Mohammed Alorabi
Context

A major German company. Heavy industry. The Engineering Services Division contributes a significant part of the company’s profits. A new senior-level manager. American. Working out of Germany. With four German direct reports.

Problem

The German reports had difficulty with the new team lead’s leadership style. “He is micromanaging us to death. We have very little freedom. It’s killing our motivation.” The American manager saw it differently: “We have to make serious changes. I have no other choice but to be involved at the tactical level. This is what I get paid to do.”

The friction between the two levels was having negative impact on key projects. The American lead’s decision making was hasty. And he changed course too often. The third and fourth levels of the organization were sensing the disagreements at the top. It was beginning to unsettle the entire organization.

Cause

Neither the American team lead nor the German direct reports were aware that the two cultures have different leadership logics. For Germans micromanagement is a sign of poor leadership. Their American team lead was poor at his job. For Americans accepting guidance is critical to success. The Germans in his team were proving to be uncoachable.

Americans lead like football coaches. They determine both strategy and tactics. The coach moves players around during the game like pieces in a chess match. Coaching means deep involvement in every aspect during the game. Germans lead like soccer coaches. They have to do the majority of their work before the match. Once it begins they have little influence on its outcome. The players take over. They implement the strategy at the tactical level.

Solution

The team went off-site for an entire day. To a small town north of Düsseldorf. The morning session focused on the differences between the two leadership logics. The discussion was lively, at times heated. But the necessary breakthrough in understanding finally came.

In the afternoon session the team identified the areas where their interactions were most critical to overall success. They then discussed the optimal degree of involvement of the American boss at the German tactical level. The focus was on the logic, on the approach, and not on formulating rigid rules. Key was flexibility and communication.

Value

Team-lead and direct reports came to understand the differences in their respective leadership logics. Frustration on both sides was reduced dramatically. Critical situations were identified, discussed, and clarified. They resolved to remain in constant communication not only about their day-to-day interactions, but also about the deeper-lying cultural drivers. They understood each other.