The Irresolute American

by Davidson, Susan Thursday, November 09, 2006
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American executives are aggressive, competitive, straighttalking, and don’t mince words when they say, “You’re fired!” At least that’s how they come across in the global marketplace. So it’s no wonder that foreign professionals who relocate to work in the United States expect to speak their mind with the likes of The Donald (Real Estate tycoon Donald Trump). Instead, they are stunned to walk into the office and find a covey of corporate cubicle drones obediently carrying out the orders of an autocratic boss.

Welcome to corporate America, where you’re invited to check your straight-shooter outside the company door. After surveying a broad spectrum of foreign executives from 26 countries who live and work in the United States, I discovered that they are shocked — and ultimately frustrated — that the bold face Americans put on in the marketplace is quite different than the one they have in the workplace. Why the split personality Because, foreigners say, Americans work in fear — of confrontation, of retaliation, of litigation.

“A Lot of Fluff”

Certainly foreigners can’t be blamed for arriving at Los Angeles’ LAX or New York’s JFK airport with expectations of, come Monday morning, meeting a posse of no-nonsense co-workers—especially if they’ve read up on their coworkers-to-be. In Global Smarts: The Art of Communicating and Deal Making Anywhere in the World, Sheida Hodge writes that “speaking one’s mind is generally considered a virtue in American corporate culture.” Trainer Craig Storti’s Americans at Work: A Guide to the Can-Do People! characterizes American directness as “straight talk” and a “badge of honor” in a country where “the right to say what you think, to anyone anytime, is the ultimate expression of individual liberty.”

In Mind Your Manners: Managing Business Cultures in the New Global Europe, U.K. consultant John Mole cautions readers: “Business discussions [in America] may be forthright to the point of being brusque. Bluntness is preferred to subtlety.” And Esther Wanning’s Culture Shock! USA: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette notes that American managers prefer initiative to deference: “Managers encourage ideas from subordinates, and subordinates may contradict their superiors.”

But while foreigners concede that Americans speak their minds outside of the office, they do not do so in the workplace. Indeed, the vast majority of foreigners surveyed say Americans are obsessed with being politically correct at work. They claim Americans deliberately withhold honest opinions because they fear embarrassment, disagreement, and negative consequences. In Americans at Work, Storti supports this charge, calling it the “new national norm.” When this overweening sensitivity is coupled with the concerted effort Americans make to avoid being negative, Storti adds that “it is no wonder the American reputation for straight talk has taken such a hit in recent years.”

“People are afraid to say honestly what’s on their mind,” says a Finnish HR specialist who relocated to the United States with Delta Air Lines. “People aren’t as straightforward as they are in Europe.” A Delta sales coordinator from Colombia adds that she learned that honesty is not the best policy at work. “You are a troublemaker if you disagree with others by giving your honest opinion,” she says. “And if your boss is not your friend, he or she will talk about you behind your backwith co-workers.”

Americans’ careful choice of words at work adds up to “a lot of fluff,” complains a Swedish consultant for a small IT firm. And an Australian IT consultant for SAP goes even further, saying that the constant caution and concern about being sensitive is sometimes debilitating, in that you feel as if “you’re dancing around landmines all the time.”

Not only are Americans cautious about what they won’t say, foreigners are quick to point out, they are equally careful about putting a positive spin on what they will say. If you don’t say that something is great or that there’s been dramatic improvement, says a French project manager at Hewlett-Packard, then you leave people with the impression that they are doing a poor job.

Indeed, foreign professionals find it particularly frustrating to give and receive honest feedback at work because of American sensitivity about being perceived as negative. After relocating from Paris to Atlanta, Guy Harari, the Brazilian president of the North American division of France-based Adisseo, a manufacturer of livestock-feed additives, says he was surprised to learn that his American team found his straightforward management style unduly harsh. “Americans are educated not to offend people,” he says. “I focus more on the things that need to improve. Here, it’s difficult to give feedback as “average.” In fact, one German executive at a real-estate investment firm was shocked to learn that, after giving a co-worker honest feedback, he had been promptly nicknamed “the Terminator.”

“But It’s Your Job!”

Of course, Americans’ desire to put a positive spin on things isn’t all negative. At least they get high marks from their foreign counterparts for using positive reinforcement to motivate employees and teams. A French project manager concedes that he enjoys receiving frequent tokens of appreciation: kind words, pizza, tickets to ballgames. Likewise, an Indonesian engineer appreciates being recognized for good work, something he’d never experienced in his home country.

Americans’ positive approach to motivating employees spills over into fostering good teamwork as well. Compared to many other countries, foreigners say, U.S. teams show more cooperation and respect for each other and work hard to keep the peace. Says an Australian IT specialist with IBM: “I do like the American team spirit. It’s rah-rah, like being forced to sing camp songs, but I really enjoy it.”

Yet the “rah-rah” American approach to recognizing employee efforts can become excessive. All the kudos,high-fives, and trophies lose their sincerity and meaning when doled out in daily doses. A German customer-service-center VP says, “For every small thing, I have to tell an employee, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ But it’s his job.” A British executive with a staffing-services firm recalls receiving a salesman-of-the-month plaque, which had no value to him. “Instead,” he says, “just tell me that I’m doing a wonderful job.”

Culturally, Americans have come to expect a certain level of recognition. When it’s sincere, foreign businesspersons are intrigued and delighted with its emotional appeal. When it’s overdone, they at once are suspicious and cynical. Either way, positive reinforcement is the salve that Americans rely on to soothe psyches and bolster performance, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

If U.S. workers are adept at doling out praise, they are equally skilled at dodging direct conflict. Non-Americans are baffled by the American practice of either avoiding face-to-face confrontation altogether or taking cover in offices to fire off e-mails, letters, and voicemails to deal with disputes, discipline, and disagreements rather than speak to co-workers in person.

“Americans will have e-mail wars that will go on for months and months with a lot of malice at times,” observes the Australian marketing-communications director for the U.S. office of Brambles, a multinational consultancy based in Australia. “If I have a problem with something, the first thing I’ll do is talk to somebody, and it’s usually resolved there and then. But Americans are really uncomfortable with that.” When we avoid talking out differences early on and head-on, problems only tend
to simmer, say foreigners.

“Because I Am the CFO”

One thing becomes readily apparent to foreign professionals working in the United States: When it comes to corporate empires, all men and women are not created equal. In Mind Your Manners, John Mole astutely observes: “The outward egalitarianism of American manners is deceptive. Within a business organization there is a well-defined and rigorously observed hierarchy.” America’s corporate ladders are built from the top down, and non-Americans are keenly aware of the deferential treatment Americans grant to those on the higher rungs. So while Americans may kick ass in the marketplace, in the workplace the subordinates kiss up and the bosses kick down.

Which means that not only are Americans cautious about what they say and how they say it — they are timid about to whom they say it. As subordinates, they transform themselves into risk-averse order-takers who temper their comments, shy away from conflict, and readily defer to their bosses’ power and authority. And as bosses, Americans may talk about empowerment, problemsolving, and risk-taking, but they know they can pull rank anytime.

“One thing that is striking in the United States is the importance of the boss. He drives the decisions,” says the French marketing director of the U.S. division of Royal Philips Electronics. The Frenchman points out the surprising similarity between the “top-down hierarchy” of U.S. corporations and those of his native country, adding that, “Americans are sensitive to who calls the shots and try to sense which direction the wind is blowing.”

While being able to refer to colleagues by their first names makes some foreigners feel more comfortable, many are surprised to find a stark contrast between Americans’ superficial first-name, business-casual informality and a leadership style seen as hierarchical and autocratic. Scandinavian executives, in particular, see a distinct difference between the command-and-control leadership style of many U.S.-based companies and the more inclusive, matrix style found in their own organizations, where anyone can talk openly to anyone about anything. In many U.S. workplaces, lower-ranking employees offer feedback only if it appears to confirm a decision that they believe has already been made. “If an American CEO says something is a good idea, then people nod and say yes, whether they agree or not,” says Marjon de Groot, a former Dutch director of product marketing for Philips. Another Dutchman at Philips, a former senior VP of marketing, agrees: “Dutch feedback enriches the decision. You don’t get that kind of feedback in the United States.”

Several foreign professionals argue that corporate America’s excessive respect for rank and need to please people in power stifles employee creativity and buy-in. The result is that lower-level employees become ordertakers who “execute without questioning,” as a German IBM manager puts it. “In Europe, people would expect the boss to lead the team to work together to build the direction,” says Adisseo’s Guy Harari. “Here, they expect the boss to have the answers.”

“People worry to the point where they’re in meetings and won’t say anything because their boss is there,” says a British IT developer. A French VP of staffing firm Randstad North America adds that “employees don’t challenge or debate the CEO or other executives.”

Several foreigners point out that American bosses themselves reinforce a culture of deference where titles often trump talent and initiative. “On a couple of occasions, I’ve seen people go off on their own and do something only to be swatted back into place,” says a repatriated Australian sales manager. A German IT programmer recalls an American executive telling a lower-level employee that he could not be spoken to in a certain manner “because I am the CFO.” In corporate America, democracy gets checked at the door.

“Phenomenal Waste of Money”

The fear of losing their job also keeps Americans from speaking their minds, foreigners say. “In Europe, I can quit today and be assured income for at least one year to become stable,” says a Congolese engineer who had previously worked in Germany for several years. “If you don’t have savings in the United States, you can’t survive a job loss. You can lose everything, including your lifestyle.”

Many other Western countries have generous unemployment benefits and labor laws that protect workers from termination at will. Says a Swedish project manager working for a Swedish woodworking company in the United States: “Because of how the United States employs people, you can walk away the same day or get fired the same day. In Europe you’re in a contract where you have more job security. You’ve got one month’s notice before you’re fired, which gives people greater security to discuss things with their boss.” A Dutch manager adds that because of the continuous threat of being fired, employees without executives’ golden parachutes “don’t want to take risks that will endanger their careers, so they do not express their opinions — especially not toward their boss.”

Coupled with the prospect of job loss with little or no financial safety net, foreigners cite America’s litigious society, which prompts both employees and employers to dilute and document their words and actions. “This is a big difference between America and the rest of the
world,” says Chris Sundell, the Finnish CEO of UFI Filters USA, a U.S.-based distributorship for an Italian manufacturer. “Frivolous lawsuits don’t exist elsewhere.” An Australian manager goes even further, claiming, “You may see someone not being let go because it’s too dangerous to do it.”

A British staffing-services executive claims that “actions are based on the presumption that the person might sue me,” which has everyone walking on eggshells rather than making decisions in the best interest of the business. He concludes: “It’s a phenomenal waste of money.”

Marketplace and Workplace Behaviors Differ

“A lot of my thoughts on American culture were driven by movies — get ‘em!” says an Australian sales manager who transferred to the United States with Switzerland-based Holcim, a construction-supplies company. “I came here thinking I’d be challenged. I scratch my head and wonder how America got to be the biggest and best in the world.”

The answer lies in the fact that the marketplace demands different behaviors (or actions) than the workplace. Whereas the former rewards boldness, the latter rewards (or “calls for”) compliance. In the marketplace, customers have many choices and companies face pressures to meet short-term revenue goals. As a result, competition for business is fierce and requires bold action, fast response, and the ability to stand out from the pack. By contrast, success in the workplace requires a much different type of behavior: fitting in, following rules and policies, and carrying out the tasks delegated by bosses.

Yet even with the surprises and disappointments that American corporate life brings, the United States more than lives up to its reputation as the land of opportunity. “There’s unbelievable opportunity here if you’re willing to work hard and go above and beyond what’s called for,” says an Australian who came to the United States nine years ago with PricewaterhouseCoopers. “The market is so big, and you have the potential to shine here.”

Most foreign businesspeople admire the “can-do” spirit of Americans whom they describe as people “on the go.” Compared to workers in their own countries, Americans are able to arrive at decisions quickly, spring into action, and “make things happen. So it seems that if the task is tough, Americans take charge. If the talk is tough, Americans take cover. For all of their superpower successes, Americans still have a craving to be liked, recognized — and employed.