Managing in Germany
Working With German Culture and Teams
If you've been asked to lead a team in Germany, then you have a lot to look forward to! Germany is Europe's largest economy, and it's rich in history and culture. It is also a wealthy country, with many skilled professionals and with a lot of natural beauty.
However, managing a German team takes a unique approach, and some of the management techniques that work well in the U.S. or U.K. will be ineffective or even frowned upon here.
In this article, we'll look at how to manage a German team, whether you're relocating or managing a virtual team from your home base. We'll cover employment law and business etiquette, and we'll look at how you can get the best from your people.
Keep in mind that this is only a general guide. The workforce in Germany is sophisticated and culturally diverse. Therefore, you should use your own best judgment when leading your team and when doing business with German organizations.
Roughly 82 million people live in Germany, and it's one of the most densely populated countries in the world. However, German people care deeply about the environment, and 32 percent of the country's land surface is covered by forest. Germany was also one of the first countries in the world to elect a political party with an environmental platform (the Green Party).
More than 82 million people live in Germany.
German is the official language here, but English and French are studied widely in schools. When working in major cities, you'll likely find that most professionals speak at least some English.
German law requires every employee to have an employment contract that spells out the details of the working relationship.
Most employment contracts are unlimited, which means that they're valid for an indefinite period. However, you'll usually have a probationary period of one to six months, depending on your position, before the contract becomes binding.
Similar to some other countries, many German employees are paid a 13th month salary. If your employment contract states that you'll be paid a "holiday bonus," it usually means that you'll receive an extra month's salary each year.
The German workweek varies depending on the organization and industry you're in, and some companies work a four-day week to preserve jobs. Others average around 41 hours per week, while still others close down entirely on Friday afternoons. Before setting any appointments or deadlines with another organization, find out about its operating hours.
German people enjoy a generous holiday and vacation allowance. Under German law, every employee is entitled to at least 20 days of paid vacation. However, many get up to six weeks of paid time off each year.
Germany has many public holidays. However, keep in mind that Germany is divided into 16 federal states. These states generally follow Germany's national holidays, but they also observe state-specific holidays. Check local customs before setting deadlines or scheduling appointments.
Germany's public holidays are listed below:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Epiphany – January 6.
- Good Friday – Date changes each year (March 30 in 2018).
- Easter Monday – Date changes each year (April 2 in 2018).
- Labor Day – May 1.
- Ascension – Date changes each year (May 10 in 2018).
- Whit Monday – Date changes each year (May 21 in 2018).
- Day of German Unity – October 3.
- Christmas Day – December 25.
- Second Christmas Day – December 26.
Most organizations close entirely over the Christmas holiday period, and employees at these organizations are usually required to take part of their annual leave allowance during this time.
Getting the Best from Your Team
When you manage a German team, you should take a slightly different approach from the one that you'd use if you were managing, say, a U.K. or U.S. team.
Follow these strategies to get the best from your people:
- Praise people sparingly – You might be met with silence or even mistrust if you praise people excessively for good performance. This is because praising others publicly can be viewed as "buttering them up," and this will only embarrass your team. Acknowledge people's good work, but don't overdo this.
Build loyalty and trust – This is important in Germany. Once you gain the loyalty of your team members, they'll do just about anything for you. However, loyalty takes time to develop, and you must take the first step by proving to your German team members that you're worthy of their esteem and trust.
To build trust, you must "walk the walk" from day one and show your new team members the values and behaviors you'd like to see in them. Be authentic and honest, and never assume that you know what your people are thinking. Show respect for them by asking their opinion, consulting their expertise, and being interested in the way that they work.
Use thorough decision-making processes – Many German people are risk-averse. If you and your team need to make a risky decision, do as much research as possible to support your decision. The importance of research and fact checking can't be overstated: German people respect facts and data, and they immediately distrust hype or exaggeration. So, make sure that you rely on case studies, examples, and facts as evidence.
Your team members will want to know a plan will work before they take a risk. If you put forth a plan or idea before you've done your research, you may lose face and trust.
Your boss or team might also ask you to supply a lot of information about a plan or proposal. Don't take offense; remember, information and facts are important. Make sure that the information is solid, since it will likely be examined closely.
- Provide rules and direction – If you set a deadline and provide instructions to your team, you can expect these to be followed to the letter. In addition, it might take a while for your team members to reach a decision as they work through a thorough decision-making process, so don't become impatient. Once they reach their decision, they'll stick to it.
German people are often formal and reserved in public. However, once your German colleagues and team members like and trust you, you'll likely find them open, friendly, and generous. Customs and behavior vary widely, though, depending on which part of the country people are from. For instance, you might find that people from some parts of Germany are open and friendly to you when you first meet them.
German people tend to be quite direct, so don't be offended when they tell you exactly how they feel! They also usually expect direct eye contact when shaking hands and doing business. If you don't look them in the eye, they'll likely see you as untrustworthy.
Titles are important in Germany. When addressing someone, make sure that you use a formal title, such as "Herr" for Mr., and "Frau" for Mrs. or Ms. Professional titles, such as for doctors, attorneys, engineers, or pastors, are very important as well. Address them with their social title (such as "Herr"), and then their professional title (such as "Dr").
Here are further general tips for managing and working in Germany:
- When speaking, try to finish every sentence you start instead of letting it trail off. In the German language, the most important word in a sentence is often the last one; German people are in the habit of listening to the entire sentence, especially the end. They may be confused if you don't finish what you mean to say!
- Punctuality is extremely important in Germany. Be on time for every appointment, meeting, or social engagement.
- Germany uses a 24-hour clock, and the custom of telling the half-hour is slightly different from that in other countries. For instance, in the U.K. you might say 9:30 as "half-nine" or "half-past nine," German people will say "half ten."
- If you're from the U.S., you might be used to eating lunch at your desk. This is generally frowned upon in Germany, as breaks are meant to be taken. Unless you have an urgent deadline, eat lunch with your colleagues away from your work space.
- Many German people consider business a serious affair. Humor at work is often not appreciated.
- Privacy is highly valued in Germany. This means that in many organizations, office doors are kept closed. Always knock and wait to be admitted into someone's office.
- If a German person invites you to his or her home for dinner, it's a real honor. To make a great impression, send a bouquet of flowers ahead of time, making sure that the bouquet is not too large and has an uneven number of flowers (but not thirteen). Never send red roses, as those are used in romantic relationships, and avoid funeral flowers such as heather, carnations, and lilies.
- German business dress is conservative. If you're a man, choose dark suits and ties. If you are a women, conservative, dark suits and pantsuits are the norm.
- Some topics are strictly off-limits in Germany: avoid referring to the Second World War or the split between East and West Germany. Stick to topics such as sports and activities, including soccer, hiking, or skiing. Another safe and often welcome topic is Germany's diverse beer selection: more than 1,500 varieties are made in the country!
Our articles on Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions and the Seven Dimensions of Culture can also help you get a better understanding of workplace and cultural values in Germany, and in other countries around the world.
Germany is a densely populated country, and is one of the world's largest economies. German is the official language, but many people speak at least some English.
When managing a German team, avoid offering public praise, since many German people view praise with mistrust.
German people trust facts, case studies and examples. Never present an idea unless you have the research and facts to prove it could work. Finally, don't take offense if your German team members ask for additional information from you when you're making a decision.