When “Meeting Culture” Meets Culture: Differences and Similarities between German and American Business Meeting Norms
Meeting culture is a broad term for an increasingly complex category of business interaction. Around the world, today’s business meetings can be formal or informal, in-person or virtual, fixed or ad hoc. For the purposes of this post, I will consider all of the above in analyzing how cultural norms enhance or de-rail a productive transaction between companies in Germany and the USA.
The Common Ground
First, I’ll put in a word to similarities. Amongst German and American employees, meetings appear to enjoy an equally dubious status as anything from a necessary evil, to–in the worst case–an unproductive time-killer. Jokes about meetings abound in both cultures, as do books and articles about how to make them more productive. Prominently-displayed “Meeting Rules” are a staple of many conference rooms on both sides of the ocean.
Furthermore, both Germans and Americans are sticklers for time and structure, which means they both expect meetings to begin promptly and move along according to a pre-determined and circulated agenda. Agreed-upon actions are typically documented in an action plan, to be followed up on at a later point in time (usually another meeting).
So far, so good. What could go wrong?
As with almost everything German-American, the stumbling blocks lie in the nuance.
For example, Germans will spend more time in meetings communicating about the issue at hand in a direct, unadorned way. This means they will correct, criticize or even contradict each other if they feel the facts compel them to do so. German employees are highly trained and specialized in their respective areas and therefore speak with a high level of assurance. Their intention is not to be rude or know-it-alls but rather to contribute to analyzing the problem with an eye toward impacting its solution.
Americans also aim for productive meetings, but this productivity includes maintaining work relationships by communicating in ways that emphasize agreement, positivity and accomplishment. This attention toward the personal level is an essential ingredient in keeping involved players motivated and engaged. As always, the comparative lack of codified job security makes informal aspects such as relationships all the more critical for U.S. employees to keep in forward-motion on the job.
The bottom line: Germans need to dial back on their impulses to criticize, correct or contradict their American counterparts in a meeting context. These types of communications are seen as being too negative for a productive meeting atmosphere. While praise and careful word packaging may come across to you as a waste of time, your U.S. counterparts expect it; while they may not consciously realize it, “feel good” communication is a necessary component of successful business for Americans.
Meetings to Micromanage?
Circling back for a moment to the part above about Germans generally being extensively trained and thus comparatively assured in their areas of expertise: Germans frequently express surprise to me about how intensely and how frequently they are expected to report on their work during meetings. It leaves them with a faint taste of being distrusted, or at the very least of being micromanaged.
In fact, Germans need to remember that American companies–and the employees in them– tend to operate less by carefully-developed processes and intensively-trained employees and more by trial-and-error, learning-by-doing principles. As such, managers carry more responsibility for the success/failure of a project, meaning they have to keep closer and more frequent tabs on its progress. If you respond to these regular check-ups with defensiveness or reluctance to cooperate, guess who the black sheep in the transaction will be? (If you just “Baaaaa-ed” in German, right you are!)
Be Informed about Informality
Germans often let their guards down in American meeting environments because the atmosphere often feels comparatively informal. This means folks often are on a first-name basis, engage in easy small talk, interject humor and are seemingly more spontaneous and positive in their meeting contributions.
This is the point where the red flag should start waving, however. A German with his/her guard down is a German who often goes full-throttle “facts-over-feels”, resulting in an unfortunate early reputation as a Debbie Downer. And I would just hate for that to happen.
Please be aware that while Americans are experts at creating what feels like a comfortable, friendly atmosphere, the unwritten rules of communication decorum are in play at all times. Until and unless you as a German are well-established and fully integrated into a group, keep phrases of positive communication within easy mental reach and become good enough at gift wrapping criticism that you could take the practice up as a second career.
“M” is for meetings, and with these above points in mind, I can send you with a clear conscience into a business meeting with American colleagues. Go get ’em!