“Why am I in this team?”

Headquarters in Germany wants us to run our business, but they don’t empower us to do so. Frustration in the U.S. is significant: ‘Why am I in this team if our German colleagues are always negative about new ideas we propose?’

We Americans collaborate differently than Germans. When tasked with a job, we’re allowed to go and dig into it, then come back with recommendations, as a team.

Do the Germans respect us? What do they value? We never get anything back from them and when we do it’s always challenging questions. So we Americans sometimes ask ourselves: ‘Why are we here’?

How can we convince headquarters in Germany to truly empower us?

This is an extraordinarily critical, and complex, question. It goes to the heart of the relationship between the headquarters of a German company operating globally and a region, the United States, which is often the largest and most profitable region within such German companies.

Instead of me giving a long-winded response, let’s see where the discussion below in the comments take us. I’ll then add my two cents when and where helpful.

However, here is one thought: The leadership logic at play between, for example, a team-lead and the team-members is the same or similar logic at play between customer and supplier, and between headquarters and the so-called regions (meant is countries).

In other words, the deeper-lying logic in how Americans lead and want to be lead is the same in American teams, in American customer-supplier relationships, and in the how US headquarters of Americans companies interact with their company presence in countries outside of the U.S.

“Please respond quickly”

“How can we ask our German colleagues to respond more quickly without annoying them?”

Explain to your German colleagues what time looks like in the specific situation. Lay out the cause-and-effect relationships, i.e. if late by this much time, then this happens.

Prepare, and inform them about, contingency measures you will need to implement in order to react to the negative consequence of lack of speed.

Ask your German colleagues if there is anything you can do to help them to move faster. Offer suggestions on how you might be helpful in speeding things up.

Finally, and very importantly, reflect on your need for a speedier response from your German colleagues. Is speediness truly important? Who and/or what is driving speed as a priority? Is it a real or a perceived need? 

Is your customer – whether corporate-internal or -external – really demanding it? In fact, why not ask your customer? Do you have the courage to ask your customer what is truly important to them?

If you do not have the courage, why not? What kind of business relationship is it if you feel that you cannot ask such questions?

Perhaps there are good reasons for you to be patient and/or for you to ask your customer to be patient. Perhaps because you and they will receive a higher quality result from Germany. “Patience is golden” and “Haste makes waste.”

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?”

Processes and Certificates

“I’ve always been baffled by how Germans can attempt to persuade by referring to processes and certificates. That is certainly a cultural issue which even after 14 years I’m not willing to accept.”

You are baffled. When Germans refer to processes and certificates it does not persuade you. Why do Germans persuade with processes and certificates?

If a German brings the topic of processes into the conversation then that conversation is about how something should be done.

A decision has been made. Something should be done. It’s about the How. So the next decision is how to do that something.

Germans believe very strongly in processes. Yes, there are many bureaucratic processes in Germany. Just as there are in the U.S.

But when Germans talk about processes, they mean not only literally „how the work should be done“, but also in a more fundamental sense that how you do the work determines the results, the output, whether you reach your goal or not.

Process and results (of that process) are two sides of the same coin. They are inseparable. To talk about outcomes (results) means to talk about process.

When Germans talk about their processes, they are saying: „We’ve done this before. Many times. We have a way of doing. It has proven itself. Please allow us to explain to you how we would do this.“

Certificates are important in Germany. They represent the way in which Germans say: „See this person? She or he is capable of doing this task. They have been trained and tested. We, the organization which granted this certificate, are experts in this area. We know the material, and we know how to impart it to others.“

Now, as in any country, one can question the organizations granting certificates, and therefore question the person holding the certificate.

And although we at CI have not yet analyzed this aspect of German business culture – how Germans define, develop and certify competence – anyone with experience working with Germans knows that they are a very capable people, knows that they have a very successful educational and technical training system, and knows that their duale Bildungssystem has been one of the keys to their success.

When a German presents their certificate, for example as a Meister (literally Master) in any technical or artisan trade, or they present their diploma as an engineer, chemist, economist, you can be very sure that they are that they know how to do the job, as they were trained to do it.

The process in the German context signals: „This is the best way to do it.“ The certificate signals: „And I know how to execute this process.“

Both of these, of course, from the German perspective.

One right solution

“Why do Germans believe that there can be only one right solution?”

“Alle Wege führen nach Rom

“There‘s more than one way to skin a cat”, an American idiom which communicates that there are different ways to reach the same goal, to complete a task, to „get the job done.“ When Germans are asked for an equivalent idiom they always say “All roads lead to Rome.”

But do the two idioms really have the same meaning? First let‘s understand the meaning of “All roads lead to Rome” via its history.

During the days of the Roman Empire everyone was to know that Rome was the center of all life. Every road in the Roman Empire either led directly to Rome, or was linked to one of the major roads which did lead directly, or more directly, to Rome.

Not only did this fact help to point out the dominance of Rome in the Roman Empire, it also enabled trade. One of the reasons that the Roman Empire lasted several centuries was because travel was easy. “All roads lead to Rome.”

But not only trade. Also Roman troops. „All roads lead to Rome“ signaled that no matter what one did, no matter how one tried to get around it, one had to do things the Roman way. The well-planned and -guarded Roman road system was designed to make sure that the provinces couldn’t organise resistance against the Empire.

In modern times the phrase “All roads lead to Rome” has since taken on another meaning, that something is set up so that disparate means will eventually achieve the same goal. The key word is “eventually”, for not every path to Rome was equally fast, efficient, affordable and safe.

Americans are a pragmatic people. They care far more about the results than they do about the method. They believe strongly that there are several, if not many, ways to “get the job done.” As an immigrant people, with a multi-ethnic society, the pursuit of the „one right solution“ would be close to impossible.

Nor could that pursuit be reconciled with the American deeply-held understanding of freedom, individualism, individual rights. And the American experience has demonstrated that the varied, flexible, situation-specific approach to “skinning a cat” also leads to success.


There Germans are very strong in the natural sciences, mathematics, physics and engineering. They have a national cultural inclination to take a scientific approach to whatever problems they address. Science aims to discover the truth, the solution, the correct answer. It is a pursuit.

Germans believe that there, indeed, can be only one truly best approach, one best solution, one optimal way to do something. In that they are not wrong. Although all roads did lead to Rome, not all were equal. Depending on the situation, one route was best. Put another way, the parties traveling should try to identify which route was right, best, optimal. A pursuit.

So for the Germans, the one right solution is the best solution at any given time. And because the pursuit of that route‘s optimization never ends, at a later time there will be another one right solution.

But also human

The Germans are human beings and not scientific machines. It should be of no surprise that such a capable, ambitious and self-confident people would view their approach to a given task as the right solution, the best route to Rome, the optimal way to get the job done.

And their success verifies to and for them that this is the case. Until proven otherwise they, understandably, are not always willing to consider another route.Why take the risk? Why change things? The English figure of speech would be never change a winning team.

Unless, of course, another approach has the potential to become the new optimal way. That is where an additional factor, or motivation, comes into play. It, too, is deeply human.


What if an alternative approach also leads to the same, or better, results? And what if the logic embedded, or at the root, of that approach is not familiar, or even foreign, to the Germans and the logic behind their approach?

If there is a competition of approaches, and the one wins over the other, then the consequences for the losing side are significant. Those on that side need to adopt and adapt to the other logic, to the other approach. And if that approach is unfamiliar (not from the same family, meaning culture), it can be difficult to learn it, to take on, even to understand. For any culture, not just the German, this all means change, insecurity, risk.

“All roads lead to Rome” also meant that the provinces, areas subjugated militarily by the Roman army, remained subservient to Rome. Command and control over the roads (transportation, logistics, troop movements) was synonymous with power. Rome as headquarters, the provinces as regions.


The discussion, often battle, over the right way to do something – internal processes, IT systems, product development, go-to-market strategies – is not only about businesses working more effectively, it is about power.

This is even more true when different cultures come together to collaborate. Colleagues in mono-cultural companies – or companies in which one culture dominates – share the same logic behind their approaches. Variations in approach are no more than variations on the same theme.

Collaboration in companies with several cultures involves a more complex discussion and debate about which approach to take, which method is best, about the right solution.

And since the Germans focus very strongly on how the work is done, they instinctively recognize that power is rooted in who has the say about the right solution understood as process, method, approach, about the road.

The discussion about the one right solution, therefore, is at a far deeper level a debate, a battle, about who has the say about the route, way, road.

Traditional engineering

“Why do Germans seem to support (maybe even promote) using traditional engineering design versus newer, less complicated, and in most cases, less expensive design? It seems that even experienced engineers will not question or go against established engineering practices even when there are good reasons to do so. Why?”

Your question takes us to a fundamental difference between Germans and Americans.


Germans honor and value tradition. For them the past is highly relevant. One doesn’t break from tradition without having very good reasons. Germans view things that are new – or pretend to be new – with a certain degree of skepticism. They are sensitive to the difference between claiming to be new and actually being new.

Americans believe in new. Hardly any consumer product can survive without claiming to be “new and improved.” For Americans new is fresh, innovative, young, promising, better than before.

In contrast to the Germans, and to continental Europeans in general, Americans are often skeptical of things which are too linked to the past. Tradition can mean old, encrusted, inflexible, immovable. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is seldom persuasive in the U.S. context.

Less complicated

Germans are complicated. They think in complicated ways. They can handle complicated situations and subjects. They believe that intelligence is the ability to deal with complexity as it is.

To think, read, write, explain complicated things is a sign of sophistication. And it is. Assuming, of course, you get the complexity right. Less complicated can be interpreted by Germans as simple, simplified, even simple-minded.

Americans are less complicated, and complicating. They value the ability to handle complexity in a pragmatic way. KISS. “Keep it simple, stupid!”

Intelligent is the person who can explain complex matter to the “man on the street”.  Americans view complicated as complicating, not workable, not robust.

Less cost

The Germans say Was nichts kostet, ist auch nichts. Literally: What costs nothing, is nothing. Meaning also, what hardly costs anything, is hardly anything. Germans are expensive. What they produce is expensive.

Germans seldom sell – or buy – via price. If an engineering design approach leads to lower costs, they’ll suspect that less (and less quality) engineering work is being performed. They’ll look for the shortcuts made, the quality sacrificed.

Americans – whether they admit to it or not – buy and sell far more based on price. If work can be reduced, saved, minimized via a new process, they’ll do it, as long as the quality does not suffer too much.

Even experienced engineers

Actually, it’s the experienced German engineers who will be most inclined to be skeptical of a new design process. Why? We all feel comfortable with our habits. If we do good work, or at least believe so, why should we change what works?

Who likes change?

Human nature. Think about it. Engineering design processes are all about how the work is done. And “how the work is done” goes to the heart of our self-understanding, as engineers, as marketers, as supply chain specialists, as human resources professionals, etc. How the work is done also determines the tools we use. Very basic, very pragmatic.

Who likes to change how they think and how they work? I don’t, even though I know that it is often necessary.

And then there is the question of power. Those who have the say about how the work is done, have the power in the working relationship. People sense that immediately, consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.

So unfortunately, there are all kinds of barriers to you getting your German colleagues to take an honest look at what you are proposing. Working across cultures is not easy. I suspect it was never easy, and never will be.

Focus on being right

“Why in Germany is there such a focus on being right?”

Competitive, Capable

Although the Germans are a people of only eighty million, their economy is ranked fourth behind the United States with three hundred million, the Chinese with one billion three hundred and forty million, and the Japanese with one hundred and thirty million.

The Dax30 are some of the most successful global companies. The Germans continue to be among the world‘s leaders in critical industries: automobiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, electronics, telecommunications, and especially those based on mechanical engineering.

Many experts believe that the great strength of the German economy lies in its so-called Mittelstand, an umbrella term for small- to medium-sized companies. Many of these family-owned business enjoy very high market shares, some dominating their particular markets worldwide.

During the financial crisis in the United States and Europe it is the German economy which continues to enjoy consistent growth. Its government is forecasting a balanced budget again in the year 2016. And despite discussion and debate about the merits of austerity measures, the German economy is the envy, and perhaps for some countries, the model of how to work.

As a people, the Germans are indeed battlesome, quarrelsome. As Northern Europeans their history as a people is deeply rooted in centuries of conflict, some initiated by them, many not.

The German strive for excellence. On the athletic field they have proven their ability to win. In the modern Olympic games the Germans have consistently ranked among the top medal winners, despite their modest population size. The most popular sport in Germany is soccer. There, too, they produce winning teams.

The Germans are a competitive and capable people. They like to win.

Zukunft sichern

Zukunft, a noun, means the future. Sichern, a verb, means to secure. In their domestic political debates all German parties address what Germany needs to do in order to secure its future. For foreign ears this can sound a bit exaggerated, purposely alarming. But it is meant literally and taken seriously by the German people.

German society involves a significant role of the government. Social services are many and expensive. The Germans are generous with each other. These services, however, can only be financed by a strong economy, which, in turn, requires that German companies offer products and services which command high prices and high margins.

The key to this, from the German perspective, is maintaining a very high level of intellectual and technical expertise. They are acutely aware of how critical it is to their future to train and develop people strong in the natural sciences, mathematics, and especially in engineering.

For Germans, ideas matter. Ideas are the core, the source of their expertise. Knowledge secures their future, not only of their economy and their companies, but also as individuals in their jobs within those companies.

Discussing and debating important issues, topics, subjects is something the German people take very seriously. Depending on the subject matter, they could see them as affecting directly their future, as individuals, companies, as a people.

Could it be that the subjects, topics, issues, questions which Germans consider to be absolutely essential (core) to their success (Zukunft, future) are not necessarily the same as those considered to be core by the Americans?

In other words, those topics which Germans get competitive (argumentative) about might very well be non- or less-core topics for Americans, leading Americans to think, and perhaps say: „Just relax, folks. This is important, but not a life-or-death issue. Let‘s reach some common ground here, then move on.“

Intellectual Curiosity

The Germans are an exceptionally curious people. They want to explore, ask, inquire, in the end understand. They want to move ever closer to the truth.

Some of modern Western civilization‘s greatest thinkers were German: In the natural sciences such as chemistry and biology, in mathematics and certainly in physics, but equally so in philosophy, theology, history, economics, political theory, sociology, and the law. The German approach to higher education, the Universität, of the 19th century was the model for the modern American university.

The Germans are known for being complex, analytical and systematic thinkers. They take pride in, they value highly, the ability to durch die dicksten Bretter bohren, literally to drill through the thickest boards. Conversely, the Germans have little respect or patience for those who take a superficial approach to any questions, task or endeavour.


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines stubborn as „unreasonably unyielding; difficult to handle, manage, or treat.“ It lists the following similar words (synonym): adamant, bullheaded, dogged, hard, hardheaded, inflexible, intransigent, opinionated. stiff-necked. The opposite (antonym) of stubborn is: acquiescent, agreeable, amenable, compliant, flexible, pliable, yielding.

Indeed, the Germans can be stubborn. Some individual Germans can be particularly inflexible. It could even be argued that stubbornness is a German character trait. We will leave that question to the psychologists and sociologists.

The Germans also have a tendancy to be know-it-alls. Their term is Besserwisser, from besser better and wisserknower, from Wissen knowledge. See the link below.

But, if we are honest with ourselves, we should ask „Who likes to be wrong?“, especially on important matters. In fact, stubbornness can be a positive character trait if it means „holding your ground“ or „defending a principle“ or „staying focused on what is right, good, effective.“

Argument vs. Counter-Argument

Depending on how a given culture communicates, interacts, discusses and debates, the Germans can come across as insisting on being right. „Why do they always have to be right?“, one asks in frustration and exasperation. This could be influenced, therefore misperceived, simply by how Germans communicate.

A contributing factor is the Germans belief in the value of dialectical thinking: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Stated in an overly simplified way, Germans, consciously or unconsciously, discuss topics in terms of a statement made by one person, this then countered or challenged by the other person, in the hope of arriving at a higher level of understanding. What for the Americans is an argument, is for the Germans a discussion.

Discussions with Germans can, indeed, take on the character of a debate. They are taught to think this way, in their schooling, in their place of work. Germans believe in the value of rigorous thinking and debating. Therefore, they can come across as argumentative, a term with a negative meaning, simply because they discuss via argument and counter-argument.

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.

Fear letting go

“There are a lot of benefits to doing product development regionally. But our colleagues in Germany are not open to that. Nothing is made in U.S. We buy internally from Asia or Europe. Why? The German fear of letting go. We had no other choice but to find a source in the U.S. Under the radar, of course. How can we convince our German colleagues to let go a bit of control?”

Who likes to let go of control?

Sincerely, folks, I can fully understand the perspective of headquarters in any company operating globally. All those regions, far away, foreign cultures, unfamiliar markets, colleagues who you may or may not trust as competent, constantly coming up with all sorts of half-baked ideas about how “the company can make a lot of money.”

Especially when it comes to product development. Remember, the German economy is the fourth largest in the world with only about 80 million people. And the strength, the core, of the German economy is their science and technology, in the end their products.

And what is at the core of a product? It’s development: science, engineering, manufacturing. Who wants to give up, or even share, that core?

Now, if you are sourcing within the company from other regions, then your German colleagues will have to react at some point. Because if that sourcing goes well – technically just as good as what comes out of Germany, and less expensive, and more flexible to the needs of your customers – well then Germany will have to respond to that company-internal competition.

So, let’s get back to the key issue here, which is product. Americans and Germans have different product philosophies, meaning how they respectively define what makes for a good product.

Get clarity on those differences. Perhaps your German colleagues would be more open to letting go of some of their control if they better understood what you are proposing.

They wear us down

“Our German colleagues love processes and procedures and rules. Our American point of view is: Processes are man-made. We can change them. Customers in the U.S. find it difficult to do business with us as a German company: ‘Too inflexible.’ We are constantly debating internal business rules. We struggle to get things done. Our German colleagues always find a way to logically disprove what we are trying to do or they keep pushing for more data. It’s like a legal battle. They wear us down. Help! What can we do?”

“constantly debating internal business rules”, I have heard this complaint hundreds of times over the years. If it is any consolation, you are not alone and the issue is not unique to you.

The fact is that Americans and Germans have, in many ways, very different approaches to processes. And keep in mind that processes are the – formal and informal – ways in which the work is done. Processes, and procedures and so-called desktop procedures, are the rules which govern the running of the company, of any company. This is serious stuff.

If you haven’t already, take a long look at our core content on Processes. Don’t miss the Quotes from Interviews. And there is also the Q&A One right solution.

Folks – Americans and all other cultures working in a German company – your German colleagues take processes seriousy, very seriously, as they should. Processes define how the work is done. How the work is done, in turn, determines results, business results, whether you will all be able to pay your bills month in and month out.

Continue to engage with each other. Be patient with one another. Most importantly, before you enter into intense internal discussions and debates about which processes need to be modified, in which ways, and why, be sure to first understand where you differ in terms of your respective approaches to processes, your process philosophies.

Go to the links above. Read. Reflect. Then discuss. Together as colleagues. Sie sitzen in dem selben Boot. You’re sitting in the same boat.