In Germany follow-up is infrequent. Once an agreement has been made neither party feels the need to contact the other in order to inquire about the status or priority of that agreement. Agreed is agreed.
And agreements are meant to be held. The priority of an agreement remains at the level it was assigned when entered into. There should be no need to verify or reinforce the importance of an agreement.
In the American context, because people enter into many agreements and on a constant basis, follow-up is essential. It is how Americans maintain a common understanding of the status and priority of any given agreement. In many cases, parties to an agreement arrange predetermined times to communicate with each other. In other words, they schedule their follow-up.
Frequent follow-up can be interpreted as lack of trust or even as a form of controlling. Germans will ask themselves: „Do they think we forget the agreements we‘ve entered into? Do they think that we make promises which we don‘t intend to keep? Are they implying that we are not reliable?“ Their reaction will be one of discomfort, irritation, impatience.
If follow-up does not occur, one party gains the impression that for the other party the status or priority of the agreement has changed. „Hmm, odd, I haven‘t heard from my German colleague since last week when he requested that report. Perhaps he got a copy from another source. I suppose he‘ll call if he still needs it.“
Other tasks, projects or agreements are then seen as more important. The danger is evident. The German colleague saw no reason to follow up. She, indeed, is expecting to receive the report by the date agreed to. The American colleague assumes the opposite, however.
Advice to Germans
Increase your use of follow-up by 100%. Your American colleagues will judge it to be neither a sign of mistrust nor control, but of cooperation and teamwork. Follow-up helps them to better understand how the agreement fits into your and their work context.
The communication will also allow you and your colleague to respond quickly to changing parameters. At the same time, explain to your American colleague when and how follow-up is appropriate in the German context.
Advice to Americans
Explain to your German colleague as early as possible the function of follow-up in the American context. Warn them of your need to remain up-to-date on your various agreements.
Then ask that colleague when and in which mode (telephone, e-mail, face-to-face meeting) interim communication is acceptable. At the same time, try to reduce your need for follow-up with your German colleagues by 50%. It won’t be easy for you, but it will be helpful.