You can’t hurry love – not in a cross-cultural relationship

“You can’t hurry love / No, you just have to wait / She said love don’t come easy / It’s a game of give and take.
You can’t hurry love / No, you just have to wait / You got to trust, give it time / No matter how long it takes.”


Setting up operations in a new country can be a challenging task for multinational companies. This is no exception for a German auto maker who is re-establishing its manufacturing presence in the United States. In what has developed into a solid case study about foreign market expansion, the eyes of the American (heck, the global) business world have been focusing in on how Volkswagen is progressing with developing its North American car business.

Those of you who are following this story need no introduction to the topic, the rest of you may either want to skip this article or google the search terms “VW+Chattanooga+UAW” in order to get up to speed.

Dozens of reports and news stories have been written about the economic impact of Volkswagen’s investment in Tennessee and how the company’s German business model is being adapted to and applied in the U.S. While I take a big interest in the business side of this development, the purpose of this blog post is to analyze how the aspect of culture is making VW’s American Dream somewhat unpleasant and twitchy.

In fact, culture is at the very core of what has turned into the biggest challenge for Volkswagen’s U.S. expansion strategy.
What’s going on in the Tennessee Valley?

First, let’s take a quick look at the actors in this cross-cultural saga:

VWThe company: Volkswagen AG is Europe’s biggest car maker and one of the largest employers in Germany. In the spring of 2011 VW began production at its newly built manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, TN – 23 years after it closed down a plant in Westmoreland, PA which had failed because of quality, economic, and labor issues. VW management have made the North American market one of the top priorities in their “Mach18” strategy to become the number one car company by 2018. A competitive Chattanooga plant is one of the cornerstones of this strategy.

TNflagThe market: The Southern United States, in this case the State of Tennessee, the City of Chattanooga, and Hamilton County have a very unique history – both politically and economically. Located in the Southeast, Tennessee was heavily involved in the Civil War and the Chattanooga area was an important battle ground during this difficult period in U.S. history. Despite the demise of the post-CW South, Chattanooga was one of the few Southern cities which was able to develop a fairly diverse economy which included some industry and manufacturing in the mix. Nothing compared to Northern, Steel Belt regions but more diverse than most other cities throughout the mostly agricultural, pre-industrial South. At its heart, the Tennessee Valley is a rather conservative region and, up until the 2000s, was a fairly isolated area in terms of cultural influences. Populated mainly by Scotch-Irish settlers and their descendents, many East Tennesseans kept much of their forefathers’ clan culture alive.

IGMetallThe German labor side: Within the huge VW AG corporation organized labor has a strong and powerful voice. This is part of VW’s DNA and their co-determination model has proven to be successful for the company. Volkswagen’s board is split between labor representatives and shareholder representatives. Thus, labor can either block shareholder initiatives or drive an agenda. Within the company labor is represented by the VW works council and by the IG Metall union. German labor and management, while at odds sometimes, do share a common goal: Company success as well as work place and job security.

UAWThe American labor side: The United Auto Workers union used to be very well represented at the “Big Three” American auto makers but throughout the past 20 years has lost significant portions of its membership base. On top of that the UAW has so far been unable to organize any of the foreign-owned car plants in the South. The UAW’s approach to the labor-management relationship is a lot more adversarial than that of the German unions.

Secondly, all these actors in our cross-cultural saga have positive intentions. Based on the information they have at any given moment, they act with the best in mind for their constituents. Here is how:

  • VW leadership wants to grow the company and carve out a profitable and sustainable market share in North America.
  • Leadership in Tennessee wants to create business friendly policies which help attract job-creating investment to the state.
  • The global works council at VW wants to create an even playing field and streamline standards throughout the company and the IG Metall wants to protect labor interests (mainly German labor interests).
  • The UAW wants to stay relevant and become the voice of auto workers in the South.

Now, why is there a conflict? In short: Because the IG Metall and its representatives within VW are leading a charge to organize the company’s Tennessee workforce, which runs against the interests of Tennessee leadership and, apparently, against the interests of a majority of the workers at VW in Chattanooga who voted against being represented by the UAW in February 2014.

Culture determines political action

Aside from the political struggle, there is also a significant cultural difference at play here between corporate America and the German business world. One of the reasons for the adversarial nature of the U.S. labor-management disconnect is the preference of American culture on individualism and self-reliance. In the current context this clashes with Germany’s ideal of co-determination and corporate social responsibility.

This contrast has been blown up even further by protagonists on both sides of the debate: First, by conservative U.S. politicians who were reproaching Volkswagen for entering into a dialog with the UAW and basically telling the company that they don’t know how to run their business – publicly. And secondly, by senior union officials in Germany who compared Tennessee and the U.S. to North Korea.

Add to that the confusion created by conflicting statements made by a Tennessee Senator and VW’s labor chief. Sen. Bob Corker claimed to have it on good authority that VW would expand the Chattanooga plant, if workers voted against UAW representation. Global works council head Bernd Osterloh countered that labor reps on the VW board might block further investment unless there’s a formal co-determination mechanism in place at the Chattanooga plant.

One can argue that this is a political conflict which eventually will work itself out over time. That is probably true but it is definitely worth looking at the underlying cultural values which are causing the conflicting behaviors. In this specific case several cultural dimensions stand out. For example: How individualistic or group-oriented different cultures are and whether their decision-making processes are based on short-term or long-term objectives.

These are probably the two cultural values were Germany and the U.S. display the biggest differences. By all empirical measures Anglo-Saxon cultures in general and specifically the North American culture are the most individualistic societies around the world. Germans are fairly individualistic themselves, however, they are so with a strong collectivist undertone. This means that they tend to not act against the interest of their group, if they feel this would hurt their members (and therefore each individual within the group).

Americans, while decent team players, are individualists first. Mission success often depends on each individual member of a group contributing his/her part to successfully complete a task. Team members who stand out in this process due to individually strong performance will be rewarded, those who don’t meet the expectations will be identified as well. Cohesion in a group is achieved by a common objective (sometimes, a common “enemy”).
Belonging to a group for an American is often motivated by the increased chances to achieve one’s individual goals quicker. This means, team membership can easily change, if a different team promises increased chances to succeed.

To German employers this may appear to be a lack of loyalty to the team or at least as a lack of interest in the team’s strategic goals. Here is where the individualism dimension connects with the short/long-term outlook on life. People in long-term motivated, fairly individualistic cultures like Germany tend to suppress their individual desires in favor of the group interest because they expect the prospect of the long-term goals to be of more value than the quick, short-term result.

Measuring cultural differences

There are several cultural assessment tools out on the market to identify cultural values and deduct behavioral preferences, based on empirical research. For simplicity reasons I am only referencing two, Dean Foster’s Culture Compass and Geert Hofstede’s dimensions. These instruments illustrate even more differences between the preferred behaviors in the U.S. and Germany.


Above you see a comparison of the United States and Germany along Hofstede’s cultural dimensional framework. What do these dimensions measure?

Individualism: The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We.” In individualist societies people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In collectivist societies people belong to “in-groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

Uncertainty Avoidance: This dimension has to do with the way that a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? This ambiguity brings with it anxiety and different cultures have learnt to deal with this anxiety in different ways. The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these is reflected in this score.

Pragmatism: This dimension describes how people in the past, as well as today, relate to the fact that so much of what happens around us cannot be explained. In societies with a normative orientation, most people have a strong desire to explain as much as possible. In societies with a pragmatic orientation, most people don’t have a need to explain everything, as they believe that it is impossible to fully understand the complexity of life. The challenge is not to know the truth but to live a virtuous life.

Indulgence: One challenge that confronts humanity, now and in the past, is the degree to which children are socialized. Without socialization we do not become “human.” This dimension is defined as the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses, based on the way they were raised. A tendency toward a relatively weak control over their impulses is called “indulgence,” whereas a relatively strong control over their urges is called “restraint.”

In combination with a low power distance index the U.S. are the most individualistic culture in the world. The American premise of “liberty and justice for all” is evidenced by an explicit emphasis on equal rights in all aspects of American society and government. Within American organisations, hierarchy is established for convenience, superiors are accessible and managers rely on individual employees and teams for their expertise. The society is loosely knit in which the expectation is that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support. Americans are accustomed to doing business or interacting with people they don’t know well. Consequently, Americans are not shy about approaching their prospective counterparts in order to obtain or seek information. In the business world, employees are expected to be self-reliant and display initiative. Also, within the exchange-based world of work we see that hiring, promotion and decisions are based on merit or evidence of what one has done or can do.

By contrast, German society is not as strongly individualistic. There is a strong belief in the ideal of self-actualization. Loyalty is based on personal preferences for people as well as a sense of duty and responsibility for the group. This is defined by the contract between the employer and the employee. Communication is among the most direct in the world following the ideal to be “honest, even if it hurts” – and by this giving the counterpart a fair chance to learn from mistakes.

If you apply the individualism dimension to our cross-cultural Chattanooga saga, you’ll see that independent Americans do not appreciate being told what to do from outsiders. This is especially true in the South where outsiders had told people 150 years ago what to do. This memory is deeply ingrained in Southern mentality. Introducing an idea from the outside has to be done very carefully – no matter if the idea might benefit people in Tennessee or not. Just because the Germans say “this will be good for you” doesn’t mean Tennesseans will simply accept and adopt it.

Looking at the pragmatism dimension, the United States scores rather low on the normative end of the spectrum, while Germany’s high score indicates that it is a pragmatic country. In cultures with a pragmatic orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time. They show an ability to adapt traditions easily to changed conditions, a strong propensity to save and invest, thriftiness, and perseverance in achieving results. More normative cultures like the U.S. are prone to analyse new information to check whether it is true. American businesses measure their performance on a short-term basis, with profit and loss statements being issued on a quarterly basis. This also drives individuals to strive for quick results within the work place. While not as pragmatic as the Germans, Americans are very practical, and have an almost proverbial “can-do” mindset.

Critical of new ideas from the outside, yet ready to get things done swiftly – this polarisation is strengthened by the fact that many Americans have strong ideas about what is “good” and “evil.” This may concern issues such as abortion, use of drugs, weapons, the size and rights of the government versus the States and versus citizens, and also the issue of labor representation.

Finally, the indulgence score highlights another difference between Germans and Americans. German culture is restrained in nature. Societies with a low score in this dimension have a tendency to cynicism and pessimism. Also, in contrast to indulgent societies, restrained societies control the gratification of their desires. People with this orientation have the perception that their actions are restrained by social norms and feel that indulging themselves is somewhat wrong. Much of the opposite can be said for U.S. culture which ranks fairly high on the indulgence side.


Above you see one of my comparison charts for the Culture Compass and I’d like to direct your attention to the bottom two dimensions.

Germans are more risk-averse than Americans. Going after a high-stakes, short-term goal may involve too much uncertainty; too many things may go wrong and jeopardize mission success. Germans are typically more comfortable with a long-term goal which perhaps has even higher stakes. But this type of risk is easier to bear since it is spread out over time and getting to that goal involves a process of incremental steps, taken as a team.

While Germans value their processes, Americans want to “git ‘er done.” They want results, they want them quick, and if that means they’ll have to leave the path of a proven and tested process so be it.

So, what gives?

As you make yourself aware of these cultural differences it will become obvious now that Volkswagen’s labor representatives prefer a solution (i.e. works council) that to them is a risk-minimizing concept for VW workers and management alike, which supports common interests of the workers group and provides a long-term perspective for the employees at the German auto maker. They are convinced that it will be good for everyone, contributing to long-term success of the company.

Opponents to the idea of labor representation view it as a potential subjection to the interests of a somewhat abstract group. This group’s objectives may clash with those of the individual worker. Most American employees want to have a choice and many fear that their individual right to choose will be restricted in such a group. Some long-term benefits envisioned by the German labor group do simply not appeal at all to many U.S. workers – they don’t even know if they’ll be working at VW a year from now. Short-term gain for them is often more important than long-term risk elimination.

What both sides of this cross-cultural saga don’t seem to understand (or, perhaps, fail to accept as reality) is that certain preferred “models” of human interaction – in this case labor-management interaction – cannot be universally applied. Or, in other words, neither side apparently knows what they don’t know.

Just because you’re right (or successful) at home doesn’t mean you’re right abroad. At the same time, just because you’ve always done things a certain way, doesn’t mean your way will always be the right way.

There is a lot of room for compromise. But that would require a concerted effort, a willingness to learn from and work with each other, and patience.

Because: You can’t hurry love.

ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!

18 thoughts on “You can’t hurry love – not in a cross-cultural relationship

  1. One of the best analyses I’ve ever read about the cultural differences between the two countries. Lots of it is intuitive but when you read the entire article, the big picture emerges. Well researched, well thought-out. Excellent!

  2. Well done, Christian. Nice use of several models to clarify both sides of a complex situation and very well presented. I see you getting hired as a consultant/strategist to help both sides educate their people so that better understanding can lead over time to a mutually beneficial partnership. The question: will the Americans be willing to invest the time necessary to work this out?

    • Doug, really appreciate your acknowledgment. I agree with you: It will be interesting to see if the Americans want to invest the time. It will also be interesting to see, if the Germans are able to adapt their standards to American conditions.

  3. Hi Christian. I enjoyed your analysis of this complex situation and I think that you are spot on with most of your conclusions. As an American and a northerner, I suspect that southerners are distrustful of unions as “yankee” inventions and believe that these organizations go against the rugged rural individualism of the South, hence most southern states are “right to work” states. I wonder if the less adversarial players (management and unions) in the German system have a hard time understanding the American situation. Many Americans will tell you that they believe that unions were a good thing 80 years ago when there were many abuses on the company side, but they believe that currently unions tend to protect the lazy, insubordinate and incompetent. From what I have read about German unions, they appear to encourage a strong work ethic among their members and also on the company side, the management is less oriented to the short term thinking prevalent in American companies. I think that there are a fair number of Americans who could understand and work in the German system easier than in the American union system.

    • Jack, you are probably right: The number of Americans who would appreciate the German model of co-determination should not be discounted just because the vote at VW went against UAW representation. After all, the election result was fairly close. However, I do think that there’s a knowledge gap on both sides. More than that, actually. You can fill in the missing information. That doesn’t necessarily change people’s behavioral preferences, though. If you are short-term motivated the prospect of long-term gain will not be particularily appealing to you. And if you aim for long-term success and stability it may be hard for you to accept that others have difficulty comprehending the benefits of your strategy.

  4. Had the UAW won the vote, what would have been set up, a German-style works council or an American-style union? If the latter, was the plan to use the Works Council as a back-door entry for the UAW?

    If the former – to set up a Works Council – would the UAW have even understood what that is and how it works? For a German-style works council is a concept foreign to the U.S., thus to an American union.

    How will VW respond? The head of its works council – who has a seat on the board – is amused neither by the outcome of the vote, nor by the role played by Tennessee political office-holders who lobbied hard against the UAW.

    Chattanooga is the only major VW production facility without a works council. This is not only a thorn in the side of the works council leadership in Germany. It goes against the grain of German thinking. For Germans do not feel comfortable with gaps in logic, contradictions in approaches, anomalies in set-up, loose ends in general.

    Secondly, there is broad consensus in Germany – among capital and labor – that Mitbestimmung (co-determination) is one of the great strengths of the post-war German economic model. Mitbestimmung demands dialogue, compromise and consensus-building. When done well, it makes German companies strong.

    Perhaps the challenge in Chattanooga – and eventually in Spartanburg (BMW) and Tuscaloosa (Daimler) – lies not in setting up a German-style works council, but in the U.S. laws requiring that an American union first be established.

    What if it were possible for German companies to import their approach to capital-labor collaboration – their works council-approach – but without the involvement of an American union?

    If the American economy is benefitting so greatly from German engineering, German manufacturing – German ways of doing business – why not allow them to implement what is one of their great strengths, German Mitbestimmung?

    Perhaps the UAW made a strategic mistake. Perhaps they should have said: „We would like to assist our colleagues from VW in setting up a German-style works council at VW in Chattanooga. We will then learn from the Germans how Mitbestimmung benefits all parties, so that we can modify and modernize our approach.“

    A brief historical note: It was the occupying Western allies after World War II – the Americans and the British – who insisted that the young West German state re-institute their Mitbestimmung laws, which had been dismantled by the national-socialistic regime.

    • John, lots of excellent points. Thank you. Allow me to point out, though: Not only the Germans are uncomfortable with a logic gap here. In this cross-cultural saga the Americans are sensing a logic gap as well: Why, so many of them argue, would a company with market-based economic goals wantonly jeopardize their success by inviting in a third-party with a rather mixed track record?
      Gaps in logic are often subjective and based on one’s own rationale. What one finds to be rational can come with a heavy cultural bias.

  5. Excellent and thorough analysis of a very complex problem. The question I have at this point, given the differences, is how you can actually create that working relationship? I agree with Doug’s comment above that Christian would be an excellent “couples therapist” for these two parties… The question then (extending the metaphor…) would be what kind of “therapeutic” solution would work the best for achieving an amicable solution. Overall, very thought-provoking piece!

    • Thank you for the kind words, Andy. Any type of “therapeutic” approach would have to begin with an in-depth assessment of the two parties’ current understanding of each other. A next step should be for them to define what their goals in this relationship are. Then I’d suggest to them that talking with each other is much better than talking at or about each other via news outlets. Once the “couples session” is taken out of the public eye, both partners can better work on developing their cross-cultural dexterity.

  6. Excellent article, Christian. You have found the key differences between both cultures. As a foreigner, not German, working in VW Chattanooga, I can look at the evolution of this interesting German-American relationship a little bit from outside. I recognize in the “Chattanooga affair” some similar situations to the ones I lived in Spain when VW landed in my hometown, Pamplona, almost 30 years ago. But the cultures in confrontation (Spaniard/German) in that case were not so balanced. Here in Chattanooga the struggle, or the love affair, is happening between two cultures with great economical impact and political influence, what makes it much more interesting. I can feel the resistance of the Americans to accept, or to understand the German focus and I am not really sure who will convince who. That makes this confrontation, this love affair, more attractive. It’s being a great pleasure to read your analysis and I found it absolutely accurate…

    • Roberto, muchas gracias por sharing your inside perspective. I can only imagine how difficult it must be sometimes for expatriate employees to stay focused in situations like these. The fact that you are neither German nor American, and that you’ve been with the company for several years should make you a valuable asset to VW (aside from your other professional credentials). You can have a somewhat more neutral perspective, I would guess.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your article. It is an excellent analysis and I have no doubt this event will make for an insightful B-School case study. A myriad of fascinating cross-cultural and regional factors in a real business drama with implications for an entire industry and countless HR executives, union leaders, employees and consumers. Thank you again for clearly putting this pivotal piece of labor history into perspective.

  8. Great article Christian. I would add another note on Southern Appalachian culture. Many of the decendants of the Scotch Irish settlers in this region have a long history of distrust of institutions of almost any kind. Labor unions are often percieved as “northern inventions” and unnecessary intruders in the labor/management relationship. People in this region don’t think they need a third party to speak for them. They are perfectly capable of telling the boss exactly what they think. If they are treated fairly and honestly they will be very loyal. I agree with Mr. Magee. I think the German Works Council concept can work here. People in this region are open to the kind of communication between labor and management that a works council offers. The problem as I see it is the apparent legal requirement for third party representation. If our U.S. labor laws require a company to have a union in order to talk to their employees about working conditions, safety issues, productivity, employee benefits, etc., those laws need to be changed.

    • Thank you for your accurate remarks, Gary. I find the independent thinking of the Scotch-Irish clan culture to be quite alive and well in Appalachian regions. It appears to be a sort of “group individualism” – family/clan interests rank above anything else sometimes.

  9. My paternal family comes from this part of the country (a great-X grandfather was Daniel Boone’s brother Squire), though they moved to western Arkansas after the Civil War and on into “Indian Territory”. So I know exactly what you’re saying: Scots-Irish folks are very family loyal but independent and fair-minded. This part of the South had very little slavery and were quite angry that they’d been dragged into catastrophe by the Bitter Enders.

    However, the BE’s have culturally taken over the area in the past 150 years, so it’s not that different from the rest of the South in its politics. It’s a shame that the Westmoreland experience was so bad for VW. At that time the UAW was pretty much like the caricature in which Senator Corker believes, but as you point out, it has been dragged kicking and screaming into the Twenty-First Century. The leaders of the union, like those in IGMetall, realize that there are no jobs to organize without successful companies.

    That said, the things that the Grand Pooh-Bahs of Tennessee said about and to Volkswagen can NOT be good for the company’s relationship with the state. I expect that the delay in making the decision is the result of the 12-8 majority on the Supervisory Board weighing the risks of offending its Northern and Western state sales demographic in the US — nobody buys VW product in the South — versus the risk of Toluca building a poor product. If the Mexicans have been meeting quality standards consistently for the past few years, I think they’ll choose to import rather than build in a scab factory.

  10. Pingback: The things you wish you knew about the cultures of the 2014 World Cup | Southeast Schnitzel

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