How Germans and Americans Handle Feedback in the Workplace

By John Magee

Feedback is essential to the performance of each individual and of every team. It has two goals: to improve on weaknesses, and to build on strengths. Feedback helps colleagues know where they stand in the team.

Feedback, both formal and informal, is complex, however. Its underlying assumptions, intentions and signals must be understood for feedback to be truly effective. Misapplied feedback, in contrast, easily damages the morale and motivation of an otherwise well performing individual or team.

Germans and Americans handle feedback differently. The differences in approach all too often have a negative effect: demotivation, a sense of injustice and in the end poor performance.

Team members often do not recognize criticism carefully wrapped in praise and are therefore not sure where and how they can improve on their weaknesses. Another team member hears only critique and judges it as exaggerated, destructive and unfair. Neither team member has an accurate sense of where they stand in the eyes of their team lead or colleagues.

Let's take a closer look at two aspects: How American and German handle praise and critique.

Praise

German Approach

Positive thinking in the German business context is not unimportant. Germans differentiate more strictly, however, between a realistic can-do attitude and overly optimistic naive actionism. Germans give praise in direct connection with factually demonstrated performance. Praise in front of the team is and official awards, however are rare, for fear they could lead to envy and thus undermine cohesion.

American Approach

Americans see themselves as positive thinkers, motivators, self-motivators.It is a sign of leadership to seek reasons to praise. In fact, praise is most instrumental when a team is struggling, experiencing defeat and self-doubt. And a concrete symbol of praise is official recognition in the form of awards. Americans want to be rewarded for good work. Awards ceremonies, small and large, are a key instrument of positive feedback.

German Perception

American praise comes across to Germans as inflationary, as simply unwarranted. Theay fear a creeping self-delusion.

American Perception

Germans are seen as "praise stingy." Criticism is direct, harsh, in generous supply. Germans miss opportunities to motivate by recognizing good performance.

Recommendations to Germans

If you are in an American team, be prepared for folks who say good things about you and to you. Accept it. Maybe you deserve it. Life isn't a zero sum game. Praise for one person doesn't come at the expense of another. Allow yourself to be motivated by a positive, self-motivating environment. You won't become a naive dreamer suddenly committing one unforced error after the other. If you lead Americans, get generous. Praise, motivate, cheer your team on to victory. Their victory is your victory.

Recommendations to Americans

There is a German saying which states, "the absence of criticism is
praise enough." German praise comes in a very understated way. You'll feel like a flower receiving insufficient water and sun. You'll need to motivate yourself more than ever before. Fine. Do it. You'll develop inner strength. If you lead Germans, practice the German art of sober understatement. If you decide to single out a team member, include praise for the entire team. Avoid any kind of star creation.

Critique

German Approach

Germans focus on reducing errors. When providing feedback they concentrate on weaknesses. Germans address weaknesses directly, openly and in a neutral, matter-of-fact way.

American Approach

Americans focus less on reducing errors. When giving feedback they concentrate on strengths. Critique is communicated in a carefully worded, diplomatic way.

German Perception

The American style of wrapping criticism in euphemisms and politically correct language is often difficult for Germans to decipher. The more critical the message, the more likely an American will formulate it in positive terms. Americans can come across as unwilling to address problems for what they are, problems and not issues or challenges.

American Perception

The German focus on the reduction of unforced errors is seen by Americans as short-sighted, defensive in character. All too often critique is voiced without suggestions of how one can improve on their individual weaknesses. Germans come across as overly, at times unfairly, critical.

Recommendations to Germans

Americans are neither naive nor ignorant about their weaknesses. When addressing their weaknesses be less direct and literal. Choose positive, supportive language. Note the things which are going well. Never criticize without suggesting a way to improve. If you are led by an American be prepared for more praise than you expect. Accept it. Be sure, however, to ask for more input on your weaknesses. You'll get it, eventually.

Recommendations to Americans

Germans see the road to success largely via a minimization of errors. When receiving feedback, be prepared for a strong focus on what you are not doing well, and far less on what is working. This will come across as direct, harsh, imbalanced. It is meant to be helpful, for why focus on what works? If you have Germans in your team, acknowledge the need to improve on weaknesses. Focus more attention on what is not working. But, continue to combine critique with improvement suggestions.

About the Author:
John Otto Magee is an American who has lived in Germany for 25+ years. He was a senior-level staff member of the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group in the Bundestag from 1995 until 1999, advising its leadership on the relations between the United States and Germany. He was a consultant for Siemens AG from 1999 until 2002 supporting the post-acquisition integration of Westinghouse Power Corporation. Since 2002, John has been an independent consultant, advising global companies on cross-border collaboration.

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