Archiv für den Autor: John Magee

Soccer teacher vs. Football coach

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Global Edition on September 15, 2018.

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 American is thus to address this cultural difference openly, by talking about where they draw the line between strategy and tactics are, 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.

Consult vs. Serve

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Global Edition on July 9, 2018.

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.

Contentiousness vs. Small Talk

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Global Edition on May 31, 2018.

Germans and Americans have different conversational styles. And that often causes trouble, says John Otto Magee in his third article in a series.

When Germans and Americans make conversation, things often go wrong. And, as in the other types of miscommunication I’ve described in my previous columns, the reason is culture. Let’s look at one particularly treacherous context for Germans and Americans: small talk.

Germans, for starters, don’t really do small talk. They instead have conversations. And by that, they mean substantive, sometimes even deep, exchanges. In these conversations, they look for weak and strong points in arguments. And as an inevitable by-product, the Germans soon state their critical opinions about some person, event or idea. Germans also like clarity. They like people, including their interlocutors, to take strong positions.

And unlike Americans, Germans will not shy away from controversial topics. In fact, Germans usually don’t even think of these topics as controversial, only as interesting: The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; US drone strikes in the Middle East and Pakistan; the base at Guantanamo Bay; the murder rate in the US, gun ownership and NRA influence; the increasing gap between rich and poor; the NSA spying scandal; the ominous power of Google, Apple, Facebook and American-dominated social media, and so forth.

Germans enjoy getting into such hot-button issues. They like the intellectual give-and-take. Controversial discussions are to them a form of mental chess. At a deeper level, Germans also want to demonstrate that they are well informed and that they are interested in the world. And they want everybody to know that they think independently, which often means critically.

Americans seek commonalities. They look for reasons to relate, not to disagree.
That’s why the German term streitbar, which means “prepared to argue” or even “willing to fight,” has a positive connotation in German. As an adjective, it tends to make a person sound brave and principled.

Americans, by contrast, have been raised to avoid certain topics at the proverbial cocktail party. The top three are sex, religion and politics. The American logic of conversation is to avoid any confrontation that can damage a personal or working relationship. So Americans seek commonalities. They look for reasons to relate, not to disagree. Sports, weather and family are considered suitable topics to begin a conversation.

The reason for this conflict avoidance is not that Americans are pansies. Instead, it is that American society has long been, and is today, more violent. Sidestepping controversial topics allows Americans to find a safer way to communicate with people they don’t know. It allows strangers to get to know each other in a non-threatening environment. If you’re too straightforward and offend the wrong people in the US, it’s more likely to end badly for you.

Germans often misinterpret this American inclination to discuss “safe” topics as superficiality. And to Germans, for whom intelligence, deep thinking, even brooding, is important, superficiality is a grave character flaw. Germans are disappointed when the discussion involves what they call non-topics. They feel that an opportunity has been lost: to debate, compare, to learn from each other.

Germans often misinterpret the American inclination to discuss „safe“ topics as superficiality.
Americans in turn often get the impression that Germans seek out controversial topics in order to provoke. As a result, Americans often feel insulted, for the German approach often involves criticism of America. Americans, whether or not they agree, tend to take this personally.

And when that happens, the relationship has been damaged. Worse, some Americans will then warn friends and colleagues about contact with “those opinionated Germans.” This can spoil the atmosphere in companies operating across the Atlantic.

My advice to Germans is to develop a better sense for which topics Americans consider controversial and then to be tactful about broaching those. In general, Germans should seek dialogue, not debate. You can air your opinions once you get to know the other person better.

My advice to Americans is to remember that Germans separate substance from person. So they neither mean nor take vigorous intellectual debate personally. In fact, the Germans probably think they’re showing you respect by taking an interest in your points of view. So indulge the Germans. Help them to understand the American viewpoint, and put some effort into understanding theirs. It’s worth it.

Systematize vs. Break down

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Global Edition on April 20, 2018.

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.

Directness vs. Euphemisms

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Global Edition on February 24, 2018.

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.