When I work with German/U.S. American design teams, I can almost bet that at some point the conversation will turn to “evolution or revolution.” It is a very important part of the German-U.S. work relationship. Germans typically make the point that designing something requires evolution. The best thing to do is continually improve upon what has already been done. Why? Because so much effort and research went into the previous design, it is already great. If an improvement can be made on something that is already great, one can be assured that it will evolve into something even better. The U.S. American perspective is to always consider something even more exceptional by taking a risk to make a revolutionary improvement, perhaps changing a critical element of the recent design. This difference between these two cultures can cause friction in a global team. “Improvement” is not the issue. The issue is how the improvement is addressed – an “evolution” or a “revolution.”
How do you spell “Thank You”?
Feeling appreciated is one of our basic needs as human beings, both in our personal and professional relationships. We want to have our efforts acknowledged and not taken for granted – be it as members of a team, a family, or a community. Many relationships are not functioning at their highest potential because one person does not feel appreciated and the other person has no idea why. Just as the simple word “Yes” has very different meanings in different cultures, appreciation can be expressed and experienced in many different ways. As a mediator, I often translate for individuals and organizations who do not speak the same language of appreciation. For one person, “Thank You” may be spelled as a number – in the form of a salary raise or an expensive gift. For another person, “Thank You” may be spelled in words – in the form of public praise, an award, or an eloquent letter of gratitude. For yet another person, monetary or symbolic recognition may be meaningless, and “Thank You” needs to be spelled in action – respectful communication, sensitivity to special needs, consideration for someone’s wellbeing, or simply time spent together. Learning how someone spells “Thank You” often makes the difference in whether a personal or business relationship withers or thrives. What is your language of appreciation?
The Power of Power – Official and Unofficial
As a senior director of public relations and communication in two international luxury item companies, I have worked in many countries, with many cultures, and with most levels in the organization. I have seen (and experienced!) so many times the “power of power.” By this I mean that power does not only refer to rank and hierarchy. In all of my business dealings, I work with “official” and “unofficial” power. Official power typically resides in the proverbial “corner office”, big car or in the C-suite. One has earned their power and they are expected to demonstrate their power through transparent and knowledgeable instruction. It is important that one understands international culture in order to communicate effectively with the client and understand the official power. Just as important, one must understand the organization culture in order to understand the unofficial power. Unofficial power is derived from relationships and longevity in the company. When we get to know the client very well, we learn how power is distributed and utilized and we understand (at least to a point) the unofficial power distribution. I love working with cultures. I get to know every aspect of everyone I work with and I help them to be successful in their global adventure. What could be better?
As a former German expatriate working in the U.S. (I am now a U.S. citizen!), I have lived and breathed the need for cross-cultural understanding. I had no training prior to coming to the U.S., and I cannot tell you how important it is to have this preparation. Here is an example of a typical question that I get in my trainings about working with Germans. During one training at a leadership seminar, an HR manager asked, “Could you please tell me why my German counterpart does not want to be my friend? She is so rude when I email her to ask for something.” Well, I paused here for a moment, then decided to be brutally honest (the way Germans are perceived by U.S. Americans anyway). “She does not want to be your friend. She is just working with you.” Of course, I went into more detail after the laughter subsided. German business culture mostly separates friendship and work. Germans build work relationships in the workplace and social relationships outside of the workplace. The two are separate but complimentary. There were a lot of “wide eyes” in that audience (from both the Germans and the U.S. Americans) after I said that. If they had learned this before starting to work together, I daresay there would have been far fewer bad feelings and possibly a much nicer workplace.
Negotiation involving Latin American and European cultures can be very challenging, particularly when the business relationship between the parties is broken. I was a legal advisor in a case involving Mexican entrepreneurs and representatives of a large German company. The parties were in conflict about the use of a footwear technology. I was able to ascertain in person the significant differences regarding negotiating behavior. Generally speaking, Latin American cultures (particularly Mexico) tend to be more emotional and social, even in the business environment. This behavior could be considered by some Europeans as a lack of seriousness or totally inappropriate in a business setting. But the truth is that for most Latin American cultures, socializing and showing emotions at the business table makes more sense in order to build and maintain long-term business relationships, even if conflict arises. When facing these differences of approach to negotiation it is of paramount importance to lead each team to the understanding and respect of the other culture. This ensures that every party involved is receptive and open to the messages they are receiving from the other during the negotiating process. When we are receptive not only to what the business entails but also to other circumstances surrounding the business (such as culture, interests and even individual needs), it is easier to reach settlement agreements that make more sense for all the parties.
Know Your Audience
Bess de Boer
My professional life has encompassed a wide range of experience, from courtroom lawyer to facilitator of major international endeavors in various business sectors. Despite this breadth in experiences, two elements have remained constant: the importance of culturally-sensitive negotiation and conflict management skills. In attempting to make a winning argument in a contentious legal battle to resolving conflict with a 150-person international crew in the middle of the Moroccan desert, I have learned that understanding the person on the other end and being aware of how I present my argument is pivotal to creating trust and a willingness to engage. I have seen powerful arguments and well-reasoned positions delivered without impact, leaving all sides puzzled as to the failure of the communication. It is not enough to simply push a position across the proverbial negotiating table. Every time we convey a message we are dealing with a human being on the other end which makes for a far more complex set of parameters that need to be considered, especially across cultures.