I would love to introduce you to James Meads, the founder of Live Work Germany. James is a native Brit from the Birmingham area, who moved to Germany in 2006 for a career opportunity and has experienced all kinds of ups and downs of living and working in Germany ever since!
James agreed to share his experiences and insights about working in the German culture with us – make yourself some favourite drink and read his interesting story!
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Just thinking about writing this article, it is clear to me that my natural home in terms of business culture would probably have been somewhere more Latin rather than Germanic.
Whilst the British and the Germans are very similar in many ways, especially socially, culturally and in our home lives, one area where we are definitely somewhat more distant is in the world of work.
How I Struggled
Even though I had lived in Germany for a year during my studies, making the move to work as a manager in a German office of an international company was very different. I didn’t have anyone to fall back on. I was the first hire in what effectively was a new strategic sourcing department being set up in Germany, so there was no precedent to follow.
Looking back, I hadn’t really prepared adequately. I had researched and planned my relocation and found somewhere permanent to live before making the move. The actual move itself went very well and I settled in very quickly all things considered. I spoke the language from my time in Germany as a student, which certainly helped immensely. Perhaps because of this I didn’t realise that some of the more subtle differences would be so important.
My boss, for example, could not comprehend why I got into the office at exactly 9:00 every morning, instead of arriving at 7:30 to have some “quiet time” to be productive before the emails and meetings vacuum up your time. He was an early riser and I, well, wasn’t. My theory on this stems from the fact that Germans start school at 7:30, and so from an early point in their lives, have got used to early mornings being part of their routine. Granted, not all Germans are morning people. However, I have definitely found them in general to start their working day earlier than the British do.
Then there was figuring out who was happy to be addressed as “Du” rather than “Sie” (a whole cultural minefield in itself, insofar as there are no absolute hard and fast rules, except for when you’re a kid and you address more or less everyone formally). The easiest way I found to adapt to this was to swim with the current and let the Germans lead on this. If they addressed me as Du, I would follow. If in doubt, or if I was making the first contact in the conversation, I would err on the side of caution and use the formal Sie form.
So, other than some of the more weird aspects of working in a German office, for example, the extreme sensitivity to any kind of draught from open windows, and greeting everyone at lunchtime with “Mahlzeit” (literally translated as “mealtime”), below are what I see as the most significant differences I have found in German business culture.
Work Life vs. Private Life
The German workplace is notoriously formal. There is a distinct separation Germans like to make between private and professional life. Don’t expect your German colleagues to take you for a beer when you’re the new guy.
The German word “Feierabend”, used to describe the time when a worker finishes for the evening, perfectly encapsulates this. Work time is for working. Feierabend is for leisure activities or family time.
Banter is an integral part of most British workplaces. It’s the jokes and sense of humour and jovial approach to work which gets most Brits through the tough working day and their often stressful, demanding jobs with a smile on their face. Just to be clear: there is a big difference between friendly banter and unwanted harassment or bullying. I refer to the former here.
In Germany though, banter just isn’t really a thing. The stark compartmentalisation of professional and private life is such that work is work and your colleagues usually aren’t your mates, unless you’re working in an office with a lot of expats or international staff.
Germans meticulously plan for every eventuality. I read a very interesting article recently in Global Handelsblatt where it compared the German and American methods of decision-making. It’s absolutely spot on. German business culture does tend to deliberate and consider every conceivable risk or consequence of a decision, and typically involve more stakeholders into the process.
This consensual decision-making process and thoughtful consideration of risks inevitably elongates the time taken to reach critical project milestones. Implementation though, on the other hand, often runs smoothly with fewer operational issues further down the line because everything has been thought through in advance.
American management style is much more top-down: The “just do it” and execute fast mentality. Business units and divisions are given the autonomy of how to implement something, but saying no is not an option. Implementation of a strategy is often broken down into smaller pieces to ensure execution is more nimble and happens more quickly.
This was probably the toughest of all for me. I’m the “get to the airport 45 minutes before my flight departs” kind of chap.
Germans are sticklers for punctuality. Being late is seen as rude and inconsiderate in German business culture, and gives an impression of being disorganised or sloppy. Meetings here start on the dot. It’s normal for German colleagues to arrive 5-10 minutes early, stand awkwardly by the coffee machine or shuffle papers, check their phones and such whilst impatiently waiting for other attendees to arrive, and then meetings typically start promptly on the hour. Perhaps a round of introductions if some attendees do not know everyone, and then straight into item 1 on the agenda. And yes, there will almost always be a detailed agenda, sent in advance.
Don’t Bother With Small Talk
In the German psyche, small talk and chit-chat is seen as being superficial and a waste of time. What’s the point in talking about the weather or football or what your kids did at the weekend to somebody who really doesn’t care and is here to talk business with you? That’s the way Germans tick. And to be honest, I coped with this one pretty easily. While I always try to be friendly and courteous to strangers, I don’t really need to know every last detail of their personal lives if they are just business contacts.
Direct And Forthright (But Definitely Not Rude!)
Saying what you think in Germany is normal. Beating about the bush isn’t. Brits and Americans often mistake this for Germans being rude.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve found that Germans can sometimes have an air of “we know best” (the German word for this is Besserwisser, which I love!) and the accusation of arrogance can sometimes be well justified, especially if you work with Bavarians or Swabians.
However, I have found most Germans to be very courteous and polite, but most certainly not afraid to speak up and say what they think and express their opinion, even if that view may upset someone.
It’s just how they tick. They don’t deliberately want to hurt someone’s feelings but they also don’t see reservedness as serving a useful purpose, at least not in a business environment.
Germans tend to view change suspiciously. My own personal experience for example has been that introducing new vendors is only possible when it has been proven in another manufacturing location and is being driven as a best practice.
Part of this may be apportionable to the German trait of looking at a proposal and seeking out potential risks or problems with it: What could potentially go wrong? Whereas the British would tend to approach it with a more positive, forward-looking mindset of what must be accomplished or put in place in order to make this inevitable change a success.
Germans rarely want to be early adopters. The enduring cash culture and only very recent large-scale adoption of contactless payment terminals serves to underline this.
How I Coped And Flourished
I learned that some things are simply non-negotiable and I had to adapt to them.
Turning up to a meeting 5 minutes late or not sending out an agenda in advance are just not acceptable to Germans. I had to become much more disciplined in my approach to work, to do more advance preparation and planning, and not rely on my British tendency to just “wing it”. What may have served me fine in the UK just didn’t win me any friends when behaving that way in German business culture.
Once I had got the basics which were cornerstones to a good, respectful interaction with German colleagues right, I actually learned to use some of my more British strengths to my advantage to get ahead of the curve and apply them to succeed where some of my colleagues struggled, or were not able to think in a different mindset.
There is definitely some truth that Germans are the best at planning for how to cope with a crisis, but the British are actually better at reacting when a crisis or unplanned event actually unexpectedly happens. Whereas Germans are not good at dealing with chaos, the British are actually quite comfortable at managing and dealing with it.
Getting things done as being the primary objective, and deviating from a process if necessary, has also yielded results in some cases. Pragmatism over process is something which I definitely think Germans could benefit from, by incorporating this nimble flexibility and willingness to occasionally bend the rules into their business culture. Are rules and processes potentially stifling creativity?
Creativity and thinking outside the box are indeed the areas where I have found myself to be most at odds with my German colleagues, but ultimately have been most respected for bringing fresh thought to the table. Clearly, the “soft skills” of negotiation, influence and persuasion are absolutely necessary when dealing with this type of situation. Which is why ultimately, I guess, emotional intelligence and soft skills are becoming more in demand from international recruiters in an increasingly global business environment.
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Wow, that’s quite a lot of information to process! Thank you James for sharing your perspectives and experiences of working in Germany.
James Meads – a native Brit from the Birmingham area, James moved to Germany in 2006 for a career opportunity. Since then, he has had 3 different jobs, become fluent in German, figured out how to submit his tax return, been both a tenant and a landlord, started his own business and, most importantly, learned what makes Germans tick (well, kind of!)
With his language capabilities and knowledge gained over the past 12 years of “how things work” in Germany, he has also helped friends do most of the above. This evolved into Live Work Germany, firstly as a blog, which expanded in late 2017 to offer online services & consulting to expats and those seeking to move to Germany. Live Work Germany helps newly arrived foreigners settle in, understand the German culture and deal with the bureaucracy or processes requiring German language.
I’m keen to hear the thoughts of other people who have had the chance to work in Germany or with German people – has your experience been similar? What was the biggest challenge when working with the German culture? For Germans who were working in the UK, what were your biggest surprises? What were the easiest things to adjust to?