Case study: Feedback
The following comments are provided as food for thought. Different interpretations are, of course, possible.
What issues relating to trust does Bernd identify? Bernd identifies all the elements in the “Trust Equation” (see p. 39) as part of the problem. First, he is concerned about the competence of the UK team to plan successfully, and about the credibility of what they tell him. Second, the UK team is rather unreliable in his eyes, as their promises made in forecasts are often usually not met. Bernd also seems to feel that the UK team is not fully open with him and that their level of self-interest is high — both in terms of how the team tries to position itself internationally and in the way the bonus system encourages individualism rather than collaboration.
How accurate do you think Bernd’s interpretation of the situation is? And how do you think the head of sales in the UK sees the issue?
Bernd is drawing quite negative conclusions on the basis of limited information. He has not yet had a detailed talk with the head of UK sales, Paul, to explore the background to this situation. In fact, when Bernd does finally speak to Paul, a very different picture emerges. In the UK, there is a strong focus on encouraging ambitious people to perform excellently to reach high targets. This is partly a local expectation: sales guys working in London love the freedom to work independently and want to earn high salaries. Paul had therefore decided, in contrast to the “realistic and accurate” planning of his German colleagues, to set flexible “stretch targets”. This involves setting targets that are too high, partly unrealistic, but highly motivational, pushing his sales staff to work harder and more successfully than if they worked to more realistic, lower targets.
The autonomy and individualism of the UK environment is part of a specific trust system that assumes people perform best if they are free from constraints and controls. The team in the UK is free to collaborate if they wish, and do in fact exchange information frequently. But their bonus system rewards entrepreneurialism and results, which helps bring success for the company. So, there are two different trust systems in this situation: the German one, based on reliability, predictability and transparency of information, and the British one, based more on freedom, the self-belief that one will perform to exceptional standards and a focus on exceptional results. Importantly, it is not possible to prove empirically which approach is better.
What do you think is the ideal solution in this situation?
As so often in international business life, misunderstandings and negative perceptions of others arise too quickly. They are often based on a projection of one’s own values and priorities — here, connected to trust — on to other people, who realize the same core values in other ways. The ideal solution is more communication and clarification of the meaning of specific behaviours and intentions — and an agreement on how best to collaborate. This agreement might involve more alignment, with everyone working in the same way, or more respect for diversity, allowing different local ways of working to continue.