Wrong Thinking

Five videos. Five min.

Our blind spot

It was not until after having lived for five years in Germany that I recognized my blind spot about the Germans. More truthfully, until my blind spot was pointed out to me by a German.

Until then I had thought Germans were Americans, who just happened to speak a different language, who live in a different country, and who have a different history.

I expected them – the Germans – to be like me. To think like me. And to act like me. Like John Magee, an American.

I learned, however, that the Germans don’t always think like me, or act like me. And from their perspective, I – an American – do not always think or act like they do.

I suspect that the Germans assumed that I too was a German, who just happened to speak a different language, and who came from a different country, which has a different history.

Germans aren’t Americans. And Americans aren’t Germans.

Hard vs. Soft

In the business world a distinction is made between hard factors and soft factors. Hard factors can be observed, labeled, defined and quantified. Soft factors are difficult to observe, label, define and quantify.

In the business world people focus on the hard factors. We believe that the soft factors are more important.

A factor is something which helps to produce or influence a result. A factor causes something to happen. In the business world people produce and influence results. People cause things to happen.

The so-called hard factors are in reality soft. A change in the tax code leads immediately to change in business behavior. But how easy is it to change how a German understands quality? How Americans work in teams?

We are formed by our culture. It is who we are, where we come from, how we think and how we act. What is deeply-rooted is not easy to change.

National culture is the hardest of hard factors. Hard in the deeper, truer sense of the word: complex, not quantifiable, difficult to change. Hard.

Not addressed

Most people are not aware of the influence of national culture, on their actions, on their interactions. For them people are people.

But, people are not people. There are German people. There are American people. And there are many other peoples.

Some people sense the differences between cultures, but cannot quite articulate them.

Then there are those who are reluctant to address differences between peoples. They fear that doing so would make their interaction more difficult.

Finally, there are a few people who are aware of the differences and their influence on business. They want to address the differences, but find out that neither business consultants, nor organizational development specialists, nor business schools can help them.

Analogies explain

Take sports. The one team has a clear strategy. Their formation on the field is in line with that strategy. Each player knows what their job is and how to do it. They communicate well among themselves and with the coaching staff. And can adjust to any circumstances on the field. They play as a team.

The other team does not have a clear strategy. Its formation on the field is unstructured. The players are in disagreement about who does what, when and how. Nor are their coaches completely in agreement. They don‘t play as a team.

Everyone in the stadium, listening on the radio and watching by television knows the outcome of the game. One team wins, the other loses.

What about in the operating room of a hospital? What is the effect on the patient if the members of the operating team – surgeon, specialists, assistants – don‘t work well together?

Is it any different in a political campaign?

Few of us have fought in war. But the fundamental dynamic is the same. The results, however, are far more serious. Those who understand each other and work as a team leave the battlefield with their lives.

Failures warn

See the many failed cross-border mergers over the last two decades. See especially the big cross-Atlantic failures. The numbers involved are not small.

The press reported on them. The business schools talk about them. The consulting firms claim they can prevent them.

All of them cite cultural differences as the root cause. But none of them explain what they actually mean by cultural differences.

Far more common, however, are the failed cross-border mergers within companies. Departments merged. Teams combined. International projects formed.

No one on the outside hears about these failures.