We are currently in the process of onboarding a US retailer in our German laboratories. US colleagues working with the client here in the US and subsequently communicating the process and expectations to our team in Germany. And you can feel it – the culture clash. Our American team having high expectations, wanting to push it through as quickly as possible while our German team appeared hesitant and, to the frustration of our US team, very much bound to their internal processes, aka missing the flexibility our US team was hoping for.
Business culture: same but different ?
I had the honor to work with TUV Rheinland on three continents so far and often people are curious how differently I experienced the working cultures. Given the above example, I got curious about the difference in American and German work culture and wanted to share some of the key differences I found. These are based on my personal perception and are probably also impacted by many other factors such as the difference in size and age of the organizations.
1. Trust – but verify
The US – the land of attorneys and the risk of liability. I am not a lawyer and I am not sure about the reasons, but business in Europe is up to a certain extent based on trust and there is not always the need seen to define every detail. I can see how work with key customers is approached in the different regions. Here in the US, it is custom to have extensive protocols leading to enormous test reports, making sure that every detail was considered. Or in case anything was not considered, to make sure there is record of it.
I don’t see that commonly from our European clients. They will define key aspects of the work but details on how things are interpreted or carried out are often up to us. Which also makes me feel that in Europe these business relationships are often seen as an equal partnership, whereas here in the US it is somewhat implied that while being a service provider you are in a lower position.
2. Speed – High vs. low
The American work ideal is all about the rolling up your sleeves, working hard and getting things done. Including the willingness to make a certain sacrifice in the honor of speed. How something is accomplished is not important as long as you do it fast. Whereas the German work ethics is very deeply rooted in quality, speed is important, too but you don’t let it get in the way of high-quality standards. Germans often believe that something has to be perfect to be deliverable
3. Flexibility – must-have vs. nice-to-have
I feel this is a big one. My perception is that there is much more flexibility given to employees here in the US but at the same time there is much more flexibility expected. What do I mean by that? More flexibility is given to employees how to create their work life. In our team, no one here is exactly measuring how many hours you work. It’s so common to provide employees the flexibility to work from home or anywhere they want and it’s really up to the employee how to plan their time. When I listen to my colleague in Germany on the other side, it always appears like a huge achievement if the company even allows working one day from home. The flipside of the coin is, though, that there is also more flexibility expected on the employee’s side with regards to their job responsibilities. The famous learning-by-doing-concept is the culture here. People often and easily change positions and entire fields throughout their professional life. Also, with the common hire and fire culture, where you can literally be jobless the next day much more flexibility and openness is required. In Germany, the career path is more likely going to look like you graduating in one field, which will determine your professional future.
4. Vulnerability – to be human and no machine
That might sound cliché and it certainly is to some extent, but we Germans are perfectionists! There is some kind of expectation that deliverables have to be perfect before they can be presented. While I often feel that in the US there is a mentality of ‘we will get there on the way’. It’s ok to express that you are also just learning that in front of colleagues or even customers. Perfection is not so important, while the intention and motivation to grow and improve is valued very highly.
5. Process-orientation – Quick vs. haste makes waste
This one might be specific to the set-up of our German vs our US operation. Our team here in the US is new and small. It’s a ‘we will have to make it happen’ and ‘anything can happen’ mentality. Everybody is involved in everything and there are not many processes and structures to rely on. Quick reactions are expected in order to put our best foot forward with new customers. Though, this is not always the reaction we are receiving from our colleagues in Germany. And most of the time this is not due to bad intentions on their side. But it’s due to the process they have to follow. The process, which is in place to split the work amongst their huge organization and which many times leads to reactions like ‘I can help you this far, but the rest is the responsibility of that other colleagues‘. This can often lead to frustrations on both sides, colleagues in Germany experiencing us as pushy while colleagues in the US often feeling slowed down and not being able to move forward and provide the service to clients which they wish they could.