“Problem…or Challenge? Depends on your Mindset”


My German colleague, Katrin, once said during a cultural orientation program, “Americans never have problems; they only have challenges.” It was such an interesting comment (accurate or not) that started a provocative discussion about how culture creates a lens through which one makes sense of the world around them. In essence, culture creates a mindset.

German Team

Culture is a conglomeration of behaviors, perspectives, values, and attitudes. Combined together, it creates a mindset of “how things should be.” It colors the way we see the world. Interculturalists break down this mindset into component parts, and we analyze these parts when we work with our clients, providing insights and recommendations for business improvements.

“Uncertainty Avoidance,” is one of those parts. Uncertainty Avoidance is, “the degree to which a culture is willing to take a risk when confronted with uncertainty.” Cultures that have a high degree of Uncertainty Avoidance (UA) prefer to have a lot of data, may ask many questions, and may spend a great deal of time analyzing before taking the risk. Other cultures that have a lower degree of UA might be content with less information, taking the risk sooner and learning (and perhaps making changes) along the way. We would call the first example a “High Uncertainty Avoidance” (HUA) culture and the second a “Low Uncertainty Avoidance” (LUA) culture.

According to the GLOBE Study, Germany is a High Uncertainty Avoidance culture. It rates 5.35 [1] out of a 7.0. The US rates 3.99 on the same scale. The difference is significant. Comparatively, Germans tend to be more calculating, will take longer to analyze and tend to conduct extensive research before they make a decision. Americans will do the same, but they will make the decision quicker.

From a business perspective, UA is evident in the system of “checkpoints” required to go through when reaching a decision. Higher UA cultures tend to have many checkpoints, often requiring approval from those higher up. Lower UA cultures tend to have fewer checkpoints because individual contributors have the authority and are empowered to make decisions within the bounds of their job description.

The German way of deep analysis, due diligence, historical discovery, and multiple checkpoints takes time and patience. The process is more compartmentalized requiring multiple layers to go through before a decision is reached. The American way of rapidity and agility involves fewer checkpoints as individual contributors make decisions along the way. This takes less time and the process is more fluid.

Looking at UA as a mindset, Germans are cautious when they approach a dilemma. It is a “problem” that has a solution. Americans are competitive when they approach a dilemma. It is a “puzzle” that poses a challenge.

For Lower Uncertainty Avoidance Cultures (Venezuela, Spain, India and the USA, for example) that are working with Germans, consider the following actions:

  1. Do your homework: Be sure you can accurately define all aspects of the dilemma before you present it to your German colleagues.
  2. Take note of point 7 in Lothar Katz’ article, “The Post-Wall Generation – Do You Know your Team in Germany”: Explain any risk in clear detail, incorporating as much supportive data as possible into your argument.
  3. Be prepared for a debate: Germans will want to discuss your data so be prepared for debates and the need to defend your work. (Don’t take this as a personal attack. They are dissecting the data, not you!)
  4. Understand the process: Remember the checkpoints. Note Mr. Katz’ point 9 and find out who is responsible for what aspect of a decision so that you can understand the process.

Next! To expand your knowledge and skills in working with Germans and other cultures in global teams, request more resources and contact Charis at info@chariscorp.com or call U.S. 925.931.0555.


[1] The 5.35 score is for the former West Germany. The former East Germany rated a 5.19 score.