Fault-finders

Gabor Steingart, the Editor-in-Chief of the Handelsblatt, was quoted in June 2015 as stating that Bayer AG is Germany’s most valuable blue chip company. Its shareholders are singing Bayer chief executive Marijn Dekkers’ praises. 

However, anyone who wants to play devil’s advocate can find enough ammunition in their financial statements. Bayer may be profitable, but German software giant SAP and chemical company Merck are more so. And Bayer’s net financial debt tripled within a year. 

Steingart said that German journalists can’t help but look for flaws. He quoted Stefan Aust, his ex-boss at news magazine Der Spiegel, as saying time and again: What we are more than anything is fault-finders.

Fehlervermeidung

Fehlervermeidung, literally mistake avoidance, is central to German thinking, where progress is often understood as the absence of regression. Germans prefer to not undertake action which could lead to mistakes. “Get it right the first time” could be their motto. Moving ahead in one’s career is often based on making fewer mistakes than other colleagues.

For many years a large department store chain used the slogan “Good is not good enough for us.” German companies expect near error-free work from their people.

The Stiftung Warentest, literally Foundation for Product Testing, established in 1964, enjoys a very high level of trust and prestige among the German population. The foundation rigorously tests products and services, providing their results in monthly print and on-line publications.

Schwachstellenanalytiker

Germans, especially those in technical fields, are born Schwachstellenanalytiker or weak point analysts. They actively seek out gaps, contradictions, imperfections. Problem erkannt, Gefahr gebannt – a German figure of speech – translates literally into “problem recognized, danger averted.”

The quality assurance departments in German companies test product prototypes against demanding, systematic standards, searching for any and all types of imperfections. German perfectionism is reflected in their stringent consumer protection laws, making companies liable for problems caused by their products.

Überproblematisieren

There is no English equivalent to the German verb problematisieren. To problem-icize would be the literal translation. To problematisieren means to seek out, define and analyze a situation, to expound on it, to elaborate on in detail.

Germans will almost always err on the side of being overly problembewusst – problem-aware – of going into greater depth and breadth of analysis of the problem and its possible consequences. Germans tend to überproblematisieren. Über means literally over, in the sense of more, further, too far, in excess.

Problematisieren

To one degree or another you will find in every German a Schwachstellenanalytiker (schwach, weak + stellen, point + analytiker, analyst). A person focused on what doesn’t work, doesn’t make sense, isn’t logical, isn’t optimal.

Weak point analysis aims to avoid errors. And in Germany avoiding errors is often the equivalent of scoring victories. Germans are precision-oriented, in their language, thinking, and work methods. Their products are technically precise. To be precise is to be exact and refined.

The German Schwachstellenanalytiker has a highly developed Problembewusstsein, a problem-consciousness or -awareness. In fact, one can get the impression that Germans have a special relationship with problems, almost a love affair, an obsession.

Part of this impression has to do with language. The German word for problem is Problem, and it has two meanings: subject, topic, what is being discussed; as well as difficulty, dilemma, something to be solved or rectified. Depending on their level of proficiency in English, Germans may use problem in both situations, giving the impression that almost every subject discussed with Germans is a difficulty, dilemma or weak point.

But, perhaps there are legitimate reasons for Germans to have a special relationship with problems. Isn’t any form of progress based on correcting mistakes, refining imperfections, improving on what already works, never being satisfied?

Germans are difficult to satisfy, impress, persuade. Unless, of course, you demonstrate the ability to uncover, define, pull apart and improve on the imperfect. Perhaps German Schwachstellenanalytiker, with their Problembewusstsein, are the true optimists among us, hoping and striving constantly for what could be better.

Perhaps. As long as they don’t confuse problematisieren (endlessly discussing and debating what the problem is) with Probleme lösen (actually solving the problem).

Problembewusstsein

Germans focus on problems. The more difficult, complex and serious the problem, the better. Problembewusstsein means literally problem consciousness. In order to persuade Germans of a course of action, they first need to be persuaded that the presenter has fully understood the problem, in its depth and breadth. First identify, understand, analyze, then solve the problem.

A major criticism in Germany is to have not – or not adequately – understood the problem. The Germans often say: Das müssen Sie differenzierter sehen meaning “You need to see the situation in a more differentiated way.”

differenziert also means sophisticated. This is their way of saying that one thinks too simplistically. The implication is that they are more intelligent, their problem consciousness more developed. To be intelligent in the German context means to be problem-aware and -oriented.

Fehlerkultur

Fehlerkultur – literally failure-culture – is defined by sociologists as the way in which societies react to failure (mistakes) and to those who commit them. A German psychologist took a closer look at Fehlerkultur within German companies.

In the past, innovation in Germany, he wrote, was the product of a long collective decision making process. The great inventions of the Industrial Revolution in Germany were very seldom the result of an individual genius, but instead the achievement of groups of men and women.

Problems (mistakes, errors, failures) were identified, analyzed and solved collectively, as a group. The final product was ausgereift – technically mature, well-engineered, sophisticated. American-styled “trial and error” does not exist in German thinking, which is why there is no accurate German translation for it.

The negative side of this German national-cultural strength is that a systematic, perfection-oriented group approach to solving problems (to innovation) requires patience and time. And time is not always offorded by today’s rapid market developments.

It is in such circumstances, according to the study, that the Germans inclination to blame those who take risks and inevitably make mistakes comes stronger into play.

Mistakes are deemed almost as a personal and professional transgression which demand being exposed, and the perpetrator punished. This heightens even more the innate German fear of commiting errors, which in turn stymies creative thinking.

“Problembewusstsein nicht vorhanden”

In the summer of 2014 several members of the Foreign Relations Committee of the German Bundestag visited Washington, DC. Their talks were overshadowed by media reports that the U.S. had been spying on the  Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, Germany’s intelligence service) and the Verteidigungsministerum (German Ministry of Defense).

The Germans tried to help their American colleagues to understand the Empörung (indignation, anger, outrage) felt by the German people. They did not get very far, the ARD (one of Germany’s major tv networks) stated in their special report titled Problembewusstsein nicht vorhanden – Problem-consciousness non-existent.

The German parliamentarians left Washington with little hope that their colleagues in the Congress would be able to get the American intelligence agencies under control, if Members of Congress themselves were not aware (conscious) of the problems damaging German-American relations.

The German Mahner

“Their approach demonstrates that their entire Middle East policy has been a total failure. It is now necessary to do serious analysis about the havoc the Americans have wreaked especially in Iraq when they started the war based on false claims (of weapons of mass destruction).”

Statements made in response to the dramatic military gains made by ISIS-forces in the Middle East by Peter Scholl-Latour – the recently deceased elder statesman of German foreign correspondents and author of many books, especially about that region.

A closer look at the quote reveals characteristics typical of the German Mahner – from mahnen: to give friendly earnest advice or encouragement to; but also to warn, rebuke, chide, reprimand, reproach.

Before the Mahner can raise his index finger and issue a rebuke, he must have deep subject-matter knowledge and expertise. This includes having done serious and thorough analysis of the matter at hand.

The German public held Scholl-Latour in very high esteem. Time and again he was able to convince his readers and listeners of his point of view based on his almost awe-inspiring presence, on his many years of professional experience in several regions of the world, and on his broad and deep understanding of cultures and politics.

For nothing persuades the German public more than an expert who combines theoretical knowledge of a complex subject with many years of personal experience dealing with that subject.

Hair in the Soup

“The hair in the soup” is a German figure of speech which describes well German Problembewusstsein – literally: problem-consciousness. “To look for a hair in the soup” goes even further, describing the strong German inclination to look for problems even in areas where they are not likely to exist.

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