Blind Spot

Folks you won’t believe this, but it took me five years to discover my blind spot about the Germans. In fact, I didn’t even find the blind spot myself. It was pointed out to me. By a German.

Until then I thought Germans were basically Americans who just happened to speak a different language, live in a different country, have a different history. I expected the Germans to be like me think like me act like me like John Magee, an American.

I learned that the Germans don’t always think like me and they don’t always act like me. And from their perspective, I – an American do not always think or act like they do I suspect that the Germans thought that I too was a German, who just happened to speak a different language who came from a different country which has a different history.

Germans aren’t Americans. And Americans aren’t Germans. And thank goodness. Wouldn’t the world be horrible if we were all the same?

Hard vs. Soft

We all know the difference between hard factors and soft factors. Hard factors can be observed, defined and quantified. Soft factors are difficult to observe, define and quantify. Everyone likes hard factors better than soft factors.

But wait, what about national culture? Let’s think about it. Have you ever tried to change how Germans define quality? Americans fundamentally persuade? Germans set up complex work processes? Americans establish and deepen business relationships?

That’s really hard stuff. We’re talking about national culture. who we are where we come from how we think. how we act. Culture is our self-understanding – our self-definition deeply-rooted – not easy to change.

I think the case can be made that national culture is among the hardest of hard factors. Hard in the deeper, truer sense of the word: complex, not quantifiable. Difficult to change. Influencing everything we think and do That’s hard. Culture is hard.

Not Addressed

We’re all very busy. We fight day in and day out to get the job done. It’s easy to overlook the influence of culture on our work. And it’s perfectly legitimate to say “people are people.” But, people aren’t people. There are German people. There are American people. And there are many other peoples.

Often we sense cultural differences, but we can’t quite put our finger on it. Even when we can articulate the differences, we don’t feel comfortable addressing them. We’re afraid collaboration would get even more difficult.

And when we do decide to address cultural differences, it’s not easy to find someone who can help us out. Business consultants don’t address cultural differences. They focus on the hard factors, on things they can quantify.

Organizational development experts don’t address cultural differences. They prefer to talk about corporate culture. The top business schools can’t help. Very few professors have any experience working in and across cultures. They’re academics.

So what happens? Cultural differences don’t get addressed. We’re left alone with the problem.