Can this work?

“Company based in Country A. Headquarters is in Country A. Manager is native of Country A. Manager is working in Country B, however. And customers are in Country B.

Headquarters makes product changes without input from countries. Customers in Country B do not like the product changes. Danger of losing customers. Manager escalates with Headquarters.

Response: “Customers in Country B are much smaller than those in Country A. Nothing can be done for customers in Country B. Manager has to accept.” Result: Country B loses customers.

Manager 1 asks Manager 2 for assistance. Manager 2 is also native of Country A, but works in headquarters in Country A.

Can this work? Is this a good approach? Is it recommended?”

Not only can it work, is it a good approach, is it recommended, it is the most obvious and natural first step to solving the problem:

“Hey Manager 2, we’re colleagues. We’re both from Country A. You work in headquarters. I have worked in HQ. Changes were made without our input in Country B. It is hurting our business. We need some help getting our message across to the right people in HQ. Can you help us?”

This all seems straightforward. If it were, there would be far fewer problems between HQ and countries within global companies. The fact is, however, there are problems, and many of them.

Because this is such a complex topic, I’ll mention just one key point.

One thing must be done in order to find a solution to the problem, to establish, maintain and deepen the bilateral relationship between HQ and Country B.

Colleagues in HQ need to understand the nature of the business in Country B, to understand why certain decisions from HQ hurt their business. Colleagues in Country B have to explain to them the deeper-lying cultural drivers.

In other words, the operating assumptions, the fundamental parameters of Country B’s business culture must be explained. It’s not enough to say: “Hey HQ, that decision is a bad one for our business.”

Why should HQ believe that statement? If colleagues in HQ do not know Country B, do not know the nature of the business there, they are not in a postion to judge whether the statement is true or not. They have to trust it blindly. And who likes to do that? How could they do their job as HQ if every country could demand special treatment just by claming “that is bad for our business”?

Country B needs to explain why the product changes hurt the business. Not just on the superficial (surface) level, but on a deeper level, on the level of how the business actually works in Country B. In other words, Country B has to first educate HQ about the nature of the business, the deeper-lying drivers.

These are seldom discussed. They are taken for granted. In fact, many people working in their native business culture aren’t even aware of these deeper-lying factors. It’s all they know, all they have known.

Most likely they have never been asked to identify, describe and explain them. And because of this they assume that the cultural factors native to their country are universal. If universal, then they are true for and in Country A, too.

On the flip side, colleagues from HQ need to listen carefully. In order to fully understand, they need to be aware of their deeper-lying cultural assumptions. For there can be no true understanding of another culture’s hard-wiring, without an awareness of one’s own hard-wiring. We all see other cultures – colleagues, businesses, products, etc. – with the eyes of our home culture. We need to understand the eyes with which we see.

It could very well be that colleagues in HQ made product changes which they believed were helpful for the business in Country B. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they want to help Country B succeed.

But what are the chances that HQ understands – at a deeper level – Country B? Its national culture, its business culture, the needs of their customers?

“The American”

“Is it accurate – and helpful – to refer to the American? What do a New Yorker, a recent Mexican immigrant in Texas, and a Californian have in common?“

Broad and deep consensus

This is an extraordinarily important question. Why?

If the answer is: “John, you cannot generalize about people. There is no such thing as the American or the German”, then CI, my work, your reflecting on intercultural differences has little to no value.

This foundational question is posed to me time and again. Since I intend to address it soon in a more systematic way, I’ll just give you some food for thought, in the form of questions and statements.

If a large, complex society functions well (see Germany, USA), then there must be a broad and deep consensus among its people about how it does some very fundamental things. See the ten topics CI currently addresses. There are more. What is meant is not a lowest common denominator in those things, but a deeply rooted belief about those things.

Immigrant influence

Although America is an immigrant nation, with newcomers arriving constantly and from different cultures, can you name which newcomer-cultures were immediately embraced by the dominant culture(s) within America?

Asked differently: If you are an American, when was the last time you – in the workplace – went up to a colleague who is a recent immigrant (or at least first generation American) and asked them about their culture, with the expressed intent to allow your own thinking (culture) to be influenced by that colleague’s culture?

American history makes clear that the dominant cultures within the U.S. invariably demand of immigrants that they assimilate.

Your success in other American companies

If you are capable at what you do, you are able to transfer immediately to another company within the U.S. and to perform the same or similar work at the same level – or higher – of proficiency. Why?

Because of your capabilites, yes. But primarily because you are an American and would be moving to another American company. Would this be the case if you were to move to a company in the same business sector, doing the same work, but in another business culture?

Let me finish by addressing one difference between Germans and Americans. The topic is Persuasion. The German logic is: “Arguments should speak for themself.” The American logic is: “Sell yourself first, then your product or service.”

People in boxes

If those two statements are true – the one for Germans, the other for Americans – would there be any significant variation – in the context of German-American collaboration – if the German giving a presentation were man or woman; young or old; Catholic, Protestant or non-believer; from Northern or Southern Germany; extrovert or introvert; trained in the sciences, engineering, law, economics or humanities; from a large or a small family; working in the automobile industry or chemicals or software or financial services; in a position high, mid or low in the organization?

Or flip it around. If the statement is fundamentally true about how American persuade, and an American were attempting to persuade a German audience, would it make any significant difference whether that American were male or female; young or old; etc.?

I believe not.

You see, we can “put people in boxes.” We can generalize. In fact, we do it all the time. We look for patterns in order to deal with complexity.

There are such things as national cultures. There are peoples. And peoples have charactistics. They have ways of thinking and acting. Our job is to understand those ways, discuss them, and find out how to best combine them. That is what our work is all about.

Americans won’t participate

“Our two companies were merged about a year ago. Post-merger integration has been completed. Recently we have begun experiencing cultural problems. More and more often our American colleagues refuse to participate in meetings. They simply say ‘No more meetings!’ We don’t know how to react. What should we do?”

Well, first off, it sounds like the honeymoon is over. There was the initial euphoria. Then came post-merger integration (PMI) with all of its complexity, the many long intense discussions about workstreams, etc.

That was PMI in the technical sense. But the human part has just begun. You’re collaborating. Intensely. Day-in. Day-out. The influence of cultural differences on that collaboration are exerting their influence.

“No more meetings!” is a clear sign that you’re experiencing rather serious problems in your cross-Atlantic collaboration. Ok, no big deal, this is normal. In fact, it is healthy.

Instead of giving a long, detailed response to your question, let me make a few points and include links to further material to read and reflect on, and then ideally to discuss with your colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic.

There are significant differences in how Germans and Americans communicate. Those differences, if not undestood, can inhibit communication. And I mean communication in the literal sense: A not understanding what B has said.

Decision Making
You and your colleagues are meeting in order to make decisions, in order to move forward. It sounds like your American colleagues would like to do less talking, less discussing and more acting, more moving forward.

Well, the fact is that Americans and Germans makes decisions in accordance to different logics. Compared to their German colleagues, Americans want to move much more quickly, after having done less analysis, accepting a higher level of risk.

And remember that in the American context decisions – especially important ones – are made with far less consensus-building than in Germany. Americans need less time to discuss, analyze, and decide. They “get out of the blocks” much more quickly than is the case in Germany. Whether their decisions, and their implementation, is better, that is a discussion for another day, and a very complex discussion.

Finally, this could be about power. Not all conflicts or differences of opinion or misunderstandings in cross-border collaboration are caused by cultural differences. Often it is simply a divergence of interests, self- or organizational interests.

For whatever reason, perhaps your American colleagues just don’t want to discuss and debate with their German colleagues a certain topic or issue or decision. They want to act.

Let me offer some consolation, which I stated at the beginning of my response. This problem you are experiencing – “No more meetings!” – is normal in the Germany-USA space. I have experienced it, witnessed it, been involved in it many many many times.

Read this response of mine. Reflect on it. Read the material I have linked to. Read and reflect on that. Send this Q&A to your colleagues, both German and American. Speak together about it. Germans and Americans. You might be surprised how quickly you find a resolution.