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Executive Corner: The Importance of Rules – German vs. American

rw-admin | 09/02/2021

Written By: Joachim Woerner


Are Germans more rules oriented than Americans? 

An assessment of German company culture shows that German work culture is often characterized by a high degree of conformity. 

Looking at the big picture, German law calls for clear cut rules for all situations.  On the other hand, U.S. legal system focuses on interpretation of precedents.  For Germans things are black or white, while in the U.S. there a lot of grey tones. In addition to the published many rules and regulations, there are many unwritten, non-published rules for all walks of life.  Your apartment, where and how you travel, when you are out in public space, how you conduct yourself in the business world.  Often painful for foreigners and visitors to learn, because Germans are not bashful to point out a transgression, and that rather directly and forcefully. 

Germans follow those rules because following rules is part of their national make-up.  “Ordnung muss sein”, things must be in order, order must clearly be established.  Without rules there cannot be orderly conduct, there will be chaos.  

What about in organizations?  First, you need to understand that many German companies are focused on highly engineered, technical products that are sold on a premium quality (and premium price) basis. Quality is key, products must be produced the right way.  Manufacturing processes must be clearly defined, with detailed instructions that leave nothing to chance.  As such, not surprisingly, a recent assessment of several German companies’ management teams shows a much higher level of conformity than in US companies, sticking to the playbook, doing things the right way. 

Internationally experienced Americans may recognize some of these patterns when dealing with their German counter parts, whether they are family, friends, guest hosts, business partners, customers. But how do you act with this sense of cultural knowledge?  

First, and that applies to any perceived differences, take those at face value. As a former Carolina Panthers football coach used to say ‘it is what it is’. Realize that people are different. Don’t offer a value judgment. Just accept, not necessarily like, that they are different. It is sort of like agreeing to disagree. Differences are part of our lives and the capacity to accept these is a huge step toward a more productive world. Embracing them and finding ways to complement them can turn into a huge advantage. Now some practical advice to Americans dealing with Germans. Accept their rules-based structure and realize that comes with many advantages. Germans need structure and anything appearing with less or no structure will be frowned upon. Germans think black or white, while Americans are comfortable with many shades of grey. 

As far as advice for Germans, please accept that Americans are thinking and working differently. Work together and recognize that flexibility and thinking outside the box make for great attributes. America is different in many ways and a basic rule to do successful business is to recognize and accept those differences.