The Long and Short of It: Thinking and Planning Style Differences in USA and Germany
Next to individualism, long- vs. short-term term thinking is the trait that distinguishes German and Americans the most. Germans are famous for their ability to play the long game, whereas Americans tend to do
Opposite Directions of Logical Thought
Bob and Hans’ thought processes– generally speaking–start from opposite ends. Bob, as an optimistic American, needs only to answer the question “why not?” when test-driving an idea or plan. He’s from the culture that goads with “no risk, no fun” and cheers on with “just do it”. With those tailwinds pushing him forward, he can afford to tackle projects on a trial-and-error basis. What doesn’t work can be scrapped or improved. Easy-peasy.
Hans, on the other hand, has to work the “why?” angle. This means if he’s going to try something new or change something that already exists, he’d better have a darn tootin’ good reason for it. Germans play the long game, planning, discussing and re-planning every detail to prevent glitches up front. Thoroughness and accuracy are prized traits for the risk-skittish Germans. Gaps and mistakes make Hans feel exposed as less than competent. Nekkid, if you will. Poor Hans!
Real World Example
A client who was working with a US-counterpart on a joint venture once illustrated this to me years ago. My client sent said counterpart an Excel spreadsheet of “risk factors” that, in theory, could de-rail the project. Like a good German, my client had rows and columns full of risk factors along with the calculated degree of risk. The U.S. counterpart had no idea what to make of the table and felt spooked by the perceived negativity of it all. Not surprisingly, the partners eventually went their separate ways.
From the US-perspective, the German was spending too much time on details that may or may not come to fruition, while from the German perspective, the American was being too cavalier about real potential hazards, likely or not. Each saw the other as holding up the project; one for planning too long-term and one for seemingly refusing to plan. Weird, huh?
Influence of Job Security
At risk of sounding like a broken record, I do have to throw employment at will back into the mix. Because of the comparative lack of job security in the USA, managers and employees have to produce results quickly. I’m going to say this again loud for the Germans in the back: planning, discussing and analyzing do not count as “doing” in many (but not all) work contexts. If your US-colleague seems to be pushing for decisions/actions that don’t feel fully ripened to you yet, this could be a reason why.
Other Possible Contributing Factors
Also worth mentioning is that many Germans work at companies that are not on the stock market, which liberates them from having to produce short-term, quarterly reports for shareholders. Still, these companies often need to survive in the same waters as the conglomerates, so this factor probably plays a lesser role.
So, what does this mean for Germans and Americans who find themselves in a business relationship?
For Germans: To the extent that you can, build actionable, measurable milestones into your planning, and hand the reigns over to your U.S. counterpart to accomplish them. Also, to the degree you can stomach it, go Zen with a spot of risk here and there, if doing so will move things along. And, maybe boil your jam-packed excel spreadsheets down to their most essential elements. Please and thank you.
For Americans: Sometimes, we really could save ourselves headaches later by planning a bit more into the future. A good thought experiment is to start from the worst-case scenario (I know, I know…way out of your comfort zone) and work backward from there—from that perspective, glitches and their impacts may be easier to anticipate and prevent. It’s a muscle we exercise so infrequently that we don’t always even know which problems to anticipate. That’s when you turn to your German counterpart, who’s an expert at problem analysis. Coupled with and complemented by your solution-focused optimism, you both have the potential to make a great team!
“L” is for “Long-term planning”. We’re making some real progress on our trip through the alphabet! Stay tuned next week for “M”…