Germans view conflicts as fundamentally negative and discomforting. Escalating conflict should only be an option of last resort. And since effective leadership is expected to anticipate and prevent conflicts within their organization, those conflicts which have become known are a sign of leadership failure.
In the American context conflicts of interest are a fact of life. Escalation is not only often necessary, the individual has a fundamental right to seek resolution, to „have his day in court.“ A third party – almost without exception the next management level – is called upon to judge. In fact, effective leadership is defined, among other things, by its ability to resolve conflict.
Germans are surprised, irritated, at times shocked, at how often and quickly their Americans colleagues raise a conflict to the next management level. Escalation is a sign of their failure at the working level. Competent, professional, rational people are expected to resolve their differences among themselves.
Americans see how conflicts among and with German colleagues go unresolved, or unresolved for too long. The air needs to be cleared. Colleagues should seek resolution openly and self-confidently. German management should be engaged. „Isn‘t that what management is paid for?“
Advice to Germans
If you lead Americans, get ready to resolve conflicts on a regular basis. If you try to avoid them or to push them back down to the working level, you run the risk of being perceived as a weak leader who avoids conflict and/or is unsure about how to resolve conflict. Either way, your legitimacy as a leader will be undermined.
If you are a member in a transatlantic team, and come into conflict situations with your American colleagues, be prepared for those conflicts to be escalated rather quickly. Your American colleagues will be less inclined to go the extra mile with you in order to resolve the conflict at your level.
Advice to Americans
If you lead Germans, you may sense, hear about or even witness conflict among team members. Don‘t be surprised if they don‘t, or first after some time, ask for your assistance in resolving that conflict. This is neither a challenge to your leadership nor is it an indication that Germans like long, drawn out internal battles. Chances are, they are trying to resolve it themselves.
If you are in a transatlantic team and have a conflict of interest with a German colleague, don‘t be surprised if she discourages you from escalating the issue to the next level. The German attempt to resolve the problem with you personally should be taken at face value. Give it a chance.
If you have a German manager, be very careful about escalating the issue too early. In the German logic, you could be misperceived by all – German boss, German colleagues, German observers – as uncooperative, rash, possibly hot-headed.