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Establishing Relations in Germany

April 1, 1997
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
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Consider the case of one American-German partnership that started off on the wrong foot. Terri Morrison, president of Getting Through Customs based in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania and co-author of the book "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands" shares the story of an American manager with a U.S. company purchased by a German firm. This manager made the trip overseas to meet his new boss.

Morrison explains: "He gets to the office four minutes late. The door was shut, so he knocked on the door and walked in. The furniture was too far away from the boss’ desk, so he picked up a chair and moved it closer. Then he leaned over the desk, stuck his hand out and said, ‘Good morning, Hans, it’s nice to meet you!’"

The American manager was baffled by the German boss’ chilly reaction. As Morrison reveals, in the course of making a first impression he had broken four rules of German polite behavior: punctuality, privacy, personal space and proper greetings. This first meeting ended with both parties considering the other rude, a common result of cross-cultural misunderstandings.

A love of structure.
The most important thing to understand about Germans, according to both Morrison and Dean Foster, director of the cross-cultural training division of Princeton, New Jersey-based Berlitz International Inc., is that they have a high regard for authority and structure. "From our perspective, the Germans appear to us as people who are very compartmentalized, heavily emphasizing the structure, much more concerned about the process than what they’re doing," Foster explains. "Germans perceive Americans as being far too fluid, far too mushy, far too unfocused."

Germans’ love of structure can mean that communicating through their organizations will take a little longer, as employees participate in consensus-building conversations and check to make sure everything is in order before moving ahead to the next phase. This sense of structure extends to the physical world and influences even personal appearances. Morrison notes Germans tend to stand straight up, rarely putting their hands in their pockets and never slouching in a meeting. German greetings are formal, always employing the use of titles such as doctor or professor. And German companies are full of offices with closed doors.

The easygoing, familiar demeanor of an American businessperson clashes with these German values. Morrison warns: "You don’t want to take the attitude of the laid-back American. ...Being an entrepreneur is wonderful and is respected around the world, but when you go to Germany, [the Germans] respect authority." Among other things, Germans respect big names and big numbers. If you work for a company with name recognition and you have an impressive title, play these things up on your business cards. Also emphasize the number of years a company has been in business or the number of workers your organization employs.

How to prepare.
So how can you put all this information to use? First off remember that Germans like to work with a lot of data. So proving to them that you have found a better way of doing something will take more than a demonstration of how well your way works. Germans are likely to ask: How did you reach that conclusion? What was your method? Foster recommends being prepared to present your evidence. And part of that is going into the discussion knowing what the German way of doing the same thing is.

If expatriates will be giving presentations in Germany, Morrison advises they have all sorts of documentation with them and that their presentation materials are thoroughly researched. And HR should advise employees not to start out with a joke or a funny story. Germans don’t appreciate humor in a business setting.

Germans prefer not to mix business with pleasure. Creating a friendly work environment to encourage productivity seems to be an American concept. Advise expatriates not to be disheartened when they find this isn’t a universal work style. "The warm and friendly atmosphere may develop over time, but at first you have to establish respect and you do that by acknowledging the level, the status, the achievements and the rank of your colleagues—and they, in turn, [will do so] with you," Foster explains.

This doesn’t mean the Germans don’t form close relationships, or that they are a less emotional people, as some stereotypes would suggest. In fact, Germans would say that Americans are too casual in their offhand manner of forming friendships. Foster says, "The complaint I’ve heard over and over from Germans is that you can’t get close to Americans. They appear friendly when they shouldn’t be—there’s no place for that in business. But when you finally get to know [Americans], they never want to make that deep commitment."

The glass ceiling.
The glass ceiling is a little lower in Germany than in the United States, meaning women have to work harder to establish that highly regarded sense of respect from work colleagues. Morrison explains: "Women have pretty high positions in government—and that’s all. Women generally don’t have big-deal jobs in private industry."

She shares an anecdote from a senior-level American woman on a U.S. team that met with a German team in the course of the merger of their two companies. The woman was extremely frustrated. The Germans wouldn’t address her in the course of the discussion.

Fortunately this is fixable. Remembering that credibility is a key issue, managers need to put in extra effort to establish the authority of women team members. If a woman is in charge of a team, the men on the team need to support her. Morrison says: "When a question is addressed to the U.S. group, [all the men in the group] need to look back at the [woman manager] and say: ‘Well, what do you think?’ If the team won’t do that, the [women managers] can’t win."

Foster says that women who are known authorities or experts in their field will be treated as respected work colleagues. So the trick is communicating and establishing that credibility. This is true of men too, just to a lesser degree. "I think [the Germans] need to know before the meeting who you are and why you’re the one selected to be there," he says.

He adds that in many cases it depends on the individual woman —and on the particular German: "As an American woman, it’s understood that you don’t necessarily have to follow the same rules." He continues: "But if you’re working with older and traditional German men, it still may be difficult for them to understand."

There’s much that binds the German and American cultures together. The people dress similarly, they live in democracies and they have an equal interest in the bottom line. But the challenge is to uncover the differences. Being aware of these differences greatly improves your odds for a successful business relationship.

Global Workforce, April 1997, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 16-17.

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