When Kara Williams, an American engineer, began working as a research manager for a German automotive company, she didn’t realise how different her approach to persuading her colleagues would be from the way she persuaded Americans.
Her first project with the company was providing technical advice on how to reduce carbon emissions from one of the group’s “green” car models. After visiting several automotive plants, observing the systems and processes there and meeting with dozens of experts and end users, Williams developed a set of recommendations that she felt would meet the company’s strategic and budgetary goals. She travelled to Munich to give a one-hour presentation to the German directors.
Williams delivered her presentation in a small auditorium with the directors seated in rows of chairs. She got right to the point, explaining the strategies she would recommend based on her findings. But before she had even finished the first slide, one of the directors raised his hand and protested, “How did you get to these conclusions? You are giving us your recommendations, but I don’t understand how you got here.”
Another director jumped in: “Please explain what methodology you used for analysing your data and how that led you to come to these findings?”
Styles of reasoning
Williams was taken aback. She assured them that the methodology was sound, but the questions and challenges continued. She reacted defensively and the presentation went downhill from there.
The stone wall Williams ran into was “principles first reasoning”, which derives conclusions or facts from general principles or concepts that build up to a general conclusion. People from principles-first cultures, such as Germany, France and Russia want to understand the “why” behind proposals or requests before they move to action.
Being American, Williams’s cultural tendency was towards the opposite, “applications-first reasoning”, where general conclusions are reached based on a pattern of factual observations from the real world, extrapolating initial information. Application-first cultures tend to focus less on the “why” and more on the “how”.
The other side of the coin
Jens Hupert is a German director at the company Williams worked for. Having lived in the United States for many years, he had experienced similar failures at persuading others, though the cultural disconnect ran in the opposite direction. Hupert recalled the problems he’d had in making persuasive arguments to his American colleagues. In starting his presentations by laying the foundation for his conclusions, setting the parameters, outlining his data and his methodology and explaining his argument, he was taken aback when his American boss told him, “In your next presentation, get right to the point. You lost their attention before you got to the important part”. In Hupert’s mind, “you cannot come to a conclusion without first defining the parameters.”
Most people are capable of practicing both principles-first and applications-first reasoning, but your habitual pattern of reasoning is heavily influenced by the kind of thinking emphasised in your culture’s education structure.
When philosophy meets business
Different cultures have different systems for learning, in part because of the philosophers who influenced the approach to intellectual life in general. Although Aristotle, a Greek, is credited with articulating the applications-first thinking, it was British thinkers, including Roger Bacon in the 13th century and Francis Bacon in the 16th century who popularised these methodologies. Later, Americans with their pioneer mentality, came to be even more applications-first than the British.
By contrast, philosophy on the European continent has been largely driven by principles-first approaches. In the 17th century, Frenchman René Descartes spelled out a method of principles-first reasoning in which the scientist first formulates a hyphothesis and then seeks evidence to prove or disprove it. In the 19th century, the German Friedrich Hegel introduced the dialectic model of deduction, which reigns supreme in schools in Latin and Germanic countries. The Hegelian dialectic begins with a thesis, or foundational argument; this is opposed by an antithesis, or conflicting argument; and the two are then reconciled in a synthesis.
If Kara Williams had a better understanding of the applications-first and principles-first cultural tendencies, she would have had the chance to be a good deal more persuasive. If she had realised she was presenting to an audience of principles-first Germans, perhaps she would have begun by presenting the parameters of her study and explaining why she chose this specific study method. She might then have introduced specific data to show her reasoning before presenting conclusions and recommendations. She wouldn’t have needed to spend thirty minutes building her argument; five solid minutes describing her method before jumping to her results would probably have created a lot of buy-in.
In addition, if Williams had recognised the crucial role of the antithesis—the counter-argument—in the deductive process, she might have welcomed the challenges from her audience as a sign of interest instead of a lack of respect.
The moral is clear. Presenting to Londoners or New Yorkers? Get to the point and stick to it. Presenting to Belgians, Spaniards, or Germans? Spend more time setting the parameters and explaining the background before jumping to your conclusion.
Erin Meyer is an Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD where she is also the Programme Director of Managing Global Virtual Teams and Management Skills for International Business two of INSEAD's executive development programmes. She is also the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. You can follow Erin on Twitter @ErinMeyerINSEAD
Interesting article. Some good content shared. Very helpful and reliable. Thanks for sharing this and keep up the good work. Very much appreciated.
I like your article.I am working on a project with Korean contractors and Middle Eastern supervision. The cultural differences on how to approach problems are many. I will try to apply your suggestions, which also provide a good analysis frame.
Re Latin America...my experience is that there is a wide variation from country to country and even region to region. For example, the Argentines are much more British in attitude than the Bolivians. What I've found helpful is to consider to what extent Spanish culture has (or has not) modified the indigenous population's culture...e.g. 95% in Mexico City but only 30% in parts of the Yucatan.
The presupposition being made and it could be empirically verified if we had the correct tools is that people from different learn differently.
This is great insight. For years I was not able to understand why most of our colleagues want proof (of things working) first before trying. This will change my way of thinking forever. Great learning.
How does this work in Latin America?
Thanks for your question. Latin Americans are much more Principles-first than North Americans although a bit less so than the Germans are.
It's so true , I have myself experienced this and must admit that I was at a loss . Now I am learning to understand the culture where I am in and do like they say when in Rome do like the Romans do .
How does this work while working with eastern cultures like china and Koreans
Since a couple of you have asked similar questions I will write the next blog about this. I'll contrast Asian and Western cognitive patterns and talk about how to adapt your style to be most persuasive across these contexts. Thanks for commenting. -Erin
Good examples for persuading Americans, Brits, Germans or Latins. What adaptations are necessary for Americans working with Japanese?
You need more patience and to be more formal in the way you address your Japanese clients. Trying to be on first-name terms from the beginning may not be well received by Japanese executives.
Thanks for the excellent question. I promise to write my next blog in response to this question. We will look at what is persuasive to Japanese versus Americans and talk about holistic and specific thought patterns.
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20/10/2021, 06.40 pm
These are good insights and I would also like to hear your view with regards to this topic on the African perspective, in terms of the method of persuasions that can work is it application first, principle first ot holistich approch.