Sensitive feedback discussions in the German business context are often done in one-to-one talks. There are situations, however, when Germans openly criticize a team-member in the presence of colleagues. This is not necessarily seen as unfair to that individual. In fact, open criticism within the team can be imperative in order to get issues up on the table.
Sensitive feedback discussions in the U.S. business context are always done in one-to-one talks. Discretion is highly important, especially when the feedback is negative. There is very low tolerance for open criticism of team members in the presence of their colleagues.
American managers can be overly discreet, rarely communicating negative feedback in the group. It seems as if critical problems are “swept under the rug”, dealt with “behind closed doors”, or not dealt with at all. Germans see this as a team weakness.
Americans are surprised when a German manager criticizes team members in the presence of colleagues. It comes across as an attack on that person, as disruptive, and threatening to team-cohesion. Word spreads quickly that a certain German team lead is abrasive, choleric, even abusive.
Advice to Germans
If you insist on openly criticizing a member of your American team, do so very carefully and very diplomatically. Remember, from the American perspective, any criticism of the team or of a team member is at the same time criticism of the person responsible for the team. That‘s you. If critical issues need to be addressed within the team, do not pin blame on any specific member. If you, nonetheless, want to assign blame, do so to yourself first.
Advice to Americans
Be prepared for German managers to openly criticize team members. It won‘t be pretty. However, this is not necessarily a sign of unprofessionalism. Remain calm. It won‘t be the end of that person‘s career, nor of yours should you be the target next time.
If you manage a transatlantic team, continue to maintain discretion when giving feedback. However, there will be instances when your German team expects critical, controversial issues to be discussed within the team. Avoiding those issues could be intepreted as a sign of weakness. Do not take on the German inclination of criticizing individuals openly. But, if you do, begin with yourself.