5 Cultural Things to Expect in a German Workplace

Wiebke Homborg runs Chameleon, which provides intercultural training and expat coaching. She is currently offering an online course on working in Germany, and I thought I’d invite her to write a guest post about what cultural surprises expats can expect in the workplace.–

Working with Germans: they’re perfectionists, blunt, overpunctual, like to criticize, have no clue how to do small talk and completely lack a sense of humor. These are a few of the most popular stereotypes floating around in the press and in social media. There are also a few positive ones: Germans are well-organized, efficient, determined and reliable. 

Honestly, I am tired of hearing the same stereotypes over and over again. Stereotypes may help people vent some of their adaptation struggles, and they may hold a grain of truth, but in the long run they lead nowhere. If you have an honest interest in getting to know a new culture, and your desire is to be integrated into a foreign society, it is up to you to take a deeper look.

This is especially true if you’re planning on working in Germany. But once you go beyond the stereotypes, you’ll discover a series of cultural standards in German workplaces. Here are 5 of them, and how you can adjust to them. 

Cultural complexity

As in every country, Germany does not consist of just one national culture. As Andy Molinsky, author of “Global Dexterity” points out:

“The mistake isn‘t thinking that national cultural differences matter. The mistake is thinking that they are ALL that matters.”

Become aware of individual, regional and generational differences. Take into account company and industry norms. Include the specific situation and the context in your judgement.

Task-orientation

If you are a task-oriented person yourself, you will most likely find it easy to thrive in a German work environment. If you are a more relationship-oriented person, it will be harder to understand the way business is most commonly handled in Germany. As a highly industrialized nation that takes a lot of pride in engineering and production technology, building relationships has never been as much the focus in Germany as it might be for other trade-oriented nations.

Germans build trust by explaining the advantages of a product though data, quality, price, functionality and efficient processes. A good long-term business relationship is nice to have, but might not be enough if the hard facts don’t match. 

Separation of life spheres

An old German proverb goes “Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps“, which suggests not to mix business with pleasure. It is very common in Germany to come to work to do just that: work. Distractions and conversations about personal matters might be frowned upon. By the same token, too many extra hours are regarded as unprofessional and inefficient. The idea is that you should try to work efficiently to be able to head home early to enjoy your well-earned free time with family, friends or hobbies.

If you are invited to a private party by your co-workers, you might find that the same person acts quite differently in their private environment than at work. However, the smart phone has torpedoed this clear separation, and Germans now also find themselves “always available” to their boss, employees or customers, often leading to great stress.

Hierarchy with autonomy

Traditional, large corporations tend to work with a rigid, hierarchical structure and value formal address (“Sie”) and titles. Young, more agile firms will cultivate a predominantly informal atmosphere with little hierarchy. In both cases, don’t expect to receive detailed instructions and continuous support automatically; autonomy is highly valued and you should take it as a sign of trust that you are allowed (and expected) to work independently.

Rules

Yes, Germany has many written and unwritten rules, and people will not refrain from pointing them out to you. It can be a minefield for foreigners, and knowing or making sense of all of them seems impossible. Try this perspective: Remember the social aspect of rules. They provide more safety, justice and equality. They are the side effect of our democracy. The downside are too many rules for every exception and as a consequence an exaggerated bureaucracy. Try no to take any of this personally; it is simply how things work in Germany.

 

My recommendation, and this applies to any country, is to keep in mind that most people are not aware of their own cultural imprint. We only become aware of it when we move across cultures and feel the culture clash ourselves. So cut the Germans some slack. For a start, seek the ones who have a broader world-view, who are aware of cultural differences and who will be happy to explain how things work to you. Stay curious and open-minded, ask many questions to understand the values that drive the people around you, and be prepared for cultural mishaps and surprises. The reward is high! You will build meaningful relationships, work more effectively and successfully and have an extraordinary overall experience.

Intercultural coaching

If you want to improve your intercultural competence but stay authentic at the same time, or if you want to learn how to adapt your personal style to a new cultural environment without losing yourself in the process, then an intercultural training is for you. Check out my current online course “Working in Germany” here: www.chameleon-coaching.com/en/workingingermany or book an individual training.

 

Guest post by Wiebke Homborg

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