First of all, find our articles about our favorite companies in Germany by clicking below:
From January 28 to February 12, 2023, we explored Germany for the second stage of our Managerial Odyssey.
During this short but intense stay, we had the opportunity to meet about ten companies as well as 3 management experts. But above all, for 4 days we participated in the “Ambiente” trade show in Frankfurt, a huge fair where more than 4500 companies from 92 countries from all over the world gathered to present their innovations for 2023. The trade fair, which covered almost 330,000 square meters, also included a section dedicated to the future of work, where we were able to meet a large number of people who were taking their chance at creating and envisioning the company of the future. This was a highlight of our Odyssey.
During these two weeks, we visited the cities of Frankfurt and Hamburg. Although these cities gave us an incredibly interesting point of view, we know that our analysis of German culture is not exhaustive, and that the examples we will detail below do not reflect all the characteristics of our German neighbors.
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The companies we visited, the people we spoke with and the observations we made, led us to the following conclusion: Germans are very pragmatic.
One quickly realizes that moving forward in an efficient manner is something that is essential to work. Frédéric Genton, an expert in Franco-German intercultural management, explains that in Germany, work rhymes with rigor, productivity and results.
And this is directly noticeable in communications. The Germans use a direct, frontal approach to communication that catches many French people off guard… Straightforwardness is something that is appreciated in companies.
We were also told that this rigor is illustrated in the working hours. Indeed, our neighbors start their day earlier than we do, and do not have the same conception of breaks. A working day rarely starts after 8 a.m. and isn’t a real lunch break. Germans often take their “break” by eating a picnic (sandwich + raw vegetables) in front of their computer, at their workstation. A 30-minute break is mandatory for a person who works between 6 to 9 hours a day. This seems extremely short for a French person, who likes to take advantage of their lunch break byt spending a convivial moment with a shared meal, sitting at a table and ideally with a hot dish. In a way, we can say that the real German break is at the end of the day. We are also told that in companies, corridor discussions, long coffee breaks and cigarette breaks are frowned upon. Why? Because the Germans see them as a waste of time and efficiency.
This German pragmatism is even felt in the vocabulary. It is explained to us that vague expressions such as “globally”, ” feeling something” are incompatible with the prevailing mentality. Words themselves must be precise and clear.
This attitude also applied to punctuality, from starting a work meeting on time and respecting the time limit to arriving at a private party on time and not 20 minutes late.
We were also told that in Germany, one does not have the same personality at work and outside of work: there is a real break at the end of the day. The studious, rigorous and intense atmosphere of the working day ends with the feierabend. This is the moment, when everyone meets after a day’s work for a beer. At this point, the masks come off and the employee who was speaking to you in a formal manner an hour earlier starts talking to you on a casual basis and cracking jokes. From 5pm onwards, you can realize that the colleague who you thought was a bit too serious during the day is in fact very relaxed and funny. Germans are simply very pragmatic at work and as we often say Dienst ist Dienst, Schnaps ist Schnaps (which could be translated by “work is work and fun is fun”, schnapps meaning brandy). There is a real demarcation between work and personal life.
Another point that struck us and that was often mentioned during our interviews is the way experience is valued in Germany. While the French place a lot of importance on diplomas, the Germans tend to value experience and motivation. Anja Hiller, a specialist in Franco-German recruitment, explains that after each experience (internship, fixed-term contract, etc.), a German receives a certificate from his or her superior that highlights the skills that were acquired by a person. It describes the tasks performed, the responsibilities given and this letter will likely be taken into consideration for the next job. There is a real code, and it is important to know it, a code which only German employers understand. Indeed it contains special words that one must understand in order to know if a potential employee has worked well or not and if his personality was pleasant or complicated. Moreover, a person who is really motivated for a job can have the chance to apply for it, even if he/she lacks some skills. We give priority to personal skills over know-how, because a motivated employee is an employee who will work efficiently and with rigor.
This German pragmatism and rigor are not at all incompatible with the collective aspect and the importance of collaborative work. On the contrary, these two aspects can even be reconciled. Lawyer Sonja Locatelli describes German management as collegial. This means that in Germany, all employees work together to achieve a common goal (the actualization of a project). It’s true, you don’t work to make your boss look good, you work to make the project move forward. The search for efficiency and excellence are the motivating factors of a team.
However, be careful not to confuse the two: working collaboratively does not mean that there is no hierarchy.
Indeed, the structure of the organizational chart is very similar to what we have in France (pyramidal structure). The major difference is that in Germany the social relationship between the different levels of the hierarchy is different: if you don’t agree with your boss, you tell him, it is out of the question to be scared of it, and he will take it seriously. All employees can participate in the decision making process and the German boss is by no means divins. He ultimately makes the decision, but he cannot make it alone and will have to consult with his colleagues or subordinates first. This is how they truly move forward together. Consulting others is very important in Germany, it’s a sensitive point: they don’t want a person with too much power because of the trauma of the Second World War. Germans no longer want a leader who can control everything, like Hitler did until 1945.
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It should be remembered that in Germany, trade unions are generally very united and do not act politically or ideologically, always seeking solutions that reconcile the interests of the employees and those of the company.
Similarly, there is a high level of cooperation between management and employee representative bodies. Social dialogue is fluid and generally tends to lead to a systematic search for compromise, resulting in solutions that are acceptable for all stakeholders.
There are things that caught our attention during these two weeks that have led us to write this somewhat provocative title. In the world of work as well as in everyday life, German modernity is sometimes overtaken by the weight of habits and traditions.
Anne-Chrystelle Bätz, President of Employment Germany, explains that in the world of work, on the one hand, there are the “Mittelstand” companies, which form the backbone of the German economy and which often function in a very traditional way. These companies form a rather heterogeneous group of mainly family businesses and SMEs. They are characterized by their paternalism and by a certain archaism in industrial relations.
But on the other hand, more and more companies with an innovative and disruptive character are emerging, such as Fritz-Kola, which we visited in Hamburg. The company proudly displays its young, hip and dynamic corporate culture. There are also more and more startups that make use of freelancing or remote work, challenging the traditional German way of working. Moreover, Germany proudly shows its modernity by organizing large-scale trade fairs, some of which host spaces related to the future of work, like the one we attended in Frankfurt.
How can we not mention ecology? In Germany, renewable energies represent 40% of the country’s electricity production (it is 20% in France), which makes it a pioneer country in terms of green energy. Indeed, it is almost impossible to cross Germany without seeing huge wind farms. However, 45% of German electricity is produced by fossil fuels such as coal or gas, which, in addition to the ecological problem, complicates the country’s energy mix because of its dependence on Russian gas imports. Another contradiction.
Anja Hiller, also spoke to us about something that we believe is important. In Germany, there are more housewives or part-time workers than in France. Namely, part-time work is not like in France, where women often take Wednesdays off (so they work at 80%). In Germany, part-time work is done with a regular presence every day of the week (either in the morning or in the afternoon, therefore at 50%). In fact, within the German mentality, it is still often the woman who has to stay at home and look after the children. This is confirmed by Sonja Locatelli, who tells us that it is “frowned upon for a woman to have children and work full time”, at least until the children start school. This is probably due to the fact that childcare facilities close much earlier than in France (no later than 4pm) and that there are far fewer childcare assistants. However, we were informed that the rule concerning parental leave in Germany is quite progressive: 14 months are to be divided between the father and the mother. This is rather innovative because 14 months of leave is much higher than the European average, and the father can also use it. In practice, however, it is mainly the mother who stays at home and the father almost never takes paternity leave. Legislation is therefore evolving more rapidly than tradition.
As visitor-observer’s, we also felt this contradiction between modernity and antiquity. Indeed, it was often impossible for us to pay by credit card and we learned that Germany is the European country where cash is still most commonly used. Therefore, is the world’s 4th largest country lagging behind in the adoption of digital payments? Michael Teubenbacher, partner and agile management consultant, confirms this with an interesting example: he worked in China and Germany at the same time for a long time. And this was when the possibility of mobile payments (via Apple Pay or other), without a physical credit card, was introduced. Within 2 years, the whole of China was converted to it (or at least the coastal cities). Meanwhile, in Germany, no one over the age of 30 uses mobile payments. Thus the time it takes to adapt to new changes is not as quick in Germany as it is in China!
We are very happy to have had the chance to study management in Germany. It is an interesting country that has delivered a great wealth of knowledge in our quest to answer the question “How do today’s crises feed tomorrow’s management?
This neighboring country is truly different from ours and the cultural differences between both countries are undoubtedly felt.
Although the cultural differences are undeniable, we believe that it is essential to preserve the strength of the Franco-German partnership. Whether through youth exchanges, town twinning, economic cooperation, joint media projects, cooperation in science and research, etc. The Franco-German partnership is ultimately the engine of the European Union’s power on the international scene.
We hope you enjoyed this article! Thanks and see you soon!
Élodie & Dimitri