Ralf is a German manager and the head of business development. His company is expanding into Russia.
Vlad, the Russian project manager, calls him one morning from St. Petersburg, where he’s aiding the opening of the new office.
“Planning is underway,” Vlad confirms. “Everything will be completed by the deadline.”
Ralf asks some follow-up questions, pressing for further details to ensure things are, indeed, on track, but he finds that despite Vlad’s initial assurances, his responses are vague.
“At this point, only the rough planning is done,” Vlad admits, adding, “but everything is under control.”
Needless to say, after this phone call, Ralf does not feel confident that his ducks are in a row, while Vlad feels he was being interrogated.
Stereotype: Russians Don’t Like to Plan
When Ralf shares his concerns with his boss, he says: “Don’t worry, the office will be finished according to schedule. Russians aren’t good at planning. They say that if you plan too much, you can’t demonstrate your improvisational skills.”
Although Ralf’s boss employed a stereotype to placate his worries, there is truth in this stereotype.
According to scientific studies, Russians generally do not prioritize detailed planning as much as Germans or Austrians. They’d prefer to resolve issues as they occur instead of predicting and investing time in future issues.
Ralf’s boss responded with a stereotype, but his response alleviated Ralf’s stress and may have diffused misunderstanding and potential conflict in the company’s cross-cultural business relations.
One reason this stereotype could be considered wise is that it was explanatory; it allowed Ralf to better understand the rationale behind his Russian counterpart’s behaviors.
Stereotype: Germans Like Detailed Planning
Back in St. Petersburg, Vlad sensed Ralf’s lack of confidence in his management of the project. Being a bit annoyed, he, too, mentioned the exchange to his boss.
Vlad’s boss tells him: “Germans like to plan. Their plans are concrete and detailed, down to the letter. They anticipate potential issues and their variable responses to these issues in order to use time efficiently and reduce risk.”
This is another stereotype. It’s generally true that Germans view time as a resource that shouldn’t be wasted, hence they invest in detailed planning.
This, too, is backed by data making it, more or less, the norm.
This is one way in which stereotypes can aid mutual understanding, allay worries and unnecessary stress, and prevent cross-cultural conflict.
Stereotypes Exaggerate the Norm
Despite the sometimes-usefulness of stereotypes, it’s important to note that stereotypes aren’t all-encompassing and tend to exaggerate norms.
Not every German is a planner and not every Russian likes to improvise.
To illustrate this exaggeration, consider these graphs.
The top graph shows how Russians view their own penchant for planning. They acknowledge that improvisation is valued as much as planning, leaving the curve centered.
The next graph shows the Russian perspective on the German penchant for planning. Russians view Germans as planning fanatics, leading to most Germans falling under this stereotypical umbrella right of center.
In the end, the reality is more like the last chart. Germans are, on average, slightly more adept at planning than Russians, and the German company culture often produces and favors managers who work accordingly. However, this stereotype doesn’t apply so severely to all Germans, though the Russian perspective exaggerates that view.
Point being, take stereotypes with a grain of salt.
Their primary use in business management should be to provide generic odds and a general understanding of the values a culture prioritizes.
But don’t let stereotypes color your opinion about another individual in an ugly way, especially if their actions show you the opposite.
As Maya Angelou wisely wrote,
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”