Business culture in a global company: USA vs. Germany - TÜV Rheinland

Business culture in a global company: USA vs. Germany

Business culture in a global company: USA vs. Germany

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.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Melanie
    This is a great article that I feel everyone who is embarking upon a joint USA German project should read and digest. I am based in the USA and am lucky to have many interactions with my colleagues in Germany and although we share many values the culturally diverse opinion as to what constitutes standard operating procedure can be challenging, especially when it is not clearly documented. I often hear stories of my colleagues from both countries becoming frustrated with their counterparts from overseas, especially when we rely upon the medium of email.

    I find there are two critical skills that we need to develop and deploy if these projects are to be successful which are; continual and clear communication and cultural empathy. I would argue that of these two empathy is the more important. But before we can start to truly empathize with our counterparts it is necessary to understand their culture i.e. what they are doing and more importantly why they are doing it and for this to be achieved we need to establish and maintain great communication channels. The more we interact and travel and build relationships within our teams the more effective and efficient they become.

    I am often asked by my friends, what are the challenges of working for a famous Germany company like TUV and how does it differ from working for American companies. My usual response is that if managed correctly a joint German / USA project team is the very best of both worlds. Americans are highly objective focused which usually includes a time component, when given an objective they will achieve this whatever the cost, if necessary they will disregard procedures, rules, hierarchy, whatever else gets in the way of achieving the objective. From my experience Germans tend to be far more process orientated. More time and consideration is placed into planning and defining how the objective is to be achieved, resulting in a far more structured and detailed approach.

    Both approaches have their merits and their weaknesses, the American approach will result in quick results achieving a moderate percentage of the initial objectives, however sustaining these projects post implementation may be difficult, the German approach will take longer and may miss deadlines, however once completed a high percentage of the initial objectives will be achieved and post implementation management may be easier.

    In the modern world the speed of technological change has resulted in a new industrial landscape, where projects can become obsolete before they are completed and speed to market is becoming the most important measure of success. Pair this with the rise of social media and with it a new era of corporate transparency and we are facing a unique set of challenges that we (TUV) should be ideally placed to address. For if we can balance the German approach to structure, planning and detail with the American obsession with speed and results then a truly world class approach can be achieved that will fit perfectly with the evolving industrial landscape.

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