Karsten Würth
Context

A major German company. Chemical industry. Within it a 500-employee organization with close to one billion in revenues. The majority of the colleagues work in Germany and in the U.S. The U.S. is its single largest market. Cross-Atlantic collaboration is absolutely a key success factor.

Problem

The status of collaboration was ok. But just that, ok. It was not enough to reach the ambitious goals set for the next three years. And their head was forming global teams in new areas.

If you scratched below the surface and asked colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic how things were going you would have heard something like the following:

Communication. U.S.: “Germans often simply state ‘It cannot be done. You cannot get the materials, because you did not forecast right.’ We Americans perceive it as ‘You are stupid’.” Germany: “We’re not calling them stupid. But we have to be honest with them when they do things in the wrong way.”

Information Sharing. U.S.: “It’s a one-way street. If we get anything at all it is: ‘You will do this’ vs. ‘Let’s discuss’. And then: ‘Because we do it this way in Europe, we’ll do it the same way in the U.S.’ “

Germany: “Well, they request a lot of information which they do not need. Whereas we in HQ, frankly, need a lot of information.”

Market View. U.S.: “We look at and explain the U.S. market differently. We Americans talk big picture. Germans want details. We forecast optimistically, the Germans pessimistically.” Germany: “Actually, the Americans do not explain their market to us at all. They are secretive. And sorry, but their projections have proven time and agan to be naive.”

Customer Focus. U.S.: “We have a corporate strategy and a regional strategy. Our thinking is ‘Let’s work with customers so that they want to work with us.’ Germany is not even remotely close to where we are in customer orientation.” Germany: “Our American colleagues don’t care about our global strategy. All they focus on is hitting their numbers in their region. They’re not team players.”

Response Time. U.S.: “We ask when our shipments from Germany will arrive. Their response is ‘Don’t know. I did my part. Can’t help you. Just trust the system’.” Germany: “Ok, our systems are overly complex. We know that. But they work. We can’t just suddenly disrupt internal processes. And besides, the Americans are far too impatient.”

Cause

The sentiments above are normal, expected, and understandable. Because there are cultural differences between Americans and Germans. In how they think, therefore work. And those differences are in fundamental areas.

The problem was that these colleagues had never been informed about the differences. Like many global organizations they operated on the assumption that cross-border collaboration will work as long as everyone speaks English and knows how to do their job. Naive.

Solution

The head of the organization and her direct reports met and discussed what to do. The concensus decision was to have the cultural differences explained to the entire organization minus those in production.

A cultural training, addressing ten foundational topics, in two-hour modules per topic, took place at the four key locations, two in each country, including at headquarters in Germany.

Three key questions were discussed: Where do we differ in our approaches? What influence do the differences have on our daily collaboration? How can we get the differences to work for instead of against us?

Many in the organization were at first sceptical. But the positive feedback grew, which led to more and more colleagues attending. And the participation in the sessions was open, lively and sincere.

Value

The program reduced tensions immediately. Both sides began to understand each other: “Oh, ok, that’s why they do it that way. That makes sense.”

The newly-gained cultural insights led to discussions among American and German colleagues and teams who have been collaborating over a longer period of time. They reached out to each other in order to compare notes from the training, and to then talk about what changes to make.

Particularly valuable was that it showed that adjusting to the respective other side’s approach does not mean giving up one’s own culture. The key word is adjustment, not change.

And the program invited both cultures to reflect about themselves, to better understand their own national cultural dna. This, in turn, sparked conversations with colleagues in the other regions, especially Asia-Pacific, leading to improved collaboration there.

Finally, it brought lightness into the organization. Folks could address cultural differences in a soft, humorous, personal and human way. They felt comfortable with the content, the discussions, and with each other.