Monday, August 14, 2017


We talked last time about how the American pattern of decision-making is “top down egalitarian.” It follows two seemingly contradictory instincts: speedy decision-making in order to win by being “first out of the gate,” along with a reliance on limitless free expression as everyone talks through the process democratically. Other cultures –for example Germany and Japan—operate very differently, with their own brand of excellent results.

Compared with America, the German culture places more emphasis on hierarchy, as Japan does to the extreme. Both cultures are formal when addressing superiors, Japan with its pervasive honorifics, and Germany with titles that may include field of specialty, education, and position relative to the speaker (translated, for example, “Director Economist Doctor Schmidt”). Both cultures will seat the superior at a special place at the table, and give him/her in a private office with a closed door.

In terms of process –exploring problems with others, reaching consensus, arriving at decisions—the hierarchical Germans and Japanese are closer to each other than to the Americans.

Their communication patterns will differ, however. Germans are generally comfortable with English and its accompanying body language. Germans are direct (even more so than Americans, in fact) and value open and strong debate. Unlike Americans, they may boldly argue with the boss’s decision.

By contrast, the Japanese communication style is indirect, subtle, and harmonious in meetings, with disagreement permissible only behind the scenes.

But both groups are alike in critical ways. They value structure, punctuality, and organization over the fluidity of thought and process that Americans employ. This likely accounts for the high level of success these cultures have with mechanical execution (over random exploration and creativity, in which America excels). Their processes and products are precision-dependent, as seen, for example, in their superlative automobiles.

Regardless of cultural differences, when working in America, non-natives must adapt to the local way of communicating and expressing ideas from the outset. Only later in the process can the strengths of outside approaches benefit everyone. Next time we’ll discuss this, country by country.