Don’t make decisions

“Our American colleagues appear to be reluctant to make decisions on their own. Either they will not make a decision or if they do, they will do so only on the condition that they get the final OK or the final sign-off from their boss. Why is this so?”

The explanation for this would be too long and too complicated for this Q&A context. Let me direct you to CI’s content on the topics of decision-making and on leadership for a deep dive on the topic.

For now, however, let me offer a key insight into the difference between American and German leadership logic that might prove helpful. The American leadership model is more top-down, hierarchical, and command-and-control, than most Americans realize or care to admit. American team members are often not empowered to make decisions. Team leads might reach their conclusions independently and make a recommendation to their boss, but in the end, it is the boss alone who signs off on the final decision, she makes the final call.

The Germans have another leadership logic. They give their people more freedom and autonomy to make decisions. German team members expect, and often demand, that responsibility. And it is given to them. Thus, they feel empowered to make decisions without consulting their team lead

Hidden decisions

“German decision making is a bit hidden from us until decisions are announced. The criteria used to decide is not communicated to us. Decisions are made before we have a chance to build our case. Is there a way to convince our German colleagues to allow us to participate in key decision making?”

Consensus vs. Top-Down

“As a practical matter, how does German consensus-style decision making differ from the American top-down approach? Is it more efficient? Does it produce better results? Is it easier to implement because of the buy-in of all the parties? Can these factors even be measured?“

Well, you can’t get more practical than making decisions and implementing them.

You ask three questions. 1. Differences between German consensus-building and American top-down decision making? 2. Which is more effective, and easier to implement? For every decision is only as good as its implementation. 3. Can decision making styles be measured?

Question 1 – Differences. This is a very complex topic. Please see my analysis on the divergences between Germans and Americans in their decison making in the lefthand navigation.

Question 2 – Effectiveness. Both countries, societies, economies are successful. Not without problems, not without ups and downs, but still the largest and fourth-largest economies on the planet, with more than a handful of first-rate global companies. So we can safely say about both cultures – therefore business cultures – that they know how to make decisions and implement them.

Which approach to decision making is more effective is an extraordinarily complex question, and would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. I would not want to be the person who has to come up with a method for such analysis.

But that comparison is not all that relevant, anyway. American and German collaboration is not about judging which approach is better, but instead about first understanding the differences between the approaches, in order to define how best to combine their inherent strengths. “In order to”: the reason for, the task, goal, the great pay-off.

Imagine what Germans and Americans could achieve if they truly understood their respective decision making logics, then sat down to map out how they make decisions together! This is the true high art form of working across cultures.

Question 3 – Measureable. I’m not sure if “measure” is the right term. But there certainly are indications – let’s even call them KPIs (key performance indicators) – for decision making processes which work and those which do not work. See the five divergences between German and American decision making which I address. These can be understood as KPIs.

Cliché cowboys

“Our German colleagues are risk averse. They see us Americans as taking unnecessary risk. We see them as doing far too much analysis. Germans think we’re cowboys. How can we beat the cliché that we are cowboys?”

It won’t be easy to get the Americans-are-cowboys cliché out of German thinking. And why is that?

In comparison to how Germans define risk and how they then make decisions our American approach is for them risky.

And the image deeply imbedded in their minds via Hollywood movies, popular literature, including their own author, Karl May, is of the American “shooting first, asking questions second.”

Pushy, emotional, fiery

“The German business culture is reluctant to commit to projects which have unknowns and are not guaranteed to succeed. The American business culture is under constant pressure to produce results. Americans can appear to be pushy, emotional and fiery. How can we reconcile the two approaches?”

Let’s consider this question from a high level, without going into the details. What are the questions within this question? I think they are the following:

The first is commitment. We know that Americans and Germans take different approaches to commitments. How they define them. How they decide whether to enter into them. If agreed to, how they maintain and fulfill them. What are those differences and how do they influence collaboration?

The second is risk, the two culture’s respective understanding of risk. Well, what are those differences and how can American and Germans get a common understanding of the risks involved in individual projects?

The third is pressure. More specifically, the pressure to produce results. In the U.S.: What results? In what form? How quantified? When are they expected? Can these be answered and explained to the German colleagues so that they understand the situation “on the ground” in the U.S.?

The fourth is about Americans coming across to Germans as “pushy, emotional and fiery.” Can the three topics above be so explained by the American colleagues such that their German colleagues will understand and be open to searching for ways to reconcile the two respective – and successful – approaches?

And let’s remember what the term reconcile means. Let’s go to MerriamWebster online: “1. to restore to friendship or harmony; 2. to make consistent or congruous; 3. to accept something as unpleasant; 4. to check against another for accuracy.”

Interestingly, each one of these four definitions applies the task at hand:

Get into harmony, into synch, with your German colleagues. In order to do that you need to constantly explain the logics operating in the U.S. Make your responses to customers consistent with both the American and the German approaches, in other words an integrated approach.

There is no other option. Integration means compromise, which in turn is always a bit unpleasant. Constantly check with each other, and with the customer, that things are accurate, meaning accurate in meeting the needs of your customers, but within the key parameters of how you do business. The customer is not “king.” And the customer does not want a supplier, especially in a sophisticated and complex business, to be a “serf.” Serious customers want serious suppliers. And serious suppliers are not serfs to anyone and at any time.