“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.

“Great Question”

“I have picked up from my American faculty colleagues that their first response to a question from a student is ‘Great question!’ before answering the question. One of the German faculty colleagues once mentioned that this may come across to German students as patronising. What is the best first response to a question posed by German students?”

“Thank you for your question.” Then go on to answer the question.

However, if the question is unclear or poorly formulated or is not a terribly relevant question, then state that, as in : “Your question is unclear. Could you please reformulate it?” or “The question is not critical to our discussion.”

Remember, Germans say what they mean and mean what they say. And remember, that Germans do not sugarcoat their statements.

Americans, in contrast, have difficulty begin direct. And Americans have difficulty giving low scores in feedback situations, especially university-level professors. Many, quite frankly, are afraid of their own students.

Macro vs. Micro Goals

“I find my German counterpart likes to break down tasks into micro goals. I tend to keep macro goals in view but not bother recording the steps along the way. Is this cultural or just us?”

Yours is a question I have never been asked. Nor have I done any thinking about micro and macro goals, and whether there is a cultural difference between Americans and Germans. Let me take a spontaneous stab at it anyway:

It is actually one of the great American strengths to take complexity and break it down into its component parts, in order to focus on the essential, and to not waste time on the non-essential. Of course, what is essential and non-essential is in the eye of the beholder.

In contrast, it is one of the great German strengths to see – understand, grasp, penetrate – the specific as a part of the general … the particular as a part of the system. Germans instinctively look for the connections, interdependence, mutual influences among particulars.

Your German counterpart appears to break down complexity into its component parts, whereas you focus on the overall.

However, it could be that she/he has already gotten the overview, and is now addressing the particulars, the most important among them.

Can you be more specific about “my German counterpart likes to break down tasks into micro goals” … and about “I tend to keep macro goals in view but not bother recording the steps along the way”?

I don’t want to split hairs, but how do you distinguish between a task and a goal?

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 UC’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

We overpromise

“We Americans overpromise. Much more than do our German colleagues. How do we strike a balance between overpromising to our American team-leads – and/or to our American customers – and underpromising or realistic-promising to our German colleagues?”

Reduce the overpromising to your American team-lead. Get real. Get realistic. Only promise what you can deliver. Reduce inflation in the broadest sense in the U.S. Take that chapter from the German book. And encourage your American team-lead to reduce their overpromising to their next level management.

On the other side of the coin, encourage your German colleagues to aim higher. The term encourage means literally to give courage. The Germans are chronic underpromisers, to a fault. The can reach higher and achieve  more. They take things too safely, too often. 

Third, make this a topic in your collaboration with both Americans and Germans. Stating it in an oversimplified, but accurate, way: Americans are inflationary. Germans are deflationary. Work together towards the middle.

There is no hiding from this cultural difference. Therefore, address it head-on.

Criticism of America

“I have the impression that Americans shy away from using criticism, be it in personal conversation or at work. In Germany it is accepted to express objective criticism when appropriate.

But in conversations with Americans everything is always great. On what level is it socially accepted to voice concerns or criticism in America?“

An excellent question.

No society can function well without it having a way to voice and address things which aren’t working. Whether it be within a family, a school, a religious community, a sports team, certainly within a company, the group needs to have a common understanding of what is and is not working.

“What is effective? What is helpful? Where do we stand? What needs to be improved?” These are questions to be asked, and answered, on a constant basis.

Merriam-Webster defines criticism as: the act of criticizing usually unfavorably; the art of evaluating or analyzing; the scientific investigation of literary documents.

So, certainly Americans engage in criticism. Certainly Americans are capable of giving and taking criticism. As are the Germans. Both societies are complex. Both are successful. Both have their approach to criticism. And both approaches work.

The key questions for their interaction as Americans and Germans are: What are the differences in their approaches to criticism? What influence (effect) do these differences have on their collaboration? How can they best manage that influence?

See CI’s analysis on Feedback_Critique.

“No more meetings!”

“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.

Worst of both worlds

“Ok, we understand the idea that the overall goal of integration is bringing together the best of both worlds – German approach and American approach. For example, German thoroughness and American speed and flexibility. But how do we react when we find ourselves bringing together the worst of both worlds – sloppy work and far too slow?”

Hmm, this is not the easiest of questions to respond to. There is no specific point of entry. It is clear that collaboration is not going well. I suspect that the organization has not been addressing culture. Or that if it has, then most likely not in the right way.

I would have to know much more about the situationt in order to provide any meaningful advice. So let me just make a few general points.

Par for the course
That is a figure of speech. The MerriamWebster Dictionary states: “the score standard for each hole of a golf course; an amount taken as an average or norm,an accepted standard.”

I hope that my statement – that your problem is “par for the course” – is consoling. For the problem you are experiencing is no surprise, is rather normal, and in many ways healthy. No one on either side is doing anything wrong.

Don’t panic. Remain calm. Continue to engage with each other. You’ve entered into a complex relationship. It requires time and patience to work things out.

Human Beings
Always remember, especially in the “heat of the battle”, that you are colleagues. You are in this together. You succeed or fail together. This is personal. And it should be personal. You are human beings and not machines. We human beings make machines. And we live in the Machine Age. But we ourselves are not machines. We do not interact with each other as if we were parts in a machine.

Subject Matter
Begin – together – identifying the key points of difference. Literally, what you are fighting about, what you are struggling over. Proceed point-for-point. Don’t be afraid to let the emotions out. Don’t try to suppress them. But always be honest and sincere with each other. And, at all costs, do not be political with each other. Do not treat each other as means to an end, but instead as ends in and of themselves.

Then, point-for-point, engage with each other about the your respective logics, about the deep-lying drivers of your thought and therefore of your action. Explain to each other how you think, why you think that way, where it comes from.

This will not be easy. Most of us don’t usually reflect on this. We think that our approach is universal and not country- or culture-specific. Identifying and then reflecting about our deeper-lying drivers is difficult enough. Explaining them to colleagues from another culture is even more of a challenge. We are simply not used to doing it. It is unfamiliar to us.

My thoughts  here  might be helpful.

U.S. Team loses customers

“Company is German. Headquarters is in Germany. Manager is American and working in U.S. Customers are in U.S.

Headquarters makes product changes without input from countries, including the U.S. Customers in U.S. do not like the product changes. Danger of losing customers. Manager escalates within headquarters.

Response: ‘Customers in U.S. are much smaller than those in Germany. Nothing can be done for customers in the U.S. Manager has to accept.’ Result: U.S. team loses customers.

How can the manager in the U.S. best address this problem?”

First, let’s take a look at the context.


Headquarters has their goals. They are under pressure, too. They have to see the world from a global perspective, to see the big picture. Their goals are corporate goals. Among them maintaining consistency, control, overview. Across the regions.

Keep in mind that headquarters seldom understands the regions. And how could they? Headquaters staff typically have little to no experience working in a region. It is difficult for them to see things from the regional (country) perspective.

Often it is not a question of willingness to listen, but an ability to understand. So be patient with your colleagues in headquarters. They are asked to deal with all of the regions. Multilateral relationships. A complex task.


In one respect the regions have it a bit easier. They focus on their country only. And they interface with headquarters only. It is a bilateral relationship. However, they have to hit their numbers. They’re under pressure. Understandably they want headquarters to help, and not hinder, them.

Keep in mind that the regions seldom understand headquarters. And how could they? Regional staff typically has little to no experience working in headquarters. It is difficult for them to see things from the headquarter (global) perspective.

Often it is not a question of willingness to listen, but ability to understand. So be patient with colleagues in the countries. They are asked to bring in the business. They pay the salaries of colleagues in headquarters.

Tension is healthy

Tension between headquarters and countries is natural, unavoidable. It is reality. And reality is always good because it’s all we have. But the tension itself is good, positive, a source of strength. If, however, acknowledged, addressed, understood, and managed cooperatively.

Headquarters can, and should, constantly learn from the regions. A whole is made up of its components. No components, no whole. The components are the key to success.

The regions, on the other hand, can learn much and benefit from headquarters. HQ keeps them informed about overall strategy. The countries benefit from approaches which HQ has harmonized and streamlined.

Headquarters and the regions are dependent on each other. Neither cannot succeed without the other. They have no other choice but to enter into, maintain and deeper their dialogue, constantly.

Dialogue is a must

And that conversation is always based on – cannot work without – first understanding eachother.

Headquarters has no other choice but to constantly strive to understand the business in the individual countries. The countries have no other choice but to constantly work on understanding what drives headquarters, how HQ tries to hold the whole thing together.

And that dialogue involves: Who speaks with whom. About what. Why. With what concrete influence on strategies, processes, decision making. And a whole host of other questions.

Diagrams vs. Prose

“Why do Americans prefer describing processes in prose text? Germans prefer diagrams, which can then be combined to illustrate processes. The German approach seems to be übersichtlicher (clear, clearly arranged).“

A interesting point!

Germans brief

I’ve seen many process documents in both cultures. The Americans seem to use both prose text and illustrations. In fact, Americans are famous for preferring pictures with some explanatory words over too much text. I agree, however, that many process and procedure descriptions can be lengthy in wording.

On the other side, German process descriptions do tend to be brief, often relying on illustrations and very limited prose text. Could it be that those who write the processes in Germany assume, and expect, that the reader need only see the illustration (the boxes and their connections) in order to understand what needs to be done?

Americans lengthy

On the flipside, could it be that American process descriptions assume that the reader is not familiar with the process, therefore it needs to be spelled out in prose text?

Implied in the fact that a process is documented is that those people who will read it are not necessarily familiar with it. If that is the case, then it makes sense for the document to go into detail, or more detail than its German counterpart.

Differences are key

The more fundamental question here, though, is what the different approaches to such documents tell us about the differences between Americans and Germans when it comes to processes and procedures. Documents are no more than representations of logics, approaches, methods, ways of doing things.