“I’m fired!“

Aaron, an American, was, and still is, a first-rate engineer and manager. Sent to Germany on a three-year delegation, Aaron’s job was to increase technical knowledge transfer, integrate critical processes, and to build a cross-Atlantic organization based on transparency and trust. A very tall order for the particular organization he worked in.

After the first year it was time for his structured feedback discussion with his German boss, Martin. The employer, a German multinational, has a systematic and detailed approach to such evaluations. They influence to a significant degree compensation and further career path.

Central to its effectiveness is self-evaluation. Team-members measure themselves against the goals they formulated a year prior together with their team-lead. Aaron is focused, understated, not one to put himself front and center. From his perspective, the year has gone quite well, surprisingly so. A few days before the feedback discussion he reflected on his performance. Aaron believes to have an accurate assessment of where he has performed well and less well. He tends to be overly self-critical.

Feedback and miscommunication

Martin, a German, a few years older than Aaron, is also a first-rate engineer and manager. Very grateful to have Aaron in his team, Martin saw this as a unique opportunity to make necessary, but difficult, changes. A year ago they met and set down ambitious goals. From Martin’s point of view the year has gone very well. With few exceptions, and those in less critical areas, Aaron has more than met the goals defined. Martin is looking forward to an even better second year for Aaron and the organization.

They meet for the discussion. Aaron is quiet, listening carefully, respectful of Martin as a fellow engineer and as his superior. He is also very much looking forward to a meeting-of-the-minds on his performance over the last year, and to discussing the goals they want to reach in the upcoming year.

The same goes for Martin. In fact, the meeting does go that way. From Martin’s point of view. But not from Aaron’s. On the contrary. Aaron departs the meeting confused, almost shocked, in a bit of a daze. “I’m fired in six months!” he thought to himself. “How could I have been so wrong in my self-assessment?”

Focused on weaknesses

It took several days for Aaron to steady himself. Self-doubt had dominated his thoughts and emotions. Was he out of touch with reality? Did he misunderstand what the goals for the year were? How could he have so grossly misread the situation? Were the achievements over the last twelve months average, mediocre or worse?

Martin had focused almost exclusively on Aaron’s weaknesses. There weren’t many, but Martin managed to find them. So little talk about the positives, about the progress made. Information was flowing between Germany and the U.S. Two of the three key engineering processes had been just about fully integrated. It had been decided to leave the third process separate on each side of the Atlantic.

Clearly there was a new Teamgeist, team spirit. Aaron was respected and accepted by his German peers and team-members. He had even found time to study German and could hold basic, non-technical, conversations in a language he had taken for only a few years in high school and college.

Martin left the meeting a bit surprised, also. Aaron seemed distracted, not fully engaged. When it came to formulating the coming year’s goals, Aaron had little to contribute. Martin sensed that something was wrong and decided to schedule another meeting in a week to discuss the goals. “Strange. That’s not the Aaron I know and respect,” thought Martin. Personal problems? Family? Homesick? Lousy winter weather in Germany getting to him? Martin just couldn’t figure it out. “Such an excellent engineer and manager of people!”

A clear message missed

So little talk about the positives. True. But why waste time on what works, on what has worked very well? Martin had voiced his satisfaction very early on in the conversation. Aaron had not picked up on it. “You’ve done very good work, Aaron. No goal has gone unmet. You’re a strong member of my team.”

Any German in the room, especially those who know Martin, would have been in agreement. Aaron got a “B+” for the year, a high grade in Germany, where “nobody can be considered perfect,” where “there is always room for improvement,” where an A is truly seldom, especially from Martin.

Martin then proceeded to focus on how Aaron can go from B+ to A-, how he can steadily, incrementally, systematically address and improve on those areas, not many, where he can stretch even further. Aaron felt that he was nitpicking, being a bit small-minded. Untypical for Martin.

Good. But how good?

For Martin it was a source of great satisfaction to have such a capable person in his team, to discuss with that person how to become even stronger. Aaron was the kind of engineer and manager every German wants to mentor, to coach, to work with.

All of these thoughts and sentiments remained hidden from Aaron, however. And his reactions hidden from Martin. Although they continued to work well together over the next two years, they were never quite on the same wavelength. Twice more they would have these formal discussions, as well as hundreds of communications in which informal feedback was given.

Aaron always felt a bit off balance with Martin. Martin sensed it, but could not explain it, much less address it. They were successful together. And that was recognized by senior management. They could have gone higher.

Reflection

Have you ever experienced the differences in how Germans and Americans give feedback? What was it like? What was the effect on the people involved? 

Both Aaron and Martin were surprised by the performance review. Why didn‘t the one or the other simply address their surprise?

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