An American in Berlin

German Feedback

“I started working for a German company a few years ago and was immediately excited to find that they had a culture of frequent feedback.

As the weeks went on, the feedback kept on coming. Very quickly, I began to see a pattern; it was almost entirely negative. All delivered amazingly well, with examples of how I’d fucked up alongside helpful guidance on how I might want to improve.

The onslaught continued; it was relentless. It became apparent to me that there was very little chance of me passing my probation period if this continued. So I buckled down, pushed myself to breaking point and put in those extra hours to save my job. But still, it kept continuing critical feedback, after critical feedback.

For the first time in my career, I was going to fail my probation period. There was no point in getting feedback on how I improve the situation. I was getting it daily. I was just shit.

So finally, my final probation review came around. Everything was excellent; the company was super happy with my progress and delivery. I passed my probation period with flying colours. But it had broken me. I was fried and burnt out.”

Feedback: Be a little German, Be a little American.

American Feedback

“I have recently started working in an entirely new industry, leading a small team. Shortly after joining, my team’s scope changed to a new problem space.

Again, this company had an active feedback culture and processes. Constant feedback was given to the team every two weeks from leadership. As we built the team and worked out how we were going to achieve our new goals, we got feedback all the time. And it was always positive.

This didn’t play well for me. I knew that there was no way that we could be that good, we were a team with little experience in what we were doing, how could we be doing that well? There must be areas for improvement.

As this continued, positive feedback began to feel more and more empty. I went hunting for critical feedback. Unfortunately, this manifested in me trying to find critical input for the team bellow me. I became overly focused on trying to find areas for improvement in the team.

The problem came to a head when one of my team said ‘I only get negative feedback from you, and I don’t know what to do about it.’ I was so focused on finding the negative areas that we could improve on, and I had not given any support for improvement. I had also failed to celebrate the positive.”

July 2021 – Massive Flooding

Daylong torrential downpours in the western part of Germany during the third week of July in 2021 led to catastophes in several town. Homes were destroyed. Automobiles swept through the streets. Dozens were killed. Either unwilling to evacuate their homes as or doing so too late.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, on her final trip to Washington as head of the German government, during the official press conference with President Joe Biden, consoled the German population with guarantees of federal assistance.

Armin Laschet, the Premier (governor) of the State of Northrhine-Westphalia, and the chancellor-candidate of the governing party Christian Democrats (think Adenauer, Kohl, Merkel) in the September elections, was on-site in the town ravaged by the flooding.

Malu Dreyer, the Premier of the State Rheinland-Palatinate, of the SPD (Social Democrats), was also on the scene in the hard-hit town of her state. They, and the mayors of the towns, were interviewed extensively.

Interestingly, from the American perspective, none of these leaders – federal, state, local – gave the kinds of words of encouragement and motivation that their American counterparts would have given, and routinely give in such situations.

An American would expect: “Folks, this is a catastrophe. This is aweful. But you know what? We’re Germans. We know how to handle these kinds of situations. It was not long ago that we had to pick up the pieces after the Second World War. It took decades. We can do this ! We will do this ! Because we’re Germans. We know how to do this. So let’s get to work !”

Mr. German Man is direct

An American woman. Married to a German man. How her husband is very direct. And about how Americans learn to be indirect, especially when giving negative feedback.

Warning ! This woman is a youtuber. And an American on top. So, she is more than a bit animated. And frankly, she could have made her points in about two minutes instead of seven and a half.

Watch the first three minutes.

Bernard Schriever – Black Saturday

In his book A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon (2010) author Neil Sheehan describes the life and work of Bernard Schriever, who is considered to be the father of the American nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Schriever and his military and civilian colleagues believed firmly that if both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed these weapons of mass destruction the probability of them being used actually would be decreased.

Schriever had to overcome strong institutional resistance within the U.S. Air Force whose leadership was convinced that manned aircraft﹣strategic long-range bombers﹣was the only way to maintain a credible deterrent against the Soviet Union.

Through telling the story of Bernard Schriever and the development of the American ballistic missile program from the end of Second World War up to the mid-1960s Sheehan tells the history of the Cold War, which would last up until the 1990s with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the unification of West and East Germany, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, and the freedom of Eastern Europe from Russian domination.

In a 2010 television interview (Booknotes on C-SPAN) Sheehan contrasted Schriever with his American-born military colleagues, Generals Paul Harkins and William Westmoreland, both who had overall command of U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.

Schriever would tell his subordinates that he would never fire anyone for failing, but instead for failing to inform him immediately of problems. For Schriever, as stated by Sheehan, success would take care of itself if one focused on solving the problems at hand. Go to minutes 25:10 to 26:50.

Sheehan had been a young war correspondent in Vietnam for United Press International (UPI), later with the New York Times. As told in his book A Bright Shining Lie (1989), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the American generalship during the Vietnam War was unwilling to accept that America was losing that war.

General Schriever, according to Sheehan‘s research, made clear time and again to the members of this organization, whether military or civilian, that he wanted timely and accurate reports on the problems the program was experiencing, and was far less interested in the progress made.

So-called progress reports had become common within the U.S. military after the Second World War, and according to Sheehan, symptomatic for an institution unwilling to face what was not working.

Bernard Adolph Schriever was born in 1910 in the German port city of Bremen. His father was an engineer. They immigrated to the U.S. only months before the U.S. entered the First World War in 1917.

Schriever grew up in New Braunfels, Texas, an area mostly populated by German immigrants. Read about his fascinating life in Wikipedia

Women’s Clothing Sizes

Modern standard sizes for women’s clothing first began in the 1940s in the U.S. However, women preferred smaller sizes, so over the course of the next several decades, the fashion industry began downsizing its sizes, so that a 16 in the 1940s was a 12 in the 1960s and a 6 in recent times.

Thanks to this downsizing there is also a large discrepancy between American and European sizes – an American size 10 is equivalent to a British 14.

Everyone Gets a Ribbon

Often in children’s sports and other contests (spelling bees, science fairs, etc.) in America, all of the contestants receive ribbons and trophies, no matter how poorly they perform at the events.

Kay Wyma, an American mother who writes articles for a parenting blog, once discussed volunteering to write ribbons during her child’s swim meet. At the event, every child and teenager (the meet was for children up to 16 years old) received a ribbon for every race in which they competed, no matter what place they received.

In an article from NPR (National Public Radio) American Jorge Perez, vice president of youth development and social responsibility for the YMCA, talked about former youth who had participated in sports at his YMCA, and how years later they still had the trophies and clearly valued them. Perez argued that these trophies were an important part of their lives – a way to say “I did this.”

“criticism my way”

“I like criticism, but it must be my way.” Mark Twain in his Autobiography

“I don’t mind what the opposition say of me so long as they don’t tell the truth about me. But when they descend to telling the truth about me I consider that this is taking an unfair advantage.” Mark Twain, 1879

„If you can‘t say anything positive”

Euphemism: The substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant: eliminate for kill; suboptimal for below standard; interesting for bad; issue or challenge for problem; career change, early retirement opportunity, career transition, involuntarily separation for being fired;

economically disadvantaged for poor; temporary negative cash flow for broke; substandard housing or economically depressed neighborhood for slum; collateral damage for deaths of women and children and old people; pre-owned vehicle for used car; adult beverages for alcohol.

Almost every American has at some point in their lives heard the statement „If you can‘t say anything positive, don‘t say anything at all.“ Americans are careful about giving negative feedback. Charles Schwab has been quoted: “I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”

Sandwich Method

The sandwich method is describes the American approach to giving negative feedback. Its goal is to communicate criticism in a way which will avoid demotivating the other person. Like a sandwich with a slice a bread on both the top and the bottom, praise is given at the beginning and the end of the feedback talk. In the middle is the substance of the conversation, the points of criticism. Open with praise. Communicate criticism. Close with praise.

Is there anything new about this? Research on the American approach to communicating criticism over the last fifty to one hundred years would probably show that it is not. American ears know to listen carefully after the positive has been said. They listen for the nuances, the terms used, especially the euphemisms. This makes it all the more complex and difficult to understand for non-Americans, regardless of strong their command of the English language.

„You did a fine job.“

Steve Jobs – Merciless Criticism

An article on Jony Ive, the head of design at Apple Computer, in the New Yorker Magazine from February 23, 2105 touches on how the late Steve Jobs gave constructive feedback:

“Jobs’s taste for merciless criticism was notorious. Ive recalled that, years ago, after seeing colleagues crushed, he protested. Jobs replied, ‘Why would you be vague?,’ arguing that ambiguity was a form of selfishness: ‘You don’t care about how they feel! You’re being vain, you want them to like you.’

Ive was furious, but came to agree. ‘It’s really demeaning to think that, in this deep desire to be liked, you’ve compromised giving clear, unambiguous feedback,’ he said. He lamented that there were ‘so many anecdotes’ about Jobs’s acerbity: ‘His intention, and motivation, wasn’t to be hurtful.'”

Steve Jobs. More German than American logic.