Germans – Americans
I am an American who has mastered the German language, studied their history, lived and worked in their culture for three decades.
I am an historian by training, having received my B.A. from Georgetown University in Washington, DC and an M.A. from Die Freie Universität in Berlin. In Germany since 1988, I reside in Bonn.
Bonn – Washington
From 1995 until 1999 I was a Member of the Professional Staff of the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group in the Bundestag in Bonn. I advised its leadership on the relations between the United States and Germany.
I had three primary tasks: Explain the deeper-lying historical-cultural factors driving those relations, establish and build relations to key political actors in Washington, report on significant developments in the United States.
Siemens – Westinghouse
From 1999 until 2002 I was a consultant within Siemens in Munich. I supported the post-merger integration of Westinghouse Power Corp., at that time the largest acquisition in the history of Siemens.
From 2003 until 2008 I continued to support that integration as an independent consultant. In 2009 my book Verstehen sich Deutsche und Amerikaner (Do Germans and Americans understand each other) – was published in Germany. In it I tell that integration story in fictional form.
Germany – USA
From 2003 until today I have helped other cross-border combinations write their story of successful integration, whether DAX30 companies, German Mittelstand or US Fortune25 companies.
I began writing this book in January 2009. It was completed in eighty days. It is based on my experiences supporting the post-merger integration of Westinghouse Power Corp. into Siemens, at that time the largest acquisition in the history of Siemens.
The twenty characters in the story are based on real people. Americans and Germans. We worked very closely together. For seven years, beginning in January 2000. Many of them have become close personal friends of mine.
I consider those seven years to be my training as a Meister, a master. And I consider the book to be a description of my Meisterstück, my masterpiece, the successful integration of Westinghouse into Siemens.
Cornelsen Publishing Berlin
E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
A German multinational takes over an American competitor. Post-merger integration fails miserably. Operating separately, consolidating their financials at the holding level, business is stable. Then comes the worldwide economic downturn, threatening the very survival of the company. How to respond?
Breakup or make a last attempt at joining forces. For the two CEOs, an American in Philadelphia, a German in Düsseldorf, it‘s clear. Integrate! After secret meetings in New York and Philadelphia, they bring together the company‘s top American and German from each of the ten key disciplines. Washington, D.C. Strategy workshop. Three days. The goal: to formulate an integration roadmap. But how to overcome the cultural differences? The CEOs have done their homework. An expert – Otto John – is asked to guide them through the labyrinth.
“Great book – very informative and not at all dry” – 5 of 5 Stars
The book explains very clearly how differently Americans and Germans tick. No wonder that misunderstandings are inevitable. A must for anyone working transatlantic. With the knowledge from the book, some cliffs can be circumnavigated.
“Informative, educational and still entertaining” – 5 of 5 Stars
All the problems, prejudices and situations presented in this book are real and understandable from my experience. John Magee makes it clear to us in a practical but still entertaining way that we do not really understand each other or that there is at least enormous potential for improvement in this communication. At the same time, it illustrates clearly how we can jointly increase this potential.
I could find all of my personal experiences in this book, and a few more. In some cases, my own interpretations were confirmed, but in most cases the missing explanations were delivered comprehensibly and comprehensively. All publications and courses on this subject known to me work with very exaggerated examples, trying to explain the differences via black-and-white representations.
In my opinion, this often leads to the exaggerated and strongly generalized opinions. In this book, foundations are provided and the differences are more finely explained. I wish this book was available to me during my long-delegation in the United States. Certain problems could have been avoided.
I recommend this book highly to all employees of German companies who work with North American colleagues or business partners. Most likely you will see the other side immediately in a slightly different light. However, mirroring the two sides clearly helps to better assess one’s own behavior and the resulting consequences.
“Great for improving transatlantic cooperation!” – 4 of 5 Stars
Do Germans and Americans understand each other? My answer is: “only conditionally, because certain idiosyncrasies of each other are unknown.” However, the book helps a lot to recognize the hurdles and traps and to master or avoid them as much as possible.
Illustrating with the help of many examples, which are based on the realistic organizational structure of large companies and their management, John Magee works out the different thinking of the societies on both sides of the Atlantic very clearly, but also the great influence that people with their peculiarities and different characters on the success or failure of a merger can take. From my personal point of view – I was involved in a merger – the content, presentation and structure of the book express very well a great experience of the author in accompanying company mergers.
I recommend this book for anyone preparing or embarking on transatlantic collaboration. It will make a significant contribution to understanding the American mindset, avoiding misunderstandings, and having to make painful experiences themselves.
“Written based on reality” – 5 of 5 Stars
Are there actually cultural differences between Germany and the US that make transatlantic cooperation more difficult? For many, this is hard to imagine: German managers have grown up with Bonanza, Bob Dylan, Humphrey Bogart, Salinger and Kerouac, they have dealt with American culture since their childhood. And in their training they have been extensively engaged in various Harvard concepts and other doctrines of American management.
So it sounds rather heretical when John Magee asks ‘Do Germans and Americans understand each other?’ But in his book he disproves the common assumption that German-American cooperation in companies runs smoothly, using the example of a corporate merger in depth and detail.
Magee knows what he is talking about: For twenty years he has worked as a trainer and consultant in the field of German-American cooperation: first as a trainer for the renowned IFIM Institute for Intercultural Management, then as an employee of the CDU Parliamentary Group, then for Siemens, today as a freelance consultant.
He presents the sum of his experiences in this book, which not only captivates through the detailed description of intercultural differences, but is also very readable due to the embedding of these differences in a story.
Here, no abstract Do’s and Don’ts, no How-to lists, are presented, but instead the challenges are described in a comprehensible manner. German and American managers need to face these intercultural differences. They determine success or failure!
“Indispensable in all situations for Germans and Americans!” – 5 of 5 Stars
As a management consultant and corporate analyst, I often collaborate and Americans on intercultural issues. In the course of my almost twenty years of experience there have been many situations where joint projects did not succeed as planned; in almost all cases this was due to the lack of mutual understanding.
The question that John Magee asks in his book title, therefore, I can only answer with “mostly not”. And that makes it clear how valuable this book is, especially in practice.
While similar books on this topic theoretically highlight differences between European and US culture, John Magee provides practical information and advice that can be put into action immediately.
The many examples confirm how much experience Magee has with the subject. He is one of the few professionals who can really claim to be German-American or American-German. In many personal contacts with John he has repeatedly surprised me with his detailed knowledge of us Germans, insights which you can only have if you were born and raised in Germany.
In summary, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone working in the Germany-USA space, whether in a joint project, a joint-venture or in an M&A situation, where Germans and Americans suddenly have to work closely together.
And … it’s a pleasure to read John Magee’s writing style!
“A complex topic described by story-telling” – 5 of 5 Stars
As a ‘victim’ of a German-American company, I am looking for information and procedures in order to be able to operate successfully in this environment. Intercultural cooperation between Americans and Germans is not just learnable action such as Drama art, but based on intellectual understanding of the needs and social environment of the other party.
For executives and employees of German-American companies, it is a clear competitive advantage to understand the cultural hardwiring of the other side, and to use as a competitive advantage in the daily struggle when serving customers.
John Otto Magee shows a top-down methodology to achieve this goal. The involvement of those in high-level leadership positions are vividly described by means of a fictional workshop. The interactions of the individual functions are well described. Unfortunately, the book is far too short to show all aspects of possible intercultural success factors of such a joint venture.
I very much like Magee’s story-telling. It is easy to read and is pleasantly different from instructive, partly know-it-all and bone-dry essays on similar topics. Good introduction to this rather complex topic!
“Hits the nail on the head” – 5 of 5 Stars
As a German living in the USA for many years and dealing daily with business people from both sides of the Atlantic, I can only confirm the cultural differences between Germans and Americans described in this book.
I find it especially valuable to read about the differences in the leadership logics, which I was confronted with many years ago in the German military. Magee explains their complexity by comparing and contrasting the role of coaches two major sports: soccer and football.
The differences in the American and the German product philosophies, for example the relationship between quality and price, is spelled out very clearly and convincingly. And, of course, the differences in how the two peoples communicate is described perfectly.
I did not like the sometimes close focus on the specific problems of the manufacturing industry. Nor I am a fan of business novels or storytelling. But that is a question of the personal taste.
All in all a recommendable book for those who have to deal with the cultural obstacles of a German-American corporate merger.
Otto John raises the ultimate question. Sheehan and Haupt swear each other allegiance.
They meet at the City Tavern, corner of 2nd and Walnut Streets, a stone’s throw away from the Delaware River. From 1774 to 1777 the conspiratorial meeting place for the leaders of the revolution against British rule. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Rebuilt after a devastating fire in the mid-19th Century.
Haupt, Sheehan and Otto John sit at a round table, in the back corner, next to one of the tall windows typical of that period. The three men make their selections from a menu replicating what the revolutionaries would have had: crab cakes, basil shrimp, Black Forest ham and asparagus, pepperpot soup, country salad, tomato and onion salad, veal Munich-style, rack of lamb, braised rabbit, pork chops, steak with mushrooms. The German influence is unmistakable.
Haupt and Sheehan review and repeat their agreements from the weekend before in New York City. They appear to understand clearly the three fundamental variations which integration can take. For John, however, that’s not good enough. He wants to hear it said, to listen to the actual words used, sense the spirit in which the two CEOs communicate.
They discuss at length. Haupt and Sheehan do, in fact, agree, on the big questions. But, there are nuanced differences. Differences in inclination, in trajectory, if not direction. Whereas Haupt favors Verzahnung or interlocking (deep integration), Sheehan prefers separate-but-equal. Clearly a divergence.
Otto John asks Haupt to reach into his pocket and place any coins he might have on the table, separating the American from Eurozone pieces. Quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies. What does Haupt see on those coins? On the front side of the quarter Washington’s profile, the year of its issue, at the top the word “Liberty,” left under the chin in smaller print “In God We Trust.”
On the reverse side an eagle, under which one reads “Quarter Dollar,” above “United States of America,” and smaller above the eagle’s head “e pluribus unum” – out of many, one. The dime, the same. Franklin Roosevelt’s profile. “Liberty.” Year on the back. Then, “e pluribus unum”. Thomas Jefferson on the nickel. Abraham Lincoln, for many America’s greatest president, on the penny.
“Out of many, one”, says John, “refers to USA as a melting pot of many peoples, many cultures. Is it any different with us Europeans? We too are striving towards a union, see only advantages in it, but want to maintain, at least to a certain degree, our individual regional identities. We want to protect and defend our traditions and customs.
It’s the same with the Americans. Their first reaction to integrating how the two companies do business will almost always be either variation three, separate-but-equal, or variation two, a step-by-step move to an integrated approach. But, it will rarely be variation one, full and deep integration. You see, we Germans feel comfortable with norms and standards. A paradox actually, for we are made up of so many cultures: Saxons in the North, Prussians in the Northeast, Bavarians in the South, Alemannen and Swabians in the Southwest, Rhinelanders in the West.
Haupt and Sheehan listen carefully. “Two points. First, your fundamental inclinations are different. Second, you did not anticipate these divergences. You assumed similarity, unity, same thinking. Beginning now you two must time and again come together and compare notes, compare thinking, do an alignment-check. And remember, it’s the nuanced differences in approaches, thinking, direction, especially in critical and fundamental areas, which have imbedded in them the danger of a drifting away. So, remain vigilant.”
Haupt and Sheehen nod. They both order a green tea. Otto John a beer. He waits until the waiter returns and all have taken a sip or two. All are quiet, reflective. John then looks at both men in a way signaling that he has a question for them.
“Herr Haupt, what is the spirit driving Integration II? Is it a takeover or a partnership?”
An essential, yet potentially explosive, question. A direct challenge. Perhaps the most critical of all questions. It’s clear to all three. This is a hugely complex question. Not easily answered with a simple, black and white, facile response. From John’s point of view, however, it needs to be addressed. To both CEOs. Openly.
It’s late. Haupt’s body clock reads well after midnight. Although he doesn’t want to dodge the question, he chooses not to respond in detail. Instead, he goes to the heart of the matter.
“Factually, in reality, it is a takeover. To call it a merger of equals would be a trick. Dishonest, immoral, counter-productive. But,” he stresses while raising his index finger as if to remind and warn himself, “the spirit which drives our work must be one of partnership.”
He then looks at Sheehan, speaking softly and carefully, from the heart: “In the spirit of brotherhood.” Jack Sheehan is silent, calm, settled. Is Haupt aware of his choice of words? Philadelphia, from the Greek philo – to love – and adelphos – brother. The City of Brotherly Love. Their eyes remain in met position. John remains perfectly still, knowing fully well that he is witnessing two CEOs making an agreement, a solemn promise.
Sheehan inhales deeply, slowly, thoughtfully. “I’ll do everything I can, Christian, to make our partnership work. You bought us. That is a fact. But, let’s begin today working as a team. I promise you here and now that I will do everything I can to get my people to accept that reality. You, however, need to ensure that your folks see and treat us like equal partners and teammates.”
Their statements are brief, to the point. Dramatic, not melodramatic. Both men are calm, settled. They can work together. Both spoke from the heart. No double-meanings, neither in choice of words nor in intention.
John waits a minute or two, then signals to the waiter. The dessert menu. Haupt, mint chocolate chip ice cream. Sheehan German chocolate cake. John American apple pie. Three athletes. Three orders of sugar and fat. “Man gönnt sich ja sonst nichts,” Otto John thinks to himself.
Soccer or football. How do Germans and Americans lead? How do they want to be led?
Again Haupt is awake and up early. Breakfast isn’t being served, yet. Time for a run. Up 20th Street towards Logan Square. Left onto the Ben Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Art Museum. There in just over ten minutes, Haupt runs up the seventy-two steps to the entrance, turns to face City Hall and the Center City skyline, raises his hands over his head while running in place, exhaling the heat his body has produced on this wintry morning before dawn.
He can hear the music in his mind. Rocky Balboa! The Niemand (nobody) who takes on the champ and wins. Against all odds. Haupt heads back down, turns left, half-circle around the museum and heads along the Schuykill River on the running path next to Kelly Drive, named after Grace’s famed father – triple Olympic gold medal winner in rowing and wealthy founder of a successful construction company. The air is clear and cold, Haupt feels solid, strong, wants a solid and strong Sheehan and America.
The Union League. 140 South Broad Street. Two blocks south of City Hall. Established in 1862 by Philadelphia’s captains of industry, its goal was to raise funds in support for Abraham Lincoln and the Union against the Confederacy. War. Between brothers. Never civil. The money poured in. Hospitals were built, personnel trained and equipped. The North prevailed. The Union League continued its political activities, reaching deep into the South, supporting the newly created Republican Party. 2009. The Union League continues to be the meeting point for the business leaders in America’s Delaware Valley.
A small meeting room has been reserved. Thick carpet. High ceiling. Tall windows with even taller drapery. A square table in the middle of the room. Two flipchart stands with paper and markers. A quiet work environment.
Otto John states the question: “What makes for effective leadership? In teams. We’re interested in the hundreds of daily interactions between team-lead and -members.”
Haupt and Sheehan welcome the opportunity to engage about such a foundational topic. Workshop atmosphere. Each jumps up, grabs their flipchart, heads for a corner of the room and begins reflecting. John adds: “Respond to this question from the thirty-thousand foot perspective and totally independent of industry.
In other words, what does it fundamentally mean in the U.S., Jack Sheehan, and in Germany, Herr Haupt, to lead people? I mean the very concrete relationship between the person leading the team and those working in that team. That day-to-day interaction, and not some theoretical discussion about great leaders such as Alexander, Napoleon, Washington, Bismarck.”
Haupt and Sheehan need no more than twenty minutes. They write, reflect, re-write. John observes, doesn’t make comments, but tosses in a question or two.
Haupt writes: formulate strategy with direct reports … provoke open and critical discussions … define targets and tasks clearly, but allow freedom to execute … select the best people and continually develop them … protect the team from corporate-internal politics.
Sheehan’s flipcharts read: clear and motivating communication … maintain team cohesion … focus on execution … set strategy with key advisors … assist on tactical level … stay flexible … stay in close contact with the team.
Haupt and Sheehan sit back down. John pushes the flipcharts to the side. “Ok, let’s get into this topic a little deeper by comparing football and soccer coaches. Did either of you play soccer?”
Haupt nods. “Sure. Just about every boy in my generation played at some time. I was a member in a football club. In grammar school. Was great fun. Later in high school I simply didn’t have the time.”
Sheehan: “Never. My children play. When I was growing up we knew the name Pele. That was about it.”
“Herr Haupt, what levers does a soccer coach have at his disposal in order to influence the outcome of the match? During the match?”
“He can substitute three players. Yell in instructions. Give guidance during half-time.”
“Can he call specific plays?”
“No. On penalty kicks and corner kicks the team can execute certain plays, but you can’t call set plays during the game.”
“And when the coach yells in instructions, to whom does he yell?”
“Usually to the captain, the playmaker.”
“And where is he standing at that time? Near the coach?”
“Rarely. Somewhere on the field, usually in the middle.”
“How far away from the coach?”
“Certainly not near.”
“Which means, if the fans are making a lot of noise, if the playmaker is far away, he really can’t hear what the coach is screaming, right?”
“Most likely not, no.”
“And what happens if the trainer yells too loud, puts full effort into giving signals and instructions by any means?”
“Well, he could be penalized, in some cases ejected from the game.”
“One more question. How many assistant coaches does a soccer coach typically have?”
“I don’t really follow soccer any more, but I think one or two.”
John noted down Haupt’s responses. A rather short list.
“Jack, what does the football coach’s situation look like? What levers does he have to influence the outcome of the game, during the game?”
“A whole bunch. He can substitute players.”
“How many? When?”
“Unlimited. Between individual plays, during changes of ball possession, during time-outs.“
“Time-outs. How many are there?”
“It’s been some time since I last played or followed the games carefully. I think two or three per half. Then you have three time-outs between quarters. The half-time break is particularly long. Twenty minutes.”
“And the tv time-outs?”
“Oh yeah, commercials. Without those no one would be able to make any money. There are a lot of those. Some short, thirty seconds, others up to two minutes. And they happen all the time during the game.”
“Ok, in what other ways can a football coach influence the outcome of the game?”
“Play-calling. Of course! The head coach and his assistants call the plays.”
Haupt is not familiar with American football, as the Germans call it. It’s always appeared to him rather chaotic and really brutal, not really a sport. As a German, John knows what Haupt is thinking. “Explain to your colleague exactly what you mean.”
“Without going into the details, Christian, we can watch part of a game tomorrow on television. The game consists of set plays or moves, like chess. The coach determines what plays are executed. The quarterback, or playmaker, can modify those calls, but not too often. Each player on the field – on the offensive side – knows precisely what they are supposed to do in each play. The players have practiced these individual plays time and again. Sixty, seventy plays, perhaps more. They memorize the playbook.”
“What do all the assistant coaches do?” John asks going deeper. “The coaching staff is large, up to ten or more specialists. They coach during the game. If, for example, you lose possession of the ball, the offensive team comes off the field. They catch their breath, drink some water. That’s when their offensive coach does his work.”
“Meaning he coaches right then and there, during the game, just like in practice. Can an offensive coach actually call in plays?”
“Sure. That’s what he gets paid for. All the coaches follow the game very carefully and give tactical instructions. Depending on how the game evolves, they can alter the overall strategy, thus the tactical approach, the plays.”
John summarizes: “Ok, let’s look at the levers a football coach has. Unlimited player substitution. Play-calling. Time-outs. Coaching during the game.”
Sheehan throws in another lever. “Wait a minute. The coach can attempt to influence the referees. He yells at them, jokes with them, flatters them. It’s a high art form. Oh, and the way in which plays are called is fascinating. An assistant coach sits way up high in the press box and observes the opposition looking for holes and weaknesses, then communicates to his coaching colleagues on the field. They, in turn, discuss within a very short time-frame, maybe twenty seconds, what the next play should be. Then one of them instructs the quarterback.”
“And how exactly does the quarterback get the instructions?”
“With the help of technology. When I played many years ago, substitute players went in and out with the plays. Then folks moved to hand signals. These days they use technology. The head or quarterback coach simply talks to him directly. Their helmets are wired for communication.”
Haupt is astonished. “That’s a sport which is totally dominated by the coaches!”
John responds. “That’s precisely the point, Herr Haupt. The football head coach with his assistant coaches are the key players in the game. They simply are not permitted to step onto the field. The coach dictates, conducts, determines what is done, and how. He and his coaching staff lead not only strategically, but also tactically, making adjustments and changes at any point.
The players on the field respond accordingly, as they are told, with discipline, to the plan, as trained in practice. Diverging from the plan, from individual instructions is allowed by only very few players and only in certain circumstances. Communication between coaches and players is constant, specific, detailed, and with the help of technology. The coaches actually coach during the game.
In soccer it’s vey different. The soccer coach is a teacher. In fact, that’s his job title. Fussballlehrer. Literally, soccer teacher. When someone decides to become a career soccer coach in Germany they have to go through extensive theoretical and practical training. They attain official certification. You see, the soccer coach really does 90% of his work before the match. Once that match begins he does not have all that much influence on its outcome.
Compared to a football coach he is quite powerless. You can see their frustration on the sidelines. They know precisely what their team should be doing at any given time, but can’t do much about it. It’s the players on the field who have to read the situation, to convert strategy into tactics, and in a situation in permanent flux, permanent change. The communication between soccer coach and players is minimal. That’s they way the rules are written. Football, and it’s the same in basketball and baseball in the U.S., is, as we have seen, totally different.”
“That explains a lot of what I have observed and experienced over the years,” says Haupt. His American colleague agrees: “Me, too. Amazing.”
“This is fascinating stuff,” continues Otto John. “I enjoy it immensely, as you will, too. We’re identifying our national cultural hard-wiring. Not in the sense of biology, though, DNA and such. Human behavior is far too complex for the natural sciences. What we’re interested in, what we want to understand is our differing, our divergent inclinations and preferences. I like to use the image of bell curves.”
“Yes. You see, we’re not interested so much in where you are, Jack, in your leadership logic on the American bell curve. That would be a purely inner-American question. Just as it would be an inner-German discussion to look at how Christian leads. We’re interested in where the two bell curves, the American and the German, are in relation to each other. Where they don’t overlap, where the gaps are. Overlaps are uninteresting. Those are commonalities. They work.
Instead, we want to focus on the differences, on the divergences. Where do the two logics, American and German, diverge? These we want to identify, understand and manage. You see, it’s in these differences in fundamental approaches that we have both the potential for problems: miscommunication, friction, colleagues working against instead of with and for each other – but more importantly the potential for tremendous synergies, for combining the inherent strengths of two extraordinarily capable peoples!”
Otto John remains still, reflects. In tightly written White Papers he has spelled out these divergences in German and American national cultural approaches. His original plan was to give Haupt and Sheehan his White Paper on Leadership after laying out for them how he could support Integration II. As a little bedtime reading. He decides to give them an abbreviated version now, however. He wants them to get a sense for how he understands these complex topics, and also to sensitize them to the overall complexity of the challenges, and opportunities, ahead.
There are reasons why global companies do not address culture. Reasons which are reasonable, rational, logical, human, deeply human. However many things we do which are reasonable, are not reasonable enough, not rational enough, not logical enough. Many things we do are human, but not human enough.
We need to face problems. And one of those problems is the influence of culture on collaboration. We need to face them for our own good as colleagues, for the good of our organisations, for our customers, our suppliers, for the good of our ecosystems.
So, let’s go through the reasons why companies make the mistake of not addressing culture.
We are not educated to explore national cultural logics. Neither at universities, nor during graduate studies, nor in executive education programs.
This is not a surprise. There are many subjects which must be covered. There is simply no room for culture. And let’s not forget, first you need experts on culture before it can be taught.
Then there is the very practical question. If an institution of higher education decides to address culture which cultures should they choose?
Then there is political correctness. A strong trend for the last 25+ years in the U.S. And over the last decade identity politics has become very strong,
But seldom is there real discussion about how national cultures think. It’s a contradiction. On the one side folks are drawing clear distinctions between ethnic groups. On other side there little to no discussion about how those groups think, therefore work.
There are very seldom such discussions – direct, open, thoughtful, respectful. And therefore very seldom real discussion within global companies.
People are People
Many simply say “people are people.” This is the most common fallback position. What’s behind it? It is the hope that good intentions will be prevail, that collaboration will go smoothly.
And it is true, people are people. At a fundamental level we all need air, water, food, shelter, safety, healthcare, family, friends, love. But from there on we are human beings, from and imbedded in a national culture.
And because cultures are different, there are differences, in how they think and work. Folks, it can’t be any other way. The statement “people are people” leads to companies not addressing cultural differences. It’s the equivalent of sticking our heads in the sand.
Colleagues are so focused on the substance of their work that they do not consider differences in approaches. We are all simply too busy to reflect, to gain distance, on our work, on our collaboration.
Colleagues are under pressure to deliver results, to move fast. We all have become highly transactional. We have little time or patience to step back in order to analyze the situation.
Corporate Culture vs. Country Culture
The debate about which runs deeper corporate culture or country culture I will address in a separate video. But for now and only briefly:
Country culture runs deeper company culture. Stated differently, company culture is nothing more than a manifestation of country culture. National culture exists first. Companies exist within, are rooted in, national culture.
Most global companies ignore the influence of country culture. They place their hopes in standardized ways of working, in the so-called harmonization of processes. They believe that how the company does things, processes, will make cultural differences irrelevant. I think they are wrong.
I will address this at length in a separate video. But for now and briefly: Fear is the deepest, most ancient, most powerful driver of human behavior. It is frightening to reflect on who we are as individuals, on who we are as a people. It is frightening to go deep, to explore, to identify the deeper drivers in us.
Machine Age Thinking
Complicating the situation is Machine Age thinking. We live in the age of the machine. Man created machines and machines have worked wonders for man. But there is a tendancy to see ourselves as parts of machine or worse as machines ourselves.
We organize ourselves and work as if we were one big machine. See the importance within companies: organizational structures, processes, technologies. See the dominance of numbers. Current thinking is that if something is measurable, then it is relevant. If not measurable, then it is not relevant.
But wait, what about human thought, about human interaction? These are impossible to measure. Are they, therefore, irrelevant? The same goes for complex cross-border interactions. Companies attempt to manage those interactions as if they were machines. It doesn’t work. People aren’t machines.
Difficult to Articulate
We sense cultural differences, but have difficulty articulating them. We are not trained to, not accustomed to, do not have the language, for articulating what we experience at a deeper level.
We try to engage with each other in meaningful discussion about the differences in how we think and work. But we quickly become frustrated. And understandably so.
We try to get clarity about collaboration, but it often leads to negative results. We feel embarrassed. We feel awkward and uncomfortable. And we realize how highly sensitive the subject matter is. In many cases the discussions lead to confrontation.
Working in global teams is complex. Basic communication is difficult. One major reason is language. Another reason is different time zones. It can be cumbersome to schedule times to talk.
And then there are organization set-ups and processes. These are not always aligned. In fact, it is often unclear who to reach out to. Add to those factors and annoyances national cultural differences and the situation becomes even more complex.
Us against Them
This is a very serious topic. I will address it at length in a separate video. But for now only briefly.
If cross-border collaboration is the result of an acquisition or a merger or a merger within a company, there might be an atmosphere of competition, of us-against-them.
Now this is a very human inclination. We seek security within our tribe. And that is our home company, home colleagues, and home culture. We Americans against those Germans. Or we Germans against those Americans.
Folks, us-against-them is not good. It is destructive and self-destructive. And it becomes even worse when management manipulates the fears of the people they are responsible for. Not good. Really bad.
Then there is vulnerability. Even if both sides are open to addressing cultural differences in a structured and informed way, it means being open to the possibility that the approach of the other culture is better, more effective, faster, less expensive.
And that, folks, has real consequences, for real people, in real jobs, with real bills to pay. Opening up to each other is often felt, and understood, as a threat. We feel unprotected. We feel vulnerable.
Even if their approach has no negative consequences, we still sense that doing things their way means a disadvantage for us. We become a kind of junior partner in the working relationship. Why? Because the approach chosen is native to them, but foreign to us.
Their way of doing things means very concrete things. Their processes, their methods, their tools. That all affects the substance of our work, day in and day out. Now, change is seldom comfortable, seldom enjoyable, especially if we have to do things in a non-native way, in a foreign way. That is particularly uncomfortable.
All of the things I have mentioned in the previous videos are very human reasons to simply avoid discussion, to not engage, in a structured and informed conversation about culture and collaboration.
So, yes, human reasons. But not human enough. More human, more deeply human, is to address them, to get cultural differences to work for, and not against, collaboration.
I just did a previous string of videos explaining why global companies make the mistake of not addressing culture. There are people within global companies who sense the differences between cultures, differences in how they think and how they work.
These people know that there is enormous influence of culture, and they want to address them. In fact, they know that they have to address culture, but they cannot find support, real support. Why? Well, let’s look at the players and let’s look at the options.
What about strategy consultants? We know the names of the major players. McKinsey, Boston Consulting, Bain, Roland Berger and many others, including very fine boutique firms.
What do they do? They come into the companies, analyze the situation and recommend to the client the direction of company, the structure of the organization, products, services, business models, and internal processes.
What about the accounting firms, the so-called Big Four, EY, PwC, KPMG, Deloitte? They have been breaking into the strategy field over the last years. And there are many other accounting firms, also boutiques.
Then there are the M&A advisors, financial institutions, the M&A attorneys, the entire M&A ecosystem. These folks typically serve small- to mid-sized companies.
Do any of these groups help clients to address culture?
M&A advisors do not, but might soon, because their clients are beginning to request it. The strategy and accounting firms do offer assistance with post-merger integration, but they do not address culture, at least not yet.
Folks, actually all could, perhaps should, be helping with culture. But they are not. Why not?
Strategy consultants provide advice about M&A. They guide their client through the process. At he end of the M&A process strategy consultants are very familiar with the companies, both the acquiring and the acquired companies. Because they did the analysis. The should know where integration must succeed.
Why do strategy consultant not help with culture? I think there are several reasons.
The first is that addressing culture is not in their dna. Soft factors are not in their dna. These people are numbers-oriented. Their thinking is if you can’t quantify something, then it is not relevant. They come from the disciplines of finance, accounting, the natural sciences, and business.
Their mindset cannot explain how Americans and Germans, for example, lead and want to be led. The cannot define what an effective process looks like in Germany or in the United States.
The second reason is scalability. Their business model resists addressing national culture. If they did take culture into account their methods and techniques would have to be modified, customized. That would make their business model not universal, no longer scalable.
They would have to customize for each country. What they offer in U.S. they would not be able to offer in Germany, and vice versa, and this would be the case regarding all other countries.
The third reason is implementation. If strategy consultants were to offer assistance with post-merger integration, and thereby address influence of cultural differences on cross-border collaboration, they would have to transition from interacting with executive management down to interacting with employees on the working levels, where collaboration actually takes place, where collaboration succeeds or fails.
And that means hands-on support. It means sharing responsibility for implementation of their own recommendations. Involvement in implementation means getting their hands dirty. It means they can’t run away from what they sold to the client.
I could be wrong, perhaps these firms do help their global clients with culture. Either way there is a simple way to verify this. And not by reading what they claim on their websites. Instead, simply ask them.
If their response is yes, then ask them a few simplye questions: Which countries do you address? Can you show us some of your content about their business cultures?
Please explain you research methodology which led to that content. Can you provide examples of key differences between, for example, the United States and Germany?
How exactly do you deliver your expertise? Can you send us bios of the people who will be doing the delivery? Would you, please, supply us with references in the US-Germany space? And finally, what would a program looks like?
We all know the big-name strategy firms. And we all know the big-name business schools: Harvard, Stanford, UPenn Wharton, and many other top-tier schools. And in Europe there are the elite universities: HEC Paris, London Business School, St. Gallen, Insead, IESE.
Do any of them address the influence of culture on cross-border organisations?
They do not. Neither in their executive education programs, nor in their consulting services. And seldom do the MBA programs touch the subject of culture. Why? Like the strategy consultants there are reasons:
The first is lack of expertise. Professors lack country expertise. Let’s think about it, how does one develop that expertise? With the help of theory? No, there is only one way.
You have to have lived in the culture about which you claim to have expertise. You have to have experienced differences in many situations, and over a longer period of time. You then need to step back and analyze those experiences. Finally, the expert has to put those results to work in the real world.
This is a very long and arduous path. There are no shortcuts. You have to go deep and broad. And over a long period of time.
The second reason is their business model. If global companies have difficulties addressing national culture, how much more will the business schools struggle with it? How can business school professors address cultures if global companies do not address culture? And then there is the very practical question about what cultures to build expertise? Which countries should be chosen? Now, what is true for professors is also true for executive education programs.
The third reason is it would raise rather uncomfortable questions. Addressing cultural differences would have serious consequences for business school curriculums. If the academic world were to address culture it would mean major changes to their business model. Their course content would no longer be universal. What is true for the U.S. would not necessarily be true for Germany and vice versa.
What about change management experts? These are excellent people. Most have studied business or psychology or the humanities. Many have lived and worked abroad. They have experienced cultural differences.
Their skill set is valuable. They grasp quickly the change needed within the companies of their clients. They are familiar with how companies operate. They are good at structuring the conversation.
However, they have weakness. They lack country-culture expertise. This is not a criticism. It is a simple fact that they do not focus on culture. Instead their focus is on the change process.
If they were to address culture, they would do it via change methods. They would get colleagues on the client side to talk about cultural differences, with the hope that these same colleagues during, for example the post-merger integration process, would come up with their own intercultural insights.
In other words, change management people are at their core discussion moderators. Now that is very helpful. And it is better than not addressing cultural differences at all. But frankly, you as the client, you and your colleagues, can run discussions yourself. There is no need for consultants. Save yourself the time and money. There is no reason to engage them.
Can organizational development people help? Organizational development is a generic term which includes change management. Like their colleagues in change, the OD approach depends on concepts and methods. And it is also their hope that people will talk about culture in order to understand each other.
Unfortunately, like their colleagues in change, OD-experts simply do not have any cultural expertise. Neither in the differences between countries nor in understanding the influence of those differences on cross-border collaboration.
What about intercultural trainers? They are typically trained as psychologists, anthropologists or sociologists. They have lived and worked abroad, experienced cultural differences, and know how to run workshops. That’s all fine.
They, however, have a significant deficit. It is their content. Typically it is rather shallow. Often their content is flat out wrong. In some cases it is both, shallow and wrong.
Intercultural trainers remain on the theoretical level. Frankly, it is not enough to describe Germany as a so-called low-context communication culture and the U.S. as a high-context communication culture.
Intercultural trainers can, under certain circumstances, be helpful as an introduction, but they are no help with specific problems. I become very nervous when they begin talking about cultural dimensions such as power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. feminity.
If cultures were so simple that it was enough to describe a few dimensions then there would most likely be an app on every smartphone which magically allows Germans and Americans to understand each other and to collaborate. The app does not exists.
What about language instructors? It is interesting that of all of the groups thusfar mentioned only the language instructors can be of assistance. Because they build the bridge via words. It is words, and the thought behind them, which can begin to enable insight.
Think of the German word Qualität, and the American word quality. When Germans and Americans collaborate they do so in the English language. Both use the word quality. But do they have same understanding? American quality and German Qualität?
But language instructors also have a deficit. They can’t go beyond words. Word history is a great tool of analysis. It can give valuable insight. And it is fascinating.
But explain to Americans the German understanding of Qualität. You can go far back into its history, but does that address the challenges which American and German engineers face when collaborating, when designing a gas turbine or a braking system or a complex medical instrument.
Language does not explain what a German mechanical engineer means when he says the quality of the technical solutionis not good enough. Nor does it explain what an American marketing expert means when she says that the U.S. customers want value more than engineering.
These are rather obvious reasons why language instructors cannot help global companies to address the influence of cultural differences on cross-border collaboration. They are educators and not businesspeople. They seldom understand companies. And seldom do they understand the international environment in which the companies are operating.
The big question, the overarching question, is who can help global companies to understand and manage the influence of culture on collaboration? Stated differently, how is expertise in this are defined?
I believe that expertise is experience understood and explained. Experience in and across cultures is not enough. Expertise is more than a long list of interesting anecdotes based on having lived and worked in the US-Germany space.
Nor is theoretical knowledge enough. Theory must be based on experience. Without experience theory is empty words. Instead, authentic expertise has three components:
First, extensive experience means having lived and worked in the culture not one year, not five years, but at least ten years. Second, the person has to step back in order to analyze those experiences. What are the differences? What is their impact on collaboration? How do we get the differences to work for not against collaboration?
Third, the expert has to be able to explain all of this effectively. Their delivery must be pragmatic, practical, and effective. If we apply this definition to groups discussed thusfar, frankly, none of them meet the criteria.
Circling the Wagons
You are Americans. You are Germans. Your companies have been merged. Collaboration is key to your success. Let’s talk about loyalty. It’s a big word, a really big word.
Who are you loyal to? Yes, I am asking you who are you loyal to? To your respective companies? Germans to the German side of company, Americans to the American side of company? Or to the stockholders, including institutional investors? Are you loyal to your customers? And what about your suppliers?
I suspect that you are loyal to those people who influence, or even determine, your success. Because your success pays the bills, secures your future. Success protects you. It keeps you strong. Success enables you to protect people you are taking caring of. Spouse, children, a relative, the people you love.
Why I raise loyalty question is rather simple. Because in many situations problems, disagreement, tension, confrontation occurs. In such situations sides can be formed. One side against other. Us-against-them.
And in the context of global organisations sides are formed along country lines, based on culture, based on national culture. “We Americans against those Germans” and “We Germans against those Americans.” It is particularly common during post-merger integration and can continue long after integration.
This us-against-them attitude is also called circling the wagons. From old Hollywood movies. From westerns. Innocent white settlers moving west to make a life for themselves. But they come into conflict with the Native Americans, also known as Indians. The battles are vicious and brutal, terrible. In the movies the Indians are savages. Remember that term, savage?
What did the settlers do when attacked? They circled the wagons. The women and childen hid in safety. The men got out their rifles, defended women and children, against murder, rape, enslavement, by those evil, savage Indians. Or at least that is what the movies protrayed. The German term Wagenburg means literally “wagon fort” or “fort made with wagons.”
Reject it !
Here is my point with the loyalty question: There will be times – perhaps now – when tension is high, when some colleagues talk us-against-them. I understand that. It is human. It is native to us. It is natural.
We are unsure, insecure, frightened, literally scared. In such times, if colleagues from the same country, from the same culture, talk in terms of us-against-them, I want you to say “No.” I am serious. I am dead serious. I want you to say: “No, that is too simple. No, that drives us apart. No, that is not a solution.”
Then I want you to ask: “What is the problem? How can we solve the problem? Together, with colleagues from the other side of Atlantic?”
It always fails
I am not joking. This not some kind of Magee touchy-feely, psychobabble, nonsense. I am speaking from both the head and the heart. If you are sincerely listening, then you are hearing me with both your head and your heart.
Because we know that every form of us-against-them is driven by fear, and that any- and everything we think, say or do which is driven by fear is wrong. Not only wrong, but ineffective. Not only ineffective but it is hurtful.
Us-against-them is fear-driven. It is self-defeating. We are defeating ourselves. It damages our very selves. Now this will not be easy. Believe me, I know. I have enough life experience to know this. I have many years working in USA-Germany space, many years helping colleagues, to collaborate, many of whom were in a battle against each other.
It takes great courage to say to colleagues from the same team, company, culture: “No, I will not participate in any us-against-them nonsense against our colleagues from the other side.”
The pressure will be great. Some will call you a traitor. Others will ostracize you. Still others will apply pressure on you. You need to stand firm. How? By focusing on the solution. By continuing to collaborate. As best you can. With your new colleagues, with colleagues from other side.
You simply need to be honest, transparent, fact-based, and most importantly, remain calm. People who play the us-against-them card always lose in end. They will be exposed sooner or later, because us-against-them is fear-driven, manipulative, and it does not work.
A final point: us-against-them occurs on both sides of Atlantic. If colleagues on other side begin slipping into us-against-them, reach out to them, help them to solve problems, to reduce the tension.
Expose us-against-them for the stupid, primitive trick it is. Shine light on it, get it out into the open. If you expose us-against-them, if you get it out into the open, it shrivels up, it shrinks, it hides, it runs a way. Why?
Because every form of us-against-them is cowardly. People who push us-against-them are cowards. When exposed cowards always run away. Why? Because they are cowards. And that’s what cowards do. They run away.
Often I hear or read about how important it is to have an enemy. Not in the sense of a person or a group to go into battle against, but instead in the sense of what is not good, what needs to be battled. When it comes to cross-border collaboration there are three enemies or let’s call it a monster with three heads, a three-headed monster.
Now, when we talk about cross-border collaboration it doesn’t matter if is a post-merger integration or a major reorganisation or working with suppliers and customers or companies teaming up to serve a customer or teams within a company joining together. They all have in common collaboration, people involved from different countries. Who is the enemy? What are three heads of monster?
Lack of Awareness
Enemy Number One is lack of awareness, in the sense of: “No one ever told me that there are perfectly good reasons for why Germans are so direct in communication” or “No one ever told me that there are perfectly good reasons for why Americans constantly do follow-up.”
Should Americans or any cultures know why Germans are direct and that there are perfectly good reasons for this? The same goes for Americans and follow-up. There all sorts of reasons for lack of awareness of each other’s cultures. And I spell those out in a separate video.
The key here is to recognize that the first head of three-headed monster is: not knowing, not being aware of, not having been informed about cultural differences.
Enemy Number Two is untruths. An untruth is something which is not true, which is false. “Germans are so direct in communication, they get right in your face. Why? Because Germans are impolite, blunt, rude and insulting.” That’s a pretty serious statement. True or untrue?
Well, it depends on the perspective. It depends on the national cultural perspective. Because Germans frankly are direct. Germans believe that people should say what mean and mean what they say. Germans use clear and unambiguous language. They avoid using figures of speech. They avoid using euphemisms. Germans do not sugar-coat. They believe that people should call it as they see it. Be honest, transparent, clear, direct, to the point.
And why do Germans take this approach? Because it is honest, transparent, clear, direct, to the point. And that makes for good communication. And good communication helps collaboration. And good collaboration leads to success. Now, what is wrong with that logic? It’s the German logic. It works. It leads to success. And it’s explainable, understandable, perfectly legitimate.
Unless, of course, you come from culture, which is less direct in communication. For those folks, for those cultures, the Germans can be rather impolite, blunt, rude and insulting. My message here is: there are a whole lot of untruths swirling around out there, where Americans, Germans, and other cultures are collaborating. Untruths are things which are untrue.
Things which people think are true, but are actually false, such as: Americans are superficial. Germans are too serious. Americans processes are sloppy. Germans processes are rigid. When it comes to decision making Americans are a bunch of cowboys. Germans are far too slow to make decisions. American products are of low quality. German products are over-engineered and over-priced.
Untruths, Enemy Number Two, on three-headed monster. This is what my work is about. Battle the enemy. Untruths. Uncover, expose, disprove them. Get that nonsense out of way, so that collaboration can succeed. Much, perhaps most, or searching for the truth in any area of life is first and foremostly getting untruths out of way.
Lack of awareness and untruths are Enemies One and Two. We should take them very seriously. But, they are beatable. They can be defeated. Enemy Number Three is fear.
Fear, this is an enemy of a different quality. It is the biggest, baddest, meanest of them all. Fear is the mother – or father – of all enemies. Its destructive power is almost immeasurable. Its cunning is of extraordinary sophistication.
It has an almost endless set of tools from which to select, depending on the situation. It can reach deep down into the depths of our psyche. It can stroke it in any direction it wants. It can slither and swim like a snake into the very marrow of our bones, to sour and to poison it.
Fear can inject into us all sorts of elements, known only to itself, in order to destabilize our chemical balance. It can conjure up in our imagination the most beautiful, and the most ugly, of scenes. It can distort and contort, twist and tie up, the most innocent of experiences, the most obvious of truths.
Fear is the most dangerous enemy by far. No other enemy comes even close. Making it an even greater danger is that it can team up with any other enemy, at any time, in any situation, increasing or reducing the intensity. And one of fear’s greatest weapons is invisibility. It can hide, camouflage itself, impersonate. It can be extremely charming. It can convince you that it is your best friend.
Now, this may all sound dramatic for those of you who have never experienced fear. But for those of us who been there, who have fought the fight and survived, and for those still in fight, this is no exaggeration.
What does this mean for our topic cross-border collaboration? What does it mean for the influence of cultural differences? If fear can do its dirty work in any and all areas of our lives, it can and will attempt to do its dirty work when we collaborate.
We spend most waking hours working – 40, 50, 60 per week. We spend more time with each other than we with our loved ones, with spouses, children, relatives, friends. It is naive to believe that fear will not try to do its evil work when we collaborate, in global teams, in global projects, especially in post-merger integration.
In fact, it is our work, where we spend most or our time, that fear sees its biggest playing field, its biggest forum. What to do, how to battle fear, how to defeat fear, at least to keep it in check?
First, open our eyes to its existence and presence. To the existence and presence of our fears in our lives.
Second, identify where fear is doing its dirty work. Right now. Specifically, concretely. In teams and in situations: Who is afraid of what? Who is afraid of whom? Where is there doubt? Where is there instability? Where is there a lack of awareness? Who has fallen prey to fear?
Identify means to expose fear. Fear hates being exposed, have a light shone on it. Fear is terrified of being identified, called by its name, terrified of being pulled out into the open.
Third, after having identified fear, after having identified where fear is doing its diry work, enter into battle against it. Together.
If you are wondering what John is talking about. “Fear? We’re a company, an organisation, with teams, with employees. Yes, colleagues, Americans and Germans and many cultures. And yes, there are cultural differences, but all this talk about fear. Is John trying to make us fearful? Is this his way of getting us to listen to him?”
Maybe. Who can know with 100% certainty what our deepest drivers are? I have had my experiences with this terrible and terrifying enemy. And I still do. I continue to battle fear. Frankly, the battle is never over. So let me be more concrete about what I mean with fear. Let me name a few:
“I will lose my job. They are americanizing us. They are germanizing us. He is in my way. I need to get him out of way. She trying kill me off. I need to kill her off first. Their approach will ruin things. We need to block it.
They are lying about numbers. We have no choice but to do same. We need get our customers on our side against them. We need to get their secrets, but to not share ours. They acquired us with our money.
Our management is a bunch of cowards. They give in to other side. Our boss is an idiot. We need to find a way get him removed. My colleague is an idiot. I will simply ignore her.
That engineer is a real thorn in our sides. We need to find a way to make his work unbearable. They are bad people. We are good people. We want the best for customers. They do not. Those Germans! Those Americans!”
Do these statements sound familiar? Do they sound harmless or harmful? Let me finish with this: those kinds of statements, the spirit behind them, the emotions behind them, are dangerous. Very dangerous, because they are fear-driven.
Attributing motives is a dangerous thing. Dangerous for those who do it. You will hurt yourself. Badly. To attribute motives means to assign motives to another person. Motives explain why a person said or did something.
You all know that I take words seriously. I want to know their meanings. To attribute is a verb. It means to explain something by indicating a cause, to regard as a characteristic of person or thing.
An example: “John said and did this, because John thinks this or John thinks that.” More concretely: “John is recommending X, not because he thinks it is the best solution for the team. But instead because it is John’s idea and he wants to advance his career.” We explain John’s behavior as being motivated by self-interest and not motivated by what is best for the team.
But it is also possible to attribute positive motives. “John is recommending X not because he thinks it will advance his career. But instead because John believes it is the best solution and the best for the team.”
We all attribute motives to other people and to each other. Attributing motives is a way of explaining behavior of others. “Why did Susan do that? Hmm, well most likely because she X, Y or Z.”
Now, you folks are all aware of this, about attributing motives. We do it all the time. Consciously or unconsciously. Fairly or unfairly. And you can be sure that other people are attributing motives to us.
Here is where it gets tricky, where it can be dangerous: If we attribute motives to another person’s actions and the attributions we make, the motives we assign to that person, are not accurate or only partly accurate, they lead us to adjusting our behaviour accordingly.
“Why did Susan do that? Hmm, well most likely because she X, Y or Z. And because Susan is motivated by X, Y or Z, then I need to respond in this way.” We adjust, react, respond to what we think is Susan’s motive.
Ok, fine. There is nothing wrong with that, with being alert, with being careful. In the case of Susan perhaps it is prudent, because Susan is tricky, unreliable, political, untrustworthy. In fact, many people are tricky, unreliable, political, untrustworthy.
But wait, what if we attribute motives that are not accurate? What if we are way off target? And what if we adjust our behavior accordingly? Then it can become very dangerous.
First, negative motives, treating another person unfairly, is never agood thing. Not good for them. Not good for us.
Second, the adjustments we make may not be in line with reality. We are reacting to something which does not exist. “Susan is out to make me look bad. I will preempt her by making her look bad first.”
Third, our adjusted behavior, based on a misreading of the situation, could lead to the other person reacting in ways which they did not intend, reacting to our behavior, to our actions, which are concrete and real. “Why did John criticize me in our team meeting this morning? I don’t understand. What should I do about this?”
Spin out of Control
Folks, all of us are very familiar with dynamic. There is no need to have a Ph.D. in psychology. The dynamic is at the core of our thinking as human beings.
We observe and experience the behavior of others. Family, neighbors, work colleagues, customers, suppliers. Often their behavior surprises us. We can perceive as a threat. We want to understand their behavior. We think about their motives, about causes. “Why did he or she do this or that?”
During the Cold War we had our best thinkers, on both sides, Nato and Warsaw Pact, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, trying their hardest to understand the thinking on other side.
A lot of soldiers and armies and weapons and nuclear weapons. If they had gone boom, it would not have been very pretty. Miscalculation would have had very dire consequences.
Miscalculation is linked to misattribution of motives. “If we do this, the Soviet Union will most likely react in this way. That will lead us to respond in that way. Which, in turn, could lead the Soviets to, etc. “
We all know this. We are all familiar with the dynamic. The key is to know the other side so well so that when we attribute motives, we do so as accurately as possible. We want to be so aligned with their thinking that our response is appropriate, fair, prudent, measured.
If our response is not all of those – appropriate, fair, prudent, measured – the situation can spin out of control. Frankly, it is a wonder, a miracle of history, that no nuclear weapons we fired during the Cold War. Although, in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides came very close.
I think we all know where I am going with this. My work is helping Americans and Germans to understand cultural differences, so that collaboration succeeds.
We know that there are times when the two groups do not get along, when they are not in agreement, at odds with each other, against each other, even see each other as enemy.
Which means following: if there are differences between Americans and Germans, and in foundational areas, differences in how they think and in how they work, then those differences necessarily, per definition, influence collaboration, directly and constantly.
If that is the case, then the chances of miscalculation, of misattribution, of motives, are high. Miscalculation, misattribution, misperception, these are synonyms, different words with same meaning. A better word is misunderstanding.
If German colleagues misunderstand American colleagues, and American colleagues then say or do something which the German colleagues do not agree with or are against or see as counterproductive or even as dangerous, then it is very likely that the German colleagues will attribute a motive to what the U.S. colleagues have said or done.
The German colleagues will then very likely take countermeasures. They will do something against it. This is normal, human, rational, perhaps even legitimate, responsible, the right thing to do perhaps. But perhaps not.
Risk of Misunderstanding
The key term is understanding. How can the two sides reduce the risk of misunderstanding? I have a few recommendations:
First, talk to each other. I mean this seriously. Talk to each other. If Joe says or does something which you Germans find disturbing, instead of attributing a negative motive to Joe and then preparing and executing countermeasures, pick up the phone and speak to Joe about it. I know, this is scary, risky, dangerous, uncomfortable, especially after you have convinced yourself of Joe’s bad motives.
Second, when speaking with each other, when getting clarity on reality, go deeper. Ask each other about your respective deeper logics. This may feel strange. It will not be easy, because we normally don’t reflect on our national cultural approaches. We need to do it anyway. It deepens understanding.
Third, remain in dialogue with each other. If you have taken the first two steps, if you have taken this leap forward together, if you have embarked down this path, stay on that path.
Fourth, once you are on that path together and you see to the left or to the right others who misunderstand each other, reach out and pull them over onto the path. Get them talking with each other. Help them to do what you have learned to do.