Working with Germans poses a challenge for both French and American professionals. Even though today’s managers are aware of cultural differences, they struggle to deal with them effectively on a daily basis.
Only yesterday, I sat down with two French professionals who relayed how difficult working with Germans can be. One complained about a detail-obsessed German colleague at the World Bank. The other recalled difficulties in negotiating a contract with a large German pharmaceutical group. Both experiences resonate strongly with my feelings about running post-electoral negotiations in Berlin. Since the election was held on September 24th, Merkel’s party have been trying to build a new government, albeit unsuccessfully, according to this New York Times article
Is working with Germans that challenging?
While Americans define an objective and work immediately to implement solutions, Germans spend much more time collecting all relevant data. There are a couple of reasons behind this habit.
First, Germans are used to making decisions based on “hard” facts, and they’ll feel deeply uncomfortable if they don’t have all information needed to make a decision. Second, reliability is highly regarded in Germany, not only in terms of punctuality but also for project organization and product quality.
Consequences are visible in projects within German companies: all departments have to be informed and agree to all development steps. This takes time—a lot of time. Once a decision is made, Germans are reluctant to challenge it, as this would require restarting the lengthy process of gathering information, discussing details in committees, and submitting and implementing recommendations.
For Americans focused on quick problem-solving, the German way may seem slow and inefficient. The American work philosophy generally prefers quick solutions with a few flaws that can be fixed at a later date.
In contrast, Germans complain about the poor quality of American products and the need to enhance their requirements significantly in order to get satisfying results. Germans would rather consider all relevant details from the beginning in order to work toward the best solution.
Of course, these concepts are often at odds and therefore create frustration in German-American business engagements.
Finding the best way to work with Germans
Yesterday, my French colleague shared a suspicion that his German partners may have postponed signing contracts on purpose. At times, this practice allowed them to refuse responsibility for some issues that arose during their collaboration. Without being familiar with the details, I assume that the German business persons were playing it safe because their need for certainty was not fulfilled.
Germans are expected to be experts in their area of work, and engineers are held in high regard. In fact, technical experts—not lawyers or accountants—run most major companies in Germany.
As a positive consequence, however, Germans often deliver 110% with each solution and stick to the established schedule, at least in the private sector. You can read more about German punctuality in my older post, “German punctuality: Myth or reality?”.
In the case of the World Bank, my French colleague shared his annoyance by the German obsession with details, but he has also found a way to work around this dilemma. He leaves his colleague to delve into the details of a project while he moves forward to the next step. I’d dare to call this a complementary approach.
Do you have any similar experiences in French-German or French-American business to report?