Eliminate the Similarity Illusion for Transatlantic Business Success

We tend to assume similarity. When people look similar, dress similar, have similar cultural origins, and share similar values it is easy to conclude that they are similar in many aspects of life. This misconception can be quite prevalent among business people from North America and Western Europe.

Ever since the launch of The Culture Mastery we have had many opportunities to work on major transatlantic projects. Most of them involved German and U.S. partners, others included stakeholders from France, Spain, and Portugal. In this context, one of the most common issues we are dealing with is what we refer to as the Similarity Illusion. While the United States and Canada have a lot of behavioral traits in common with many European cultures, the illusion many companies on both sides of the Atlantic fall for is assuming that these commonalities translate into business practices. Reality, as they inevitably find out, is different. And failing to address the differences can be costly. 

The Cautionary Tale of a Dysfunctional Transatlantic Marriage


One well-known case of a transatlantic debacle is that of the failed merger between Germany’s Daimler and Chrysler of the United States. In 1998 the two automakers announced that they will combine operations in an attempt to form a global car manufacturing powerhouse. It was presented to the public and to investors of both companies as a “merger of equals” – which was a thinly-veiled, and contrived stab at hiding the reality that German management was taking control of the U.S. organization. In their case study about the cross-cultural issues of the DaimlerChrysler merger (which was reversed in 2007) the team of CrossCulture highlights some of the key mistakes companies and their leaders make when conducting transatlantic business.

Diversity in communication styles would lead to early misunderstandings, but later procedural and structural differences would raise their heads. US corporations usually have strictly centralized reporting. Large German companies often feature decentralization and compartmentalization. Each department reports vertically to its department head. Horizontal communication across departments at different levels is practically taboo. Departmental rivalry is much more acute than in the US. In this area German managers tend to be extremely touchy. Americans are more thick-skinned. Americans go from office to office in their gregarious manner. German offices are strongholds of privacy, usually with doors shut. American managers chase their staff around the building exchanging views (“Say, Jack I’ve just had a great idea”). Germans by contrast like to do the job on their own. (No monitoring, please, until the end of the day). American managers like to shower good executives with praise  (“You’re doing a heckuva job!”) German staff expect no praise from the boss. They are paid to do the job efficiently.

Assumptions of Similarity are Often Misleading

These differences are not limited to the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler merger. We have been experiencing them in every German-American project we worked on. It is especially pronounced with first-time transatlantic expatriate managers who arrive in the United States. They are often underprepared for the North American way of communicating. There appears to be a tendency to assume that, either they learned enough about American communication patterns via literature and media consumption, and/or communication styles are very similar and thus, differences can be neglected.

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The communicative trouble typically begins when managers who cross cultures for work do not detect or even ignore the gap in behavioral preferences. This isn’t just a phenomenon with Europeans coming to the U.S.; many of their American counterparts also lack the ability to realize that their new colleagues from Germany or Austria share information differently. That’s when intercultural team building efforts can hit a roadblock.

Consider the contrasting ways feedback is presented. Different cultures employ different modes of praise or criticism. And Americans are known to give more positive feedback than any other culture – a lot more. Germans on the other hand – not so much. I’ve written about this for Harvard Business Review using the example of Stephanie Müller, a German-born marketing executive for a global engineering company in the U.S.:

German bosses certainly appreciated their employees, but they were not accustomed to praise them for their work in the way that Americans are typically praised. In Germany, you’re expected to do your job, and when you do, you don’t need to be praised for it, unless it’s for something truly exceptional. In fact, being singled out in this way, especially in a public setting, can be embarrassing. For these reasons, Stephanie didn’t praise her American employees — but unfortunately, that lack of recognition led them to feel under-appreciated and ultimately leave the firm.

Culturally Appropriate Feedback is a Tricky Skill to Master

What’s critical today for anyone working globally is to recognize that what is constructive feedback in one culture may be considered discouraging in another culture, and what’s considered respectful in one culture might be considered impolite in another.

Below you’ll see a chart comparing the six cultural dimensions according to Geert Hofstede for the Unites States and Germany. It shows corresponding values for Germany and the U.S. on the Power Distance Index (The degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.) and on the Masculinity Dimension (Represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as “tough vs. tender” cultures.).


You also see significant disparities in the four other dimensions. Americans tend to be much more individualistic and risk-tolerant than Germans. And the fact that most U.S. business people measure their performance on a short-term basis is often a cause for conflict with their German team mates.

Of Peaches and Coconuts; of Football and the other Football

Many of these contrasting behaviors – in combination with the ones which can be similar – will affect the way business is done in transatlantic projects. Same isn’t always same and there are many examples we use in our training and coaching programs: friend ≠ Freund, peach ≠ coconut, and (American) football ≠ football soccer. Particularly the comparison of the two sports called football has proven to be an efficient metaphor for explaining the divergent methods of leading, managing, and inspiring between the United States and Germany. We are basing it on a chapter in John Magee’s book “Verstehen sich Deutsche und Amerikaner?” You’ll find an English version of the football section on Magee’s website.

So how can you avoid the pitfalls of the similarity illusion? Here are some first steps: Stay clear of stereotyping. Then learn and understand which behaviors will earn you the desired results. Understand that you can’t inject another culture. Cultural adaptation is a process of approximation. The closer you can stretch your behavioral muscle to shift towards the target culture, the higher your success rate will be.
Accept that training and exercising your adjusted behaviors will be a continuous practice. Qualified training, coaching, and mentoring will definitely help in this process.

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Comments 1

  1. Wow!! Another great article written by the one who has well over 10,000 hours experience in this field! And it’s not all about knowledge! It’s about the ability that Christian has to connect on a much deeper level!

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