Underpraise vs. Overpraise

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Today on January 31, 2019. See all articles here.

Whereas Americans tend to gush positivity, Germans often come across as stingy with praise. This can lead to bad misunderstandings in firms and teams where Germans and Americans must work together, says an American consultant in Germany, in the 8th part of a series.

Germans and Americans handle feedback differently. Whether given formally in a performance review or informally, feedback relies on assumptions, intentions and signals. If those are misunderstood – as they often are between American and German team members – feedback can backfire and damage the morale and motivation of an otherwise well performing individual or team.

The German approach to feedback is to differentiate strictly between a realistic assessment and overly enthusiastic gushing. Germans generally think that praise should be given only in direct response to empirically demonstrated performance. Praise in front of the team is rare, as are official awards.

The German fear is that public praise could lead to envy on the part of other team members and thereby undermine cohesion. 

Furthermore, Germans tend to feel uncomfortable working in an atmosphere of peer competition. Even German top performers would rather do without the praise and the bonus to preserve a cooperative working relationship with their colleagues.

Germans also believe that the success of a team is often difficult to attribute to the performance of specific members. That’s why praise in front of the team or any kind of reward can lead to embittered discussions about how performance is defined and measured. Germans believe that it is too easy to mistakenly praise one colleague for work results produced by another. They are quick to suspect injustice.

Germans also believe that too much praise can lead employees to „rest on their laurels“. That’s why Germans, when they praise at all, do so in moderation. They want to signal that there is always room for improvement. In their minds, this is itself a form of motivation.

The assumption is that being one‘s own most severe critic is the prerequisite for working independently, for self-management. This German logic is revealed in expressions such as Nicht geschimpft, ist genug gelobt, or “not criticized is praised enough”.

Germans learn at an early age to expect more critique than praise – from parents, teachers, coaches. Young Germans are trained to be self-critical, to be wary of undeserved praise. Experts in education and child-rearing warn of the dangers of excessive praise. It can, they believe, tempt people to overrate their abilities and to lose touch with reality.

Some studies, though, suggest that this approach is not always in the best interest of employees and their companies. More than half of all German managers and subject-area experts feel that they deserve more praise. Only a quarter are satisfied with the current level of positive feedback; 14 percent say they receive no praise at all for their work.

Great job!

American attitudes toward feedback are totally different. Americans see themselves as positive thinkers: as both motivators and self-motivators. Praising is seen as sign of leadership, and as especially important when a team is struggling or plagued by self-doubt. 

One concrete symbol of praise is official recognition in the form of awards. Americans want to be rewarded for good work. Awards ceremonies, small and large, are thus considered a normal instrument of positive feedback.

To German team members, this kind of American praise often feels exaggerated, inflationary, or simply unwarranted. The Germans fear a creeping self-delusion. Germans simply don’t use terms like “great”, “fabulous”, “fantastic”, “amazing”. 

At the same time, German team members receiving feedback from Americans often fail to recognize the criticism that may be carefully wrapped in praise. Even though the American managers feel they have been quite clear, the Germans are often not sure what their weaknesses are and how to improve.

So Germans working in American teams should be prepared to hear lots of praise. They should accept it graciously and be happy about it. After all – who knows? – they might even deserve it. And German managers leading Americans should be much more generous with praise than they would be in their home culture: Praise, motivate, cheer your team on to victory.

Americans working in German teams, by contrast, should prepare to rely on themselves for motivation more than on their managers. They shouldn’t pine for praise that never comes; they should just get on with it and develop inner strength.

American managers of German team members, meanwhile, should tone down their praise a bit, and practice the German art of sober understatement. Their German team members will take them more seriously.

And if the Americans do decide to single out individuals for extra praise, they should remember to celebrate the whole team and be careful not to create stars. Germans really don’t like stars.