to devise how they will complete the mission independently of their leadership.

What is unique about this style is the degree of freedom at the tactical level given to the junior officers and enlisted soldiers. They decide independently which approach is best and adjust to changing situations. This requires flexibility, creativity and independent thinking. Again, this does not fit the cliché that some outsiders have of German leadership.

It is, of course, crucial in this leadership culture that the tactical level clearly understands the strategic thinking of the commanding officer. The implementers must have good judgment and a strong sense of responsibility and duty. The commanding officer, meanwhile, must communicate the strategy clearly. He or she must also provide the tactical managers with all the necessary resources. Anything less is counterproductive. It also threatens team morale and the mission itself.

Another assumption behind this German leadership logic is that the entire group, and each member, must feel self-confident, like an expert in whatever he or she does. The leaders, in turn, should feel proud of their troops and accept team members who take different approaches, as long as the overall goal is reached.

A good analogy comes from soccer, the Germans’ favorite sport. Between matches, the coach works with the players on technique, practices strategies and tries out different formations. But once the match begins, the coach has few levers to influence its outcome. He or she can make only three player substitutions. Aside from yelling a bit, the coach has only a few minutes at halftime to provide instruction. In the end, it is the players who have to know how to react to the opposing team, while the coach turns into a bystander.

Hut, hut, hut

Americans, by contrast, prefer specifically formulated, command-oriented tasks. The leader’s order addresses not only the what, but also the how. This logic, too, has its roots in the military. Until the end of World War II, the United States did not maintain a standing army. American military history is thus a series of mobilizations and demobilizations. Each time, Americans had to retrain themselves for the war they were fighting, enlisting and managing young men at short notice and with little time.

These constraints gave rise to a culture of detailed orders that leave little room for interpretation or improvisation. Again, sport offers a good analogy. In American football, the coach and coaching staff are the dominant actors even during the game, without ever stepping onto the field. They determine not only the strategy but also the tactics.

The rules of the game acknowledge this, by not limiting in any way when, or how often, the coach can substitute players. The coaching staff calls the individual offensive and defensive plays via direct communication with designated players: the quarterback on offense, the middle linebacker or safety on defense. Playbooks describe in precise detail what each player does in a given play.

Lost in translation

When Germans work with Americans, the Germans often experience the American leadership approach as too involved on the implementation level. The American-style hands-on coaching comes across as micromanagement. The Germans perceive their American bosses as „telling me how to do my job,” and feel professionally degraded and personally insulted. The Americans, in turn, often see German bosses as distanced, uninvolved, and almost passive, “empty suits.” They miss clearer definitions of their tasks but don’t know how to bring this up with their German boss.

My advice to Germans who lead Americans is thus to address this cultural difference openly, by talking about where they draw the line between strategy and tactics, and by also being more detailed than usual about the how, in addition to the what. My advice to Americans who lead Germans is to become more teacher than football coach. Let your German team members succeed on their own and in their own way. Give them space.

Process vs. Relationship

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today on October 27, 2018. See all articles here.

Germans believe that processes — how the work is done — is the key to success. Americans, however, favor relationships, or how to gain and retain customers.

By tradition, Germany is more a culture of artisans (Handwerkerkultur) than of traders (Händlerkultur). The Germans have always made things. And they believe that process — how the work is done — is the key to success. Good processes lead to good products, bad processes to bad ones.

One well-known German manager, Klaus-Hardy Mühdeck, the CIO of ThyssenKrupp, is even nicknamed the “process pope” and has changed his title to Chief Process Officer. Because processes govern the internal workings of a company, whoever has the say over process has the say over the company. Process is power. Germans want the power.

The United States, by contrast, is a culture of traders more than of artisans. Americans do make things, but they also buy and sell things, including whole companies. Americans believe that business revolves around the needs of the customer. Good relationships lead to good customers, bad relationships lead to no customers. And because those relationships drive what the company does, whoever has the say over relationships has the say over the company. Relationships are power. Americans want the power.

The more product-oriented a company is, the less important are its customer relationships and the lower the prestige of its teams in business development, marketing, and sales. This is why in many German companies scientists and engineers are the kings. German-engineered products should sell themselves. Because Americans allegedly don’t understand this primacy of product, and therefore process, Germans are happy to leave marketing, sales etc. to the Americans.

The more customer-oriented a company is, the less important are science and engineering. Which is why in US companies the kings are often in business development, relationship management, marketing or sales. Products don’t sell themselves, they are sold by people. Because Germans don’t understand this market- and customer-orientation, Americans are often happy to leave internal debates about processes to the Germans.

My advice to Germans: If processes are crucial to success, convince your American colleagues to take processes seriously. Don’t create processes without involving them. Otherwise, you’ll produce German processes which won’t work in the US. If process is power, share that power.

My advice to Americans: If interacting with customers is key to success, get your German colleagues involved. Give them full access to your strategic thinking, about how you go to market. Involve them in your most important business relationships. Take them with you to the customers. If relationships are power, share that power.

Directness vs. Euphemisms

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today February 24, 2018. See all articles here.

Americans and Germans do a lot of business together – and often have unnecessary misunderstandings, causing a lot of grief and mistrust. An American consultant who has lived in Germany for 25 years offers some help.

The United States and Germany are among the most successful countries and cultures in the world. They have the largest and fourth-largest economies, great companies, and great talents. Clearly, they must be doing a lot right. And yet, so much can go wrong when Germans and Americans meet and do business together, as I know from my years as an American consultant living in Germany. It helps for each side to understand where the other is coming from.

Start with basic communication. Germans say what they mean. Mean what they say. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t use euphemisms. Clear, direct, unambiguous. Get to the point. Right away. To Americans, as to many other English-speaking people, the Germans thus appear impatient, obnoxious, at times even insulting.

Once you enter the inner cultural logic of this German style of communication, it appears less off-putting. The Germans are not exactly an unintelligent, unreflective, insensitive people. Instead they consider direct communication to be honest, transparent, and efficient. And also respectful, because it reduces the risk that people will misunderstand each other. Germans want to understand and be understood.

The inner logic of American communication culture is different. Americans approach important topics cautiously. They use euphemisms to transmit awkward messages. They consider indirect communication to be polite, sophisticated, and still effective. They aim to maintain dialogue in order to deepen it.

Germans aren’t familiar with baseball’s left field.

Germans find the American style of communication too soft, indirect and unclear. The Americans seem to be wrapping their messages in wads of cotton. To complicate matters, the Germans often miss the nuances in the carefully-worded statements of the Americans (or Brits, or other English speakers). American euphemisms, idioms, and witticisms fall flat. Germans aren’t familiar with baseball’s left field. Americans, in turn, perceive Germans as impatient, impolite, and rough. That’s why Americans are wont to feel uncomfortable in a conversation with Germans.

Germans should therefore practice using a softer vocabulary and approaching important topics indirectly. They don’t have to clarify key points immediately but should first establish a rapport. Americans, meanwhile, should embrace German directness, which has advantages. They should keep it simple and unambiguous. It’s OK, the Germans won’t break down in tears.

Let’s consider the way Americans and Germans negotiate agreements. Many Americans I know call their German colleagues Dr. No. (Behind their backs, of course.) More accurate would be Herr or Frau Dr. Nein. The German Nein is indeed more rule than exception. It can come hard and fast. But this Nein, depending on the context, can range from hard to flexible. Germans only say Ja (yes) when they are sure that they can deliver.

In the American context, by contrast, a no is the exception rather than the rule. Americans take pride in being open, helpful, and flexible. They extol cooperation, teamwork, and volunteerism. To reject a request from a colleague out of hand feels like negating these values. Americans are especially reluctant to say no to a boss or a customer.

Germans may think they have an agreement, whereas the Americans communicated no such thing.

So the American no comes in the form of a conditional yes signaling the reasons why assistance is regretfully not possible. To Americans it is a sign of professionalism and finesse to communicate rejection in a positive, supportive, affirmative way. This is not easy for Germans to decipher. Germans want clarity. But a no in the form of a conditional yes sends mixed signals.

The resulting misunderstandings can get ugly. Germans may think they have an agreement, whereas the Americans communicated no such thing. Germans will then conclude that the Americans are unzuverlässig (unreliable). Even on minor matters, to be unzuverlässig is a character flaw in Germany. Unzuverlässig is a label which can take a painfully long time to have peeled off your forehead.

The Americans in turn perceive the Germans as born nay-sayers: Unfriendly, uncooperative, the opposite of team-players. The German Nein comes so fast and unequivocally that Americans seldom consider its real meaning: “Sorry, I cannot commit – at this time.” The Nein is usually conditional, like the American yes.

Germans should realize that their Nein sounds harsh and unfriendly to the American ear. They would do better to soften it. They could try instead to enter into a dialogue with American colleagues by stating the reasons why they cannot (yet) enter into an agreement, then giving the Americans a chance to think about solutions. The Germans should keep in mind that they may need assistance from this very same colleague at a later time – and check their foreheads in the mirror daily.

The Americans, meanwhile, should communicate more literally with their German colleagues than they are used to doing. If they can’t enter into an agreement, they should simply say so, then provide reasons. If they are willing to enter into an agreement, they should give clear indications to what degree their yes is conditional: “Sure, Hans, I can deliver that by next Thursday. But, I have a lot going on at the moment. I can guarantee it only 50%. Let‘s talk again on Tuesday.”

Germans tend to separate message from messenger. Americans do the opposite.

Finally, consider the American and German styles of presentation. Germans tend to separate message from messenger. A German presenter consciously moves into the background so that the content can take center stage. Arguments should speak for themselves. German speakers strive to be factual, analytical, scientific. This often makes them appear objective, impersonal, and colorless. They display little body language and stay behind the podium or to the side. Content takes center stage.

Americans do the opposite. They link message and messenger. Content, form and presenter should form a unity: “Sell yourself first, then your product or service.” So Americans get personal and anecdotal, with personal color and plenty of gesticulation. Go to YouTube and look at Steve Ballmer on stage in his Microsoft days. The messenger is the message.

Germans react ambivalently to this linking of message and messenger. While listening, they whisper to each other: “If his case is so strong, why is he putting on such a ridiculous show?” or “Typical American. All show, no substance. We’ll take him down when we get to Q&A.” Yet some of the Germans secretly think: “Wow. Uninhibited. Natural. Believes in himself. Getting me to believe. Wish we Germans were allowed to do the same.”

Americans watching a German presenter often feel that the speaker lacks passion or even courage. “Why is she hiding behind the podium? What’s she afraid of?” or “Sleeping pill. Quick, someone open the windows.” or “Oh please, don’t do the math. We believe you.” Yet some Americans secretly think: “Wow. Clear-eyed, clear-headed. Nothing but the facts. Rock-solid analysis. Wish we Americans didn’t have to entertain the children.”

So the Germans should identify more with their message. Use “I”. Tell anecdotes. Don’t run away from who you are. Tell the story, including your story. Put your heart into it. Drop the robot-stuff. The Americans, by contrast, should temper their inner showman. Inject skepticism into your message. It adds to credibility.

Consult or Serve

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today on July 9, 2018. See all articles here.

A big source of misunderstanding between Americans and Germans, rarely made explicit, is about whether business should inherently be customer-centric, supplier-centric, or somehow balanced, as our fourth column in this series explains.

A big source of misunderstanding between Americans and Germans, rarely made explicit, is about whether business should inherently be customer-centric, supplier-centric, or somehow balanced, as our fourth column in this series explains.

Germans and Americans alike will of course say they care about their customers. But they associated different meanings with that notion. And that often leads to misunderstandings and frustration. American providers of business services proudly offer exactly that: a service. By contrast, German providers view their proposition less as a service and more as a consultation. The difference is subtle, but consequential.

Germans use the English word “service” constantly. But “service” is not native to the German language. The German equivalent is dienen. In the Middle Ages, dienen was associated with being a messenger, a runner, or a farm laborer. Dienen meant “to be helpful”. But in today’s German dienen has the very negative connotation of service in the sense of servitude, subjugation or subordination.

That’s why Germans today tend to avoid using the German word dienen and prefer the English word “service”. (It stems from the Latin word servitium, which also described the condition of a slave, but that etymology is not obvious to German speakers.) Sometimes Germans even combine a German and an English term: Thus Kundenservice means “customer service”. Some of their concoctions become involuntarily amusing, as with Servicedienstleistung, which translates back into English as “service-service”.

To Americans, by contrast, the English term “service” mainly connotes graciousness, helpfulness and selflessness. It is inherently personal. An American rendering a service will respond to the needs of the customer, and the customer will expect nothing less. But service in American thinking also presumes compensation. Service is thus both personal and commercial. Impersonal service seldom leads to commercial success, whereas personal service without fair compensation is servitude.

Germans holding council

Germans clearly prefer another German word in thinking about their business relationship: beraten. The root is Rat, which means “counsel”. Beraten thus means “to hold council”, or more simply “to consult” or “to advise”. It implies a business relationship that is more balanced in terms of power and respect.

Consulting involves joint planning with the customer. It is a two-way street, whereas serving sounds like a one-way street. Serving is seen by Germans as somewhat degrading and demeaning, as almost unworthy of the educated and skilled.

Germans therefore find some of their American colleagues to be too eager to serve the customer. They don’t like Americans leaping into action at the faintest hint of a request from the customer. From the German perspective, American customers are also unrealistically demanding.

Germans believe that one can command more respect, and thus be more successful, by demonstrating independence, and not instinctively giving the customer what he wants. The customer often does not know what is best for him, so to truly serve him means to maintain your autonomy in order to objectively advise the customer on how to solve his problems. The typical German customer, too, neither respects nor wants a servant; he demands an expert who is willing to infuse the relationship with his expertise.

Some Americans also prefer to see themselves as consulting rather than serving. But they find nothing inherently demeaning or degrading in serving another person. And serving a customer in a business context implicitly involves compensation. Service only becomes degrading (meaning “not worth it”) when the compensation is unfair.

Americans thus look at their German colleagues and see an approach that is not customer-oriented but supplier-oriented: The customer has to orient himself to the supplier. This looks all wrong in American eyes. It implies an imbalance in favor of the supplier. The customer can easily gain the impression that he should be thankful to be served at all. At worst, Americans find the German approach arrogant and unresponsive.

Germans, please listen

When dealing with Americans, Germans should therefore make clear right away that they are focused on serving the needs of their customer. They should signal that they will be willing to listen. Germans should avoid using terms such as “consult” or “advise” at first, and use “service” or “serve” instead. Many Americans would often misunderstand “consulting” as lacking engagement, as not wanting to be involved in the implementation of needed measures, as ducking their responsibility.

Germans should also refrain from asking questions in the initial meetings that are critical, probing or penetrating. A highly analytical conversation, with questions going to the core of the customer’s business, implies an already close business relationship. It could be that your collaboration has not yet reached that stage. The American customer sees herself as managing the relationship, as deciding if and when you reach full collaboration. Americans want to be sure that you have understood their situation, their needs and challenges, before they are willing to accept you as a consultant who serves their needs.

Americans, stay detached

Germans respond positively to American customer-orientation. But that friendliness and responsiveness must be backed up by a solution to a problem. So Americans dealing with Germans should avoid the terms “serve” and “service” at first, and talk about “consulting” instead. German customers might hear “serve” as a substitute for real and proven knowledge and expertise. Americans should also try stay detached and even distant from the customer as a person, to depersonalize the relationship and remain an outsider lending his expertise to a specific problem.

Americans should delve earlier than their instincts suggest into the complex and critical issues and start asking penetrating questions right away. Otherwise the Germans will think the Americans either do not grasp problems in their complexity or do not dare to address them.