2008. Hans is German. Competent, respected, liked. A seventy-five American engineers were added to his team. He wants to introduce himself to the organization, especially to three new American direct reports. Hans flies over to Chicago. The four meet for dinner. It starts off fine. Until Hans brings up topics which for the Americans are controversial.
ACT 1 – Hans and 75 American Engineers
Hans is German, a senior-level manager, in a major, global German company. He is an excellent manager, very experienced, and a first-rate engineer. About 50 years old, Hans is married, and has two children. He is respected and liked. Hans is a good guy, a solid guy.
Hans and the U.S. have a long relationship. His father did business in the U.S. The family went on vacations to Florida and to California. As a engineering student, Hans even took a course on American History.
When he married, he and his wife took a vacation to the U.S., and they’ve been there with their children. And, of course, his work has taken him to the U.S. time and again over the last fifteen years.
But for Hans it was always something fresh and fascinating to visit the United States. Always eager to learn something new, to get to know the people, to introduce himself, Germany and Germans to the Americans.
Hans takes the German-American relationship very seriously. He knows how critical it is for both countries politically and economically. Hans’ company did a major reorganization. Two hundred American engineers were added to his team.
Hans has managed Americans before, but not that many. He decided to hop on a plane over to Chicago to spend a week with his new colleagues. Especially important was meeting his three new American direct reports.
They would meet several times over four days. There was a lot to discuss and to clarify. The reorganization of the business unit meant all sorts of changes in its structure, in key work processes, and internal hand-offs of work results.
ACT 2 – Burgers and Beers
Hans flew over to Chicago on a Saturday. The weather was beautiful. It was early autumn. He checked into his hotel. Then went for a long walking tour of downtown Chicago. Hans took it all in with wonder. Looking for any and every opportunity to speak with the locals about life in one of the world’s great cities.
Hans had suggested meeting his new American direct reports for burgers and beers: Maria, Jack and Nancy. He wanted it to be informal, relaxed, personal. And not stiff and formal.
They met at a popular restaurant located halfway between the office and Hans’ hotel. Hans had gone there Saturday and Sunday for lunch and liked it. Evelyn joined them. She’s German, one of Hans’ direct reports on delegation to the U.S.
It was a Tuesday evening. The place was packed with young professionals. The five colleagues got a booth on the street side with a nice view. The booth was a bit small. They sat closely together. Certainly one way to get to know each other.
ACT 3 – Obama or McCain
The dinner started off just fine. The food was good. The atmosphere started out very positive. Then Hans asked his American colleagues who they favored, Barack Obama or John McCain. It was October 2008, just weeks before the presidential election.
Maria, a Democrat, was a native of the Chicago area. For her it was clear that the junior senator from Illinois would win the election. Jack said he liked Democrats and their basic political direction, but was worried about their economic policies, and about Obama’s lack of experience.
Nancy was reluctant to engage in a discussion about politics. But in a few words it was pretty clear that she was a loyal Republican. Evelyn played fly on the wall, just listening.
Hans couldn’t wait to get into the discussion. He had followed American politics ever since he was in high school in Germany. He was familiar with the two parties, their political platforms. He knew about their candidates for president going back at least four elections.
But not just politics. Born and raised in Germany, America had been ever-present in his life: politically, culturally, economically. From his perspective, how could any well-educated German not be interested in the U.S., in Americans, in what and how they think!
ACT 4 – Hans probed further
Hans probed further: “Well, I think Obama is really great. He is so smart, a real intellectual, not like George W. Bush. I mean, Bush could hardly formulate intelligent sentences.”
Nancy cringed, but tried not to show it. Maria was in full agreement, but smiled discreetly. Jack, no fan of Bush, responded: “Well, maybe Bush wasn’t an intellectual by European standards, but he did graduate from Yale, then got his MBA from Harvard.”
Which led Hans to say: “Yes, of course. But he was a Yale legacy. His father and grandfather had gone to Yale. So he got accepted. And fellow students said he was a weak academically.”
Hans was proud to show how well informed he was. And he was: “And wouldn’t it be great to have an African-American president?” His eyes were wide open and all lit up. “Think about it. Not long after two hundred years of slavery, to have a black man in the White House. Awesome!”
Nancy began to focus in on Hans. Maria, with her Latin American background, liked what Hans had to say, even if he was a bit too direct. Jack, too, was proud that America truly did offer opportunity to all, saying: “Yeah, sure. But in the end the key is what he and the Democrats will actually do if they win the election.”
Evelyn then asked if the Americans had seen news reports about Obama’s speech in Berlin in front of over two hundred thousand people: “It was unbelievable. Not since John F. Kennedy’s speech in the August 1963 was there so much excitement! Bush did not go over so well with us Europeans.”
Hans corrected her: “Not with us Germans. He was too unilateral. Ignored the International Court in the Hague. Went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq without any real consultation with us. He was a real cowboy. Shoot first, then ask questions. How could the majority of Americans vote for him? And twice!”
ACT 5 – “Oh, no!”
“Oh, no!” thought even Maria. Hans is going in the wrong direction here. Jack quickly pulled out the dessert menu and waived for a waiter, hoping to change the subject of the conversation. Nancy was furious. All three Americans had had some degree of experience with, well, rather opinionated Germans.
“Don’t you Americans worry that those two wars are going bad, that they might be lost, like Vietnam?”, Hans asked concerned.
Nancy did not agree in the least. But again, she was very careful not to state her opinion. She reported directly to Hans, was new in the organization, and not familiar with the German side of the company. And besides, she was not at all comfortable with mixing business and politics.
Hans looked at her as if asking for her point of view. Nancy replied discreetly and in a serious tone: “Well, it’s a complex situation. Too complex for me to know what is best.”
The conversation went on like this for another half an hour. Hans probed other topics: health care reform, high crime rates and gun control legislation, control of the U.S.-Mexican border, the influence of money in American elections.
Each time he sensed that his American colleagues were not in the mood for discussing politics. Maybe because it was a Tuesday and not a Friday or a weekend, he thought. Eventually, they moved on to lighter topics like sports, weather and Chicago.
For Hans it was an enjoyable dinner, even if they didn’t get into a good debate about topics of real substance. Evelyn found the interaction between Hans and the Americans rather amusing, making only a few comments here and there.
ACT 6 – From furious to outraged
And the Americans?
Maria started off amazed at how well-informed Hans was about the U.S. Jack was also impressed, but thought that Hans was a bit too enthusiastic. Especially as an outsider picking such sensitive topics about the U.S.
Nancy went from furious to outraged, but without showing it. She thought to herself: “Who was this guy? Comes over here and does nothing but point out our faults? What arrogance! He thinks he’s so smart, just because he reads newspaper and watches TV. Does he have any clue about the things that work well in our country?”
Nancy is an engineer. Her academic studies were very rigorous. She paid her way through college with loans and any job she could get. There was little time to take courses in American or European History.
But she did know the basics of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. And for Nancy it was clear that her country had done good things in Europe, especially in Germany. She thought to herself: “With their history, doesn’t Hans have any sense of shame?” But she bit her tongue during the entire conversation, making only brief and neutral comments.
ACT 7 – What Hans did not know
That was Tuesday evening. The five colleagues met several more times during that week. What Hans did not know, however, was that many of the Americans in the organization asked Maria, Jack and Nancy how the dinner and the other meetings with Hans had gone.
All were curious about Hans, his background, how he thinks. He’s a Senior Vice President with a lot of authority. His influence at senior management levels is very significant. And he’s their boss.
The three Americans gave their impressions. At lunch, on the phone, between meetings, always discreetly. Never by email. The feedback was mixed, from somewhat positive to very negative:
Smart guy. Very open. Enthusiastic. Very opinionated. Always pointing out America’s problems. Critical. An arrogant know-it-all. A real jerk. Avoid any contact with him outside of the workplace!
For those Americans who had similar experiences, what Maria, Jack, and especially Nancy, had to say only reinforced their own negative opinions about Germans.
Word began to spread around the office about Hans. Some of the Americans ignored the gossip. Others became cautious around Hans, and now even around Evelyn. A few decided to do their best to stay clear of him.
ACT 8 – What the Americans did not know
When Hans and Evelyn met for lunch on Thursday, they, too, discussed their dinner Tuesday evening. Hans was clearly disappointed. He had hoped for some vigorous debate. Nancy seemed particularly disinterested and disengaged.
Like most Germans, he wanted to address topics of substance, and not waste time talking about the weather and sports. “I did my best to provoke some conversation, Evelyn, but just couldn’t get them engaged. Strange.”
Evelyn smiled and said: “Well, maybe they were reserved because you head up the organization.”
Hans: “Sure, I understand that. But what better way to get to know each other than to talk about real issues. Issues which are so important to all of us. I wanted them to see how interested and informed I am about America. I love this country. I want to know how they see things.”
Act 9 – What went wrong?
In smalltalk situations Germans consciously choose topics which Americans consider to be controversial. In stark contrast, Americans choose topics which Germans consider to be superficial. Those two approaches could not be more different.
America and Americans have been very present in the lives of Germans – especially West Germans – since 1945. U.S. foreign, security and economic policy has always had significant influence on Germany and the Germans. For these – and other reasons – Germans feel as if they were closely related to America and Americans, as if they were members of a wider American family.
Germany and Germans have had a minimal presence in the lives of Americans since 1945. Although Americans like and admire Germany and the Germans, they do not feel as if they are closely related to them, they do not regard Germans as members of a wider American family.
German team leads want, expect, and invite their team members to challenge them. German team members want and will challenge their team leads.
American team leads allow their team members to challenge them, but only certain team members, under certain circumstances, and in certain ways.
Germans are direct in their communication. They believe that people should say what they mean, and mean what they say. That people should choose clear and unambiguous words. Germans believe in addressing the heart of the matter, regardless of how sensitive that matter might be.
Americans are more indirect in their communication. They believe that people should not always say what they mean, and not always mean what they say. Depending on the topic and the context, Americans do not choose clear and unambiguous words. They do not drive to the heart of the matter about sensitive topics.
Both sets of approaches, both sets of logics, are legitimate, correct, and effective. But only in their native national cultural context. When applied in another national culture, they can lead to problems. Problems which are serious, painful and expensive.
Neither Hans and Evelyn on the German side, nor Maria, Jack and Nancy on the American side, were aware of these cultural differences.
Their lack of awareness was their blind spot. They were blind to the cultural differences. Both sides. Both cultures. Blind to the each other.
Act 10 – The Cost of Cultural Misunderstanding
If this and other differences in how the two cultures communicate are constantly at play when Germans and Americans collaborate, what influence or impact will the differences have:
On the productivity of the working relationship within the leadership team: meaning between Hans and his German direct reports on the one side, and his three new American direct reports on the other side?
On motivation, and therefore on productivity, within the American organization of two hundred engineers?
On overall cross-Atlantic collaboration within Hans’ organization: meaning between the American and the German engineering colleagues?
What is the cost impact on Hans’ bottom-line in dollars or euros?
Now consider how many similar situations there are within your company. What do those costs add up to?
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