Yes or No absolute

“In the German culture, why does a yes or a no need to be absolute and not conditional upon changing input factors? In other words, is a qualified yes or a qualified no acceptable in Germany?”

Yes, the German culture allows for a „qualified yes“ and a „qualified no“. In fact, what culture could not? Life, reality, the interactions between individuals and groups demand this day in and day out.

Especially fast-moving, complex and sophisticated cultures depend on contingency-planning, on the ability to act in ways which imply (factors in) that the parameters of a given situation can change at any time.

That is the very definition of the term flexibility. Merriam-Webster online writes: „characterized by a ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements.“

Merriam-Webster lists the following synonyms: adaptable, adjustable, alterable, changeable, elastic, fluid, malleable, modifiable, pliable, variable.

As antonyms it lists: established, fixed, immutable, enelastic, inflexible, invariable, nonmalleable, ramrod, set, unadaptable, unalterable, unbudgeable, unchangeable.

So yes, the German culture does allow for „qualified yes“ and a „qualified no“. One could argue that they are especially good at it, when one considers their precision, how well they plan, coordinate and manage actions taken at the same, or near same, time. The Germans are proud of their ability to develop complex, inter-related work processes, whether it be within companies or in the general public space.

Which means the question is not so much whether the German culture allows for a „qualified yes“ and a „qualified no“, but rather the following questions:

How do Germans define what is „qualified“?

When in the German context is a „qualified yes“ or a „qualified no“ a response which a German can deal with, factor into their work, coordinate with other qualified situations, versus when do Germans prefer to hear either a clear „yes“, a clear „no“ or a clear „I don‘t know at this time“?

Stated another way: When is „yes“ or a „no“ too qualified, too unspecific, so that it cannot be dealt with in the German contingency logic? Germans will often say: „Come back to me, please, when you have a higher degree of clarity of what it is you are asking for.“

Every culture‘s contingency logic has its own bandwidth, borders, poles, extremes, degree of tolerance (pick your term), within which they operate, plan, factor in potential sudden change.

Perhaps the German bandwidth is narrower than the American. Perhaps not. The Germans would argue that they are more flexible than the Americans. See the intercultural divergences in leadership approaches.

The German contingency logic works. Germans and Germany are exceptionally capable and successful. The American bandwidth, the American contingency logic, works also. Americans and America are equally capable and successful. They are, however, two different contingency logics.

„Contingent yes“ … „contingent no“, this appears to be a rather simple, straightforward topic. Americans ask themselves: „Why can‘t the Germans be more flexible?“ Germans ask themselves: „Why can‘t the Americans think things through first, before acting, then inevitably changing course?“

This is a very complex topic. The fundamental divergence in contingency logics involves the following topics: agreements, decision making, leadership as well as systematic (German) versus particularistic (American) thinking.

The challenge – with great upside potential – is developing a common, or near-common, understanding about contingency planning, of how flexible a „yes“ and a „no“ should be.

Hard deadlines

“In the U.S. once a decision has been made the time afforded to implement that decision can be very short. Who is responsible for deciding what the hard deadline is?”

That would depend on the situation. What kinds of situations, or scenarios, are there?

There are teams. Most decisions which are implemented exist within the context of a team. You have a team-lead and team-members. The team operates within some kind of business ecosystem, meaning within a broader context of a company. Who determines deadlines? The team-lead. Perhaps the team-members. Possibly the receiver of the deliverables, which could be another team within the ecosystem.

Then there are projects. And projects are nothing more than a variation of a team. A project is a team for a limited time with a limited purpose. Who determines deadlines? Well if a project is simply a variation of a team, then it would be the project-lead. Perhaps the perhaps-members. Possibly the receiver of the deliverables, which could be another team within the ecosystem.

Then there are customers. Stated more precisely, teams or projects who iteract directly and closely with customers. Is this scenario any different in nature to the two above, teams and projects? I think not. Why? 

Because all teams deliver results. Those results go to a customer, who is either company-internal or company-external. Yes, you can make the argument that the external customer is always more important than the company-internal customer. But, that also depends.

Who decides what the hard deadline is? Well, there are only three possibilities.

First is hierarchy. That would be the team- or project- or customer relation-lead. “I’m the boss. We need those results out the door and to the customer by this date. No discussion. Get to work.”

Second is implementation. These are the colleagues actually responsible for delivering the results. They should know best what is realistic, what makes sense, what best serves the customer, whether internal or external. They also are in constant contact with the customer, which means that they are in a position to adjust the schedule expectations of the customer, and together in agreement with the customer. The closer the collaboration with the customer “on the ground”, the more likely that deadlines can be handled flexibly.

Third is the customer. Taking the approach of “the customer is king” would place responsibility of setting deadlines in the hands of the people receiving the deliverables. But is this wise? Is this what truly benefits customer? Often their scheduling needs change. And any well-managed customer-supplier relationship is more of a partnership than it is a master-slave relationship.

My preference? Second, implementation, but in very close collaboration with the customer, and keeping informed the next-level hierarchies on both sides: supplier and customer. Time, speed and deadlines, however, should be managed by those implementing the decision. 


“I find myself constantly asking our German colleagues the when-question regarding the completion of a project. Their response is frequently vague. How can we get the response to be better for us, even if only it is an approximate answer?”

Germans do not like to be nailed down – festgenagelt – on anything. Who does, actually?

Why? Not because they are non-committal, but because they feel nearly 100% bound to their commitments. Because they know that there are factors not in their control. And because the Germans hate any kind of pushiness. And what for Americans is not pushy is often for Germans push to very pushy.

So what to do with German colleagues who are reluctant to give a completion date, even if it is only an approximate answer?

First, give them as specific information as you can about why it is important for you to at least get an estimate of a date. These should be business and technical reasons. Spell out for them the timing of the project from our perspective, about the ramifications if certain work is completed by certain dates. You can almost never give a German colleague enough context information.

Second, provide them with a few scenarios. “Well, if you can get me that data by the 15th of the month, that will allow me to do this or that.” or “I don’t want to be pushy, Klaus, but if I have your work results by the end of next week, that would be good, because it allows me to then present to the customer during the week thereafter, and the advantages there would be XYZ.”

Third, ask for a time-frame, a window, in which your German colleague can reach completion. And while you do that ask them what factors are affecting the project on their side of the Atlantic. Do your best to put yourself in their shoes. Literally ask them: “Anna, what are your parameters, your boundary conditions? Give me a chance to work within them. We can get this done if know each other’s situation. Thanks!”

More self-follow up

“How can I (as a German) get Americans to do more self-follow up, so that I don’t have to do the follow up?“


Thanks for the question. It’s symptomatic for German-American cooperation, and it can be answered.

There is follow up and there is follow up, meaning different kinds of follow up, depending on the context in which it takes place. First, take a look at the respective logics under: Agreements_Follow up.

If you manage Americans and you feel that you have to follow up too often on their work, or on certain tasks which you have assigned to them, then I can think of the following explanations:

Not competent

It’s entirely possible that certain members of your team are not competent. Plain and simple. This requires of you to constantly check on them and their work. If this is the case, you need to address it with them.


If your team is competent then perhaps your instructions are not clear. Yes, start off by taking a critical look at yourself and ask: “What am I not doing right which then requires of me that I have to follow up on members of my team?”

It is typical in the German-American space for people to think they understand each other, including tasks assigned. Make sure that everyone is “on the same page”, that they have a common understanding of who is expected to do what, by when and how, including small-scope tasks.

Priorities change

Consider also the possibility that priorities can change. Americans are especially sensitive to changing parameters. What you expect from individual team members by a certain date and in a certain form might change in the eyes of that team member.

Follow up in the U.S. context is a key instrument for maintaining overview of not only tasks, but also their respective priorities.

Your team members might misunderstand or misinterpret which of their tasks assigned to them by you has priority for you. In other words, if you do not signal to them that the tasks you assigned are still important – and that signal in the U.S. is follow up – they could easily misinterpret your lack of follow up as: “That task is no longer so important.”

More self-follow up

The amount of follow up you have to do in order to “stay on top of” your American team members and/or colleagues is most likely typical for the U.S. context. It is certainly far too high for the German context.

So, how can you get Americans to do more “self follow up”?

First, discuss the topic with them. Make sure that they understand follow up in the German context. But make sure, also, that you understand how Americans use follow up.

Second, once all of you understand the cultural differences between Germans and Americans when it comes to follow up, both parties – you and your American team members – will be in a position to decide how you want to handle it.

Remember: First understand, then combine!

Scope of agreement

“Would it be beneficial to set up the scope of an agreement? In other words, to get clarity among all parties to an agreement what the expectations are? For Example: the team will have check-ins to share project progress even without aspects being fully complete.”

It is true that Americans have a much higher frequency of status-checks than do Germans. For Americans, an agreement actually kicks off the collaboration. And collaboration in the U.S. means a lot of back and forth, a lot of engagement, high levels of communication. That’s how Americans work in teams.

And it is true that Germans have a much lower frequency of status-checks. For Germans, an agreement actually kicks off each party to the agreement working on their part of that agreement. And collaboration in Germany does not mean a lot of back and forth, does not mean a lot of engagement, does not mean high levels of communication. 

That is not how Germans work. They first get clarity on who does what. Then they as individuals get to working doing the what. They come together only when necessary. Ideally when each is finished with their part, with their deliberable. 

So, if you feel that check-ins, also called status meetings, are important, propose to your German colleagues: when they should take place, for how long, who should participate, and most importantly why the status meeting is necessary, how it adds value.

But be prepared for your Germans colleagues to ask why all of this is necessary. You need then to explain to them how Americans work in teams, that much of it is iterative, tactical, flexible, less structured.

They will tell you how they as Germans work in teams. You should find a happy middle ground.

List concerns upfront

“How can we get German colleagues to list upfront all of their concerns before saying no?”

Perhaps you should anticipate their concerns, then build your arguments into your request, thereby demonstrating that you have done your homework, and that you have taken their perspective into consideration.

Secondly, perhaps you should not confront Germans with yes-no questions, to which you expect them to respond with a yes immediately, without them having time to understand the request, and to do some serious reflecting on whether they should agree with it or disagree. 

In other words, there are alternative ways of introducing your request, maybe as a thought, as a suggestion, as something to collaborate with them on.

Up-front vs. Speed

“Germans enter into an agreement only after they have gathered all of the relevant information up-front. In the U.S. business context, however, speed and rapid reaction time are critical success factors. How can we reconcile the two approaches?”

First: explain to your German colleagues as often as possible how mission-critical rapid reaction time – speed – is in the U.S. business context. Use concrete examples how speed led to new business, to profitable business, to business growth. It is not enough to simply repeat how important speed is in the U.S. market. Provide examples of wins and losses, and the role reaction time played.

Second: always acknowledge the rightness and legitimacy of the German logic. Honor the strengths of the German approach of gathering all relevant information up-front in order to decide whether to make a commitment. Remember, when German commit, they commit. They will do their absolute utmost to live up to their commitments. 

Third: discuss with them, as partners, how you can together reconcile the two strengths – American speed with German reliability. 

For example, ask your German colleagues what information they need up-front in order to commit to an early-stage piece of a commitment. In other words, break down a larger commitment into pieces or stages. Then move, together with your German colleagues, stage for stage. Do not be shy about asking them what kinds of information are critical vs. nice-to-have.

In addition, always give your German colleagues a sense for the risk involved when breaking down a commitment into smaller pieces. The American logic of breaking down complexity into its component parts – see CI’s content on the topic Persuasion – then focusing only on the key parts, is their way of not only maintaining focus, but also of managing risk. 

Compared to Americans, Germans are risk-averse. When coaxing your German colleagues to move faster, for example, by asking them to make mico-commitments, provide them with your assessment of risk. Simply say:

“Look, colleagues, we’re breaking this commitment with the customer, or potential customer, into smaller commitments. This allows us together to move faster, while at the same time reducing risk. What (truly critical) information do you need from us in order to enter into this micro-commitment?”

Fourth: this may sound not only counter-intuitive, but also potentially dangerous for business, but do your best to manage the time expectations of your customers or potential customers. Americans are too speed-oriented. Rapid reaction is often unnecessarily important. The importance of speed is often a result – a bad result – of poor planning, of nervousness, of allowing oneself and one’s team or project to be driven faster than necessary. 

Yes, it takes real courage to say to the customer: “We can hit that date. But frankly, if you will be patient, if you will give us a bit more time, we will deliver even better results than you are expecting. How critical is the due date you are requesting to your needs? Please be patient with us.

We mean this respectfully, but isn’t it often better to receive great results a little bit later than less-than-great results quickly? We want to be fully in synch with your schedule, but we also need to coordinate with our colleagues in Germany. Would it possible to sit down and do into a little more detail about your schedule pressures, and the parameters within which we are operating?”

Get past no

“How can we best get by that initial German-No response?”

First, never assume that the German-No is hard and fast. Often it is simply their immediate response to a question which has been stated to them requiring yes or no. In other words, they feel that they have to make an immediate decision. 

Just as an American-Yes can range from 98% to 68% to 38% to 18% in terms of level of commitment, so can a German-No be anywhere in that range.

Second, in order to get an initial sense for roughly where the German-No is in the commitment range ask in a friendly and polite way:

“Why not?” or “Ok, but can you, please, tell me what the barriers are to you giving me a yes?” or “Ok, I understand. Well, what can I do in order to make it easy for you to say yes?”

Third, take whatever responses you get – the reasons for the no – and work on each one individually. Think of what it is like to whittle down a stick with a penknife, stroke for stroke, cut for cut, shaving for shaving. In other words, overcome each no-reason, one after the other, patiently, but persistently.

Verbal vs. Written

“In the German context does a verbal agreement have the same value – binding character – as a written agreement?”

In the German context there is no higher level of commitment than making a written agreement. The written word in the German culture is extroardinarily binding. It is a reason why Germans are so careful about signing their name to an agreement.

A verbal commitment has almost as high a level of commitment – binding character – as a written agreement. In general, as a culture, when the Germans say and/or write yes, they consider themselve to have given their word. It is binding. And not in the American sense of different levels: 98%, 68%, 38%, 18%, 8%, even -8% and so on.

Maintain overview

“Germans prefer to deliver complete results, even if late, over incomplete results, but fast. In addition, their frequency of follow-up is low compared to the U.S. How can American colleagues maintain constant and accurate overview of the agreements made with their German colleagues, including factoring in new agreements the Germans may have entered into?”

First, ask yourself when is it truly necessary to do follow-up. Americans do a lot of follow-up purely out of nervousness and anxiety. Start with taking a critical look at your own logic.

Second, when entering into individual agreements with your German colleagues, discuss and agree on the frequency of follow-up. Be sure to point out to them the American logic regarding follow-up. Sensitize them to the cultural difference. 

Continually explain to your German colleagues the nature of the American business environment, especially the important of follow-up in maintaining an on-going overview of commitments, priorities, decisions, projects. 

Third, when following up with your German colleagues simply ask them if the follow-up frenquency is still good, effective, working well. Yes, literally ask them. Give them a chance to signal to what the right frequency is. At the same time, explain to them the parameters within which you are operating, which, in turn, require follow-up.

Fourth, at an appropriate time reach out to your German colleagues and ask them to explain to you how Germans fundamentally handle follow-up. Ask them literally what the German logic is. Chances are your German colleagues will ask you about the American logic.

Always acknowledge the rightness and legitimacy of their logic. Honor the strengths of the German approach to follow-up. Remember, Germany has the fourth-largest economy in the world with only about 80 million people. They are certainly doing a whole lot of things right. Which means that how they handle agreements in general, and follow-up specifically, works and leads to success. 

A final point: you must have all sorts of shared documents which inform both sides of the Atlantic Ocean about projects, customer interactions, and such. It should be technically possible to simply add another piece of information, another parameter. 

Name it Follow-up. Then give it some pieces: project name; customer involved; information needs of customer, of US, of Germany; what information, in what form, why, by when, sent from whom, to whom.

And be sure to have a space for “factoring in new agreements the Germans – or the Americans – may have entered into.”