Reaction to U.S. ideas typifies Europe’s diversity

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

In the November issue I shared with you my plans for working with business leaders in Europe. I offered some gems of wisdom that I had gathered from non-management-trained U.S. managers.

I suggested that you might be able to grab one of these ideas (see box) and follow through. Yes, I have heard from three readers who did just that. After some follow-through time I will offer a report on them.

What about you? Did you try one or two as a New Year’s resolution?

As I promised, I want to share the reaction of the Europeans and to offer their ideas about management. Bear in mind that I was primarily in Switzerland, which can almost be seen as three countries: Germany, France, and Italy. Yes, the three sections of the Swiss Confederacy have rather varied ideas about managerial functions and workplace dynamics.

Our traditional ideas of organization structure (bureaucracy) came from the German economist-philosopher Max Weber; thus business leaders from the Swiss German area had many questions about the more informal management systems being developed in the United States and what problems were being experienced when deviating from a more structured system. I found that the Swiss Germans are more likely to follow the lead of a system that provides greater productivity and do not necessarily feel bound by the same traditions as their German cousins.

The Swiss French business leaders are more concerned about the balance of work and leisure (family life) and were critical of news reports about the U.S. managerial style, which they perceive as being too demanding and not taking into account the workers and their families. In such discussions the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was bound to show up, and it did.

In all three countries considered here as well as in the rest of Europe, health insurance is not offered by the primary vehicle of the employer. Rather it is what has been called a “single-payer” system or a government system — similar to the U.S. Medicare system, but for all ages. The French businesses believed that the government system is superior and provided care to everyone. Yes, this is quite a cultural difference between the European businessperson and the U.S. businessperson.

The Swiss French also were intrigued by the role of women in the workplace and how newborn children were affected in the U.S. workplace. Culturally this is another U.S.-European difference. The French by law and by culture allow an extended period of paid leave for the new mother and father. You may recall that Congress debated this concept 10 to 15 years ago and that a diluted law was ultimately enacted for U.S. employers.

Not to be left out, even though they have less than 10 percent of the Swiss population, the Swiss Italians (surrounded by Italy on three sides) raised serious questions about hours of work and vacation/holiday time off. The Swiss Italians appear to take the traditional Swiss holidays and add some from Italy. Most folks in this narrow peninsula of Switzerland, jutting down from the Gottard Pass (the Alps region) into Italy (check this on a map and see), live no more than 30 miles from Italy, and most live much closer.

Given the U.S. political climate, many readers will merely call this phenomenon involving health care and extensive vacations and holidays “socialism.” Swiss business leaders would quickly disagree, and this clearly illustrates how national and business culture differs, even between traditional allies.

A challenging question, posed by both a Swiss German and a Swiss French business man, sought information about the relationship between elected government officials and the business community. Goodness, I was taken aback by just how much the European media must be reporting on U.S. political “battles.” (From private discussions, I gleaned that the French and Italian media may be more liberal, whereas the German media may be more conservative.)

“Just how could the U.S. business community allow a mainline political party to become so dysfunctional?” I took the Fifth on that one, but it continued to resurface in various ways. I tried to explain that each party now was more of a “rainbow” coalition (borrowing the Jesse Jackson term.)

Given this admittedly small sample of business leaders, it appears that European managers are more concerned with macro policies than with workplace issues of a micro nature. Perhaps lower-level managers would be more focused on the shop-floor issues.

But what about the list of suggestions in the box accompanying this column? What kind of reactions might be expected from European managers? First it is important to note that few of the Swiss managers would see themselves being as informal as most of the 15 tips suggest. There seems to be little in the way of human resource planning and development utilized in most of Europe. The Swiss Germans do a great of deal of technical training when new capital equipment or software is introduced.

Asking employees what they think of their managers and what their managers might do differently was not understood at all. But do managers really know what is best and are they always right? I question this attitude. Similarly, the concept of formal performance appraisal is not a part of most Swiss businesses; those that are owned in conjunction with a U.S. company conduct a limited number of such appraisals. The Swiss French managers suggested that it may be undignified to tell any professional manager at any level in such a direct way that changes needed to be made.

The No. 3 piece of advice on the list — about allowing a silence in a conversation — drew considerable discussion. The French speakers found that to be a good suggestion; the German and Italian speakers suggested that if there were not a direct response in a conversation it could be interpreted to mean the silence inferred either a lack of interest or a lack of knowledge. Imagine a German speaker not responding immediately or an Italian speaker slowing down to allow you to comment.

Item No. 7 about looking around you more to see what is happening also drew considerable discussion. Most agreed that senior managers rely too often on data-driven results on a printout and that such data need not tell all the information needed to understand what was happening within their company.

Several were befuddled by the HP philosophy of “management by walking around.” They were not sure what they might look for and found the idea of speaking one-to-one to various-level employees rather strange. They did not disagree that valuable information might be gleaned by such “walking around,” but found it somehow “anti-cultural.”

Lastly, what might Soundings Trade Only readers gain in regard to these differences? First and foremost, never go international or global without all senior managers and most midlevel managers being well versed in both the national culture and the business culture of the folks you will be dealing with. Make no assumptions.

The U.S. culture and a normal American business culture are studied in most foreign universities and offered via consultancies in every country. The Japanese are the best at knowing everything about “us” and “you” as they enter any business discussions. The Chinese are following the Japanese example.

Who is ready to go global or even start a venture in conjunction with another “foreign” company? Are you sure?

Untrained but savvy

A group of pharmacists who became pharmacy managers, most without formal leadership training, acquired gems of wisdom on the job. From responses to a questionnaire, here are the ideas they developed and the questions they learned to ask.

 

1. Focus on the strengths of others.

2. Always find the time to talk to an employee.

3. Silence in conversation is OK.

4. Concentrate on “growing your people.”

5. Represent your “people.”

6. You may like the iPhone, but stay away from the “I” word.

7. Look around you more: What do you see happening?

8. If you have an IT guru, consider sharing the IT expertise with others.

9. Celebrate the small wins; ask your team how.

10. We all need a social media

account.

11. Customer service should be shared by all staff members.

12. Why is your job important here?

13. What would you like to see me do differently as your manager?

14. Where do you see yourself in five years? What would you like to be doing?

15. What do you like best about your job (or about working for the company?)

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.

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