Michaela Mendes

Managing a Cross-Cultural Team: Germany

by Michaela Mendes
May 2020
Reading Time: 6 minutes

The fourth-largest economy in the world, Germany has a nominal GDP of over $4 trillion and is ranked consistently above the OECD average for GDP (PPP) per hour worked, making it the third most productive nation in the world.

As the largest country in the EU, by both population and the fourth largest by area, Germany is home to more than 83 million people and encompasses nearly 138,000 square miles of territory. A leader in industry and technology, German is the world’s third-largest exporter and importer of goods. The country ranks 114th in ease of opening a new business and is home to 29 of the world’s 500 largest stock-market-listed companies.

The robust German economy has grown significantly as the country underwent a huge reconstruction in the post-war period. Today, Germany has one of the world’s most admired economies—helping to lead the way, economically, for the European Union.

Germany has a very distinct work culture compared to the rest of the world, and even the rest of Europe. In general, workers here are not as comfortable with high risk, ambiguity, or uncertainty. You will not find a lot of comfort with the “fast fail” culture many other areas have embraced. Start-up culture in Germany has had its growing pains, as a result, and it is not considered quite as robust as in areas such as Silicon Valley, New York City, London, Beijing, and Boston. That said, Berlin is still an area where many tech startups are hitting the scene and ranks in the top 30 worldwide, and shouldn’t be counted out as a significant center for innovation.

Germany is a rules-oriented country. German managers tend to work from precise agendas with rigorous detail and have a general aversion to risk. That can occasionally make the decision-making process feel slow—or even like it’s going in circles.

You might think that this rigidity might accompany a tendency to micromanage from leadership, but you’d be wrong. Quite the opposite. In spite of rigidity in rules—or perhaps because of it—there is a looseness and fluidity in a German management style that many experts ascribe to the presence of well-communicated guidelines and intensive training.

This tendency to respect rules results in less need for close supervision and provides more opportunities for self-direction. In 2017, a study from the Hans-Böckler-Foundation—which compared firms in Germany and the U.S.—found that “managers in German firms have an average of one supervisor for every 26 workers, whereas in the U.S. the ratio is one manager per seven employees.”  They also found that the cooperative relationship between workers and management in Germany resulted in higher trust than in the U.S., and less need for close oversight. As a result, German workers enjoy a degree of autonomy and self-sufficiency that is not as progressed in many other nations—a difference many experts highlight when looking at Germany’s very high productivity rates.

Germany: By the Numbers

  • Population: 82.79 Million
  • Time Zone: Germany uses Central European standard time (Mitteleuropäische Zeit, MEZ; UTC+01:00) and in the summer observes Central European Summer Time (Mitteleuropäische Sommerzeit, MESZ; UTC+02:00) from the last Sunday in March (02:00 CET) to the last Sunday in October (03:00 CEST).
  • Language: The official language in Germany is German
  • Currency: Euro
  • Office hours: Office hours in Germany are Monday-Friday, from 8 or 9am to 4 or 5pm, but more and more white-collar workers keep flexible schedules.
  • Appointments: Germans tend to be early risers, so mornings are generally better for appointments than late afternoon.
  • Scheduling: Schedule your meeting with German colleagues in advance, and be sure to be punctual. As the phrase goes in German: Pünktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Könige or: “punctuality is the politeness of kings”.

 

German Management Style

Here are some more expectations German employees might have from you as a manager, or how you can expect your German managers to conduct themselves:

  • Define the rules: Germans appreciate when managers clarify and adhere to a set rulebook. This not only aligns with the German preference for discipline and order but also creates a sense of mutual obligation that increases trust and productivity between managers and their teams. That’s because rules, consistency, and reliability are important values for Germans, who have a high uncertainty avoidance.
  • Casual dress: Perhaps surprisingly, most modern German teams don’t usually get super formal for work, and they don’t expect you to, either. Business casual is fairly common in many German tech workplaces, just as they are in the U.S. In start-up companies, you may see more T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.
  • Chain of command: Hierarchy is generally embraced and appreciated in Germany. If you’re the kind of boss who tends to circumvent layers of the organization you should consider if doing so will make your German employees uncomfortable, rather than flattered.
  • Privacy: Germans are more open than they’re usually given credit for, but managers shouldn’t try to delve too far into the private lives of their staff members. If your employees share with you, great. But if you’re asking too many deeply personal questions—your German employees might be likely to see it as intrusive. Germans might also find it strange if you overshare about your own life, so make sure you’re reading your audience well before you start confiding any highly personal information.
  • Perfectionism: Details matter in Germany, so expect that your team will not want to accept mistakes. Rushing them or asking them to cut corners—even when you think things are good enough— will negatively impact their opinion of you as a manager. If you want to limit a tendency to over-engineer or over-perfect, you will need to set those expectations upfront as part of the process.
  • Cake: In German offices, new workers are expected to bring a cake with them on the day  they start a new job—or shortly thereafter. The practice is known as the “Einstand” and is meant to show goodwill. (A round of drinks might also suffice here.) When leaving a job, employees share an Ausstand as a parting gift. Again, cake will do. Cake is also often brought in on your own birthday.

 

What To Expect from Your German Employees

What should you be expecting from your team members in Germany? Here are some of the common attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs you might encounter from your Germany employees:

  • Focus on work: While many cultures turn a blind eye toward socializing at work, Germans tend to spend their work hours very productively, with their focus very much on the task at hand.
  • Direct feedback: Don’t expect your German team to hold back if they see a mistake or an opportunity for improvement. German employees expect to be able to voice their opinions openly and don’t consider it rude to correct one another’s mistakes.
  • Life work balance: Your German team will be laser-focused at work, but don’t expect them to be checking email off-hours, because that focus is just as intense in the private sphere. Germans are better than many western cultures at drawing boundaries between work time and home time. It’s forbidden to contact employees on vacation under German law and many top companies have prohibited managers from calling or emailing staff after hours, except in serious emergencies. However, Germans do expect there will occasionally be a fire drill or crunch time and are willing to put in the extra effort.
  • Mahlzeit!: Literally, “Mealtime!” This is a German mealtime greeting that is equivalent to “Morning!” in English. If someone says it to you, just say it back.
  • Punctuality: You can expect your German team to be not just on time, but usually a few minutes early. “Better 5 minutes early than one minute late” is a common attitude. Make sure you return the compliment.
  • Not a lot of small talk: Germans tend to view small talk with some measure of suspicion, and even a simple “How are you?” can feel less than genuine to German ears. Likewise, they eschew effusive and non-specific praise. Most would prefer a few quiet but kind words to a gushing flood of hyperbole, and that’s typically what they will offer in return.
  • Sick days: The average German visits a doctor 18 times in just one year, and your German employees will expect to use their sick time if they are ill—even if it’s not an ailment that would keep you down. That usually means they are out for the duration. Germans aren’t as likely to power through and come to work during an illness as their coworkers in the U.S. or UK—and they’d rather you didn’t, either.

 

For a more thorough overview of hiring employees in Germany, please visit our Globalpedia.

Looking for more advice on finding, hiring, and managing your global team? Globalization Partners can help.

Globalization Partners makes it painless and easy to hire your team in Germany. You identify the talent, and we put your candidate on our already-existing, locally compliant payroll and benefits. Legally, the employee is on our payroll, but the team member is fully dedicated to you and will feel like a member of your team. This lifts the burden of HR, payroll and compliance from your shoulders to ours – and enables the employee to focus immediately on your business.

Contact us today to see how we can help you expand your team in Germany.

Michaela Mendes

Michaela Mendes

Michaela is passionate about helping brands build better relationships with their customers through creative storytelling. She has 9+ years of experience in content creation, digital advertising, social media, and community growth.

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