Roles & Responsibilities

Question

“Although I have worked with German colleagues for 15+ years in a global context, I still see the strong push from them to clearly define roles and responsibilities. This occurs with people who have already established trust and confidence in working together, as well as with new colleagues, and when timelines are short.

Where does this need for such clarity come from, even prior to beginning any work towards the objective? How can we balance this need with the need to react faster in the market?“

UC

I can attest that in the German business culture there is a very high need to define as clearly as possible who does what, meaning roles and responsibilities. German organizational charts should be taken very seriously, for example. They are always up-to-date, carefully constructed, and accurate in portraying how a German team is set-up.

And yes, the Germans come together on a regular basis to establish and maintain a common understanding of who does what, and who does not do what. Why?

For one, the Germans work – and like to work – independently. They define the team structure, the tasks to be completed, roles and responsibilities, lines of communication, key processes, etc., then they go to work. The frequency, duration, depth and nature of their communication during the work is different than in a comparable American team.

The more independent the team members work, the more important it is to clearly define roles and responsibilities up front. If done well, it leads to speed, quality and efficiency. A high level of clarity about roles and responsibilities is especially important when timelines are tight. This is not a paradox. Nor is it a paradox when German colleagues who know and trust each other well also focus intensely on first clarifying roles and responsibilities.

There is another purpose, I believe, in the German context for putting so much time (as judged from the American perspective) into clarifying who does what. The Germans have a tendancy to enroach on each other’s area of responsibility, on each other’s mandate, work scope, roles and responsibilities.

Merriam-Webster defines encroach as: To gradually move or go into an area that is beyond the usual or desired limits; to gradually take or begin to use or affect something that belongs to someone else or that someone else is using.

The path to success (promotion, prestige, higher pay) in German companies is usually via size. The larger your organization, the larger its revenues, the more people it has, the great its scope (roles and responsibilities), the better. Germans can be very territorial, which means they are to a certain degree wary of each other. They are careful to “protect their garden”, as they say. Protect from encroachers.

I believe – without being a psychologist of the German people – that it is very important for Germans to be able to say: “This is my job. It belongs to me and to noone else. I own it. And noone else will take it away from me.”

Americans, on the other hand, also value the importance of clarity in who does what. They approach it more fluidly, however. They prefer to get only a required degree of clarity in order to then get started with their tasks quickly, knowing that through the actual work they will gain on-going clarity about roles and responsibilities. Clarity through doing, not upfront.

Secondly, Americans are far less inclined than Germans to encroach on each other’s work scope. Americans in the workplace certainly aren’t angels, nor are the Germans devils. But Americans have very low tolerance for internal bickering about who does what. American team leads reserve the right anyway to “move players around on the field”, meaning making constant adjustments to who does what.

Finally, the way in which teams in the American business culture operate requires that flexibility in roles and responsibilities. Any restrictions or overly-defined internal rules inhibit rather than enable rapid-reacting teamwork. Depending on the team, individual tasks meld together, overlap, work so closely hand-in-hand that clear lines of delineation between them would be difficult to define.

Two cultures. Two approaches to clarifying who does what. Plenty of potential for misunderstanding, problems, suboptimal collaboration.

“How can we balance this need with the need to react faster in the market?”

I think you may know my response to the question. Sit down together. Address the issue. Step 1 – Understand the respective cultural approaches. Step 2 – Combine the inherent strengths of both. Not specific enough?

Ok. Get clarity on who does what at a basic level, the fundamentals. Talk it through thoroughly. Your German colleagues will expect it. Do it with them. It won’t kill you. In fact, it will give you deeper insight into how they work.

Then remain in constant dialogue for the duration of your collaboration on those areas not clearly defined: the overlaps, the hand-offs, the grey areas. That’s where the potential for misunderstanding and friction will occur. It’s also where the critical questions of your teamwork will pop up. It’s where collaboration actually takes place. It’s where you’ll either succeed or fail together.

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