Rosetta stone to work success in Germany?

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I'm a U.S. expat who has been here in Germany for some time now, although for most of my "German life" I have been working with U.S. companies (remotely.) For the last three years, I've changed to more traditional jobs in Germany (albeit, "traditional" prior to the pandemic) - where I'm working with Germans, in a German environment. To make matters worse, these years have been spent in German academia, versus typical corporate culture (which is where I worked with the U.S. companies.)

 

In German social life, I've learned that the subtleties and expectations of interaction are slightly different than in the U.S. For example, a person would never remind a stranger to pick up their trash in the U.S. This would go beyond rude, to border on fightin' words! But here in Germany, it is considered quite reasonable. I bring this up not as a complaint, but as a recognition that all of the subtle cultural and social queues I have learned as "appropriate" and even "required for success" are quite different here.

 

I'm finding this especially difficult in the work place. For example...

 

In U.S. corporate culture, it is expected - if you want to be successful - that people automatically take the initiative and self-assign leadership roles. When you see organization needed, you organize. If your team doesn't know what to do, and you do (or think you do) - you take charge and try to get the team moving in the right direction. 

 

No one will "tell" you this. It is certainly not written down anywhere. But it is such a subtle, critical social expectation - that failing to do so will ensure you never get promoted. The ability to show leadership, to get people to follow you, and take control of projects is mandatory for success. It's how you tell the "quality" people from the people who won't make it through the next set of cuts. 

 

So, in my new work here, I did this instinctively (as I have at every successful job I've had) and discovered this was seen as quite inappropriate. Attempting to "take charge" - when authority had not been specifically assigned - was quite a faux pas. I'm not clear if this is a "German thing", or if this was isolated to German academia, or if it was just this particular environment (which was very focused on a having a "flat hierarchy.")

 

So these are my questions!

  • What are the subtle, unspoken expectations for success in German companies?
  • How/where can I learn them? (I don't have another 40 years to absorb them organically, like I did growing up in the U.S: :D)
  • Any good articles on the subject?
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I am wondering how much is also due to age / generational attitudes!    Have seen this in other countries- where younger

colleagues  have very different feelings !

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Just now, RedMidge said:

I am wondering how much is also due to age / generational attitudes!    Have seen this in other countries- where younger

colleagues  have very different feelings !

I'm curious about this too. I have two direct bosses: one my age (50's), and one slightly younger (40's.) But the majority of the team is very young (Masters and PhD candidates.) I have received mixed responses from my bosses regarding my "taking a leadership role."

 

Honestly, this mixed response is part of why I'm asking the questions here. :D

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I've seen the resistance to people taking charge as you say but also the opposite. I've also seen US colleagues show absolutely no initiative and be complete assholes.   

I've also had French, British and German colleagues also be huge assholes. 

I've seen mangers that like people to show initiative , managers that don't and even one or two that micromanaged their staff. 

 

What I generally do is in a new position is keep quiet, see how the land lies so to speak and mix in. If I don't like how the land lies, I have looked for something else (not always easy to find that something else at times).. 

I've worked with super competent people, worked with very incompetent people and have filled both those roles at different times myself.

 

People is people and they different :lol:

 

That's not to say that you may find a certain trait more often in a certain group, but I always try not to think that way and just see how people behave.

 

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Wow, this sounds exactly like my situation right now. I am a British expat, started off my German "career" in academia before transitioning to the private sector (I am currently one of two foreign staff members in a company of 150).

 

I can't say that I have definitive answers to your questions, but this has been my experience:

 

- A traditional German company is hierarchically structured. When you are hired, it's not necessary expected or assumed that you will be able to rise above your station, especially if you are female. That is how the economy works and this has worked relatively well until now. You were hired to fulfil the tasks that needed to be done, so tough luck if you are overqualified. I have witnessed at least two ambitious and smart North American, female colleagues try to show initiative, build their business unit, win big contracts etc, and then get frustrated with the lack of recognition and promotion from their superiors and quit.

 

- The Germans I work with seem to be suspicious about handing over responsibility to foreigners. I was told yesterday that there was a degree of scepticism about whether to allocate a more demanding role to me, despite my colleagues not being able to point to any specific reason or any poor quality in my work. It seems that you really have to work extraordinarily hard and be perfect over an extended period of time to convince them to hedge their bets on you. I put this down to a generally risk-averse culture in German society. You can see that in almost all areas of German life - their obsession with insurance, the cautious approach to delivering the covid vaccines...So if you try to demonstrate a more "muscular" approach and assign yourself a leadership position without a thorough Abstimmungsprozess with your colleagues, they are likely to be freaked out by this and will try and rein you in (dich bremsen). Perhaps if you want to play by their rules, the best thing would be to start off by making gentle suggestions as to where you can support the team.

 

- A work culture that is punitive towards mistakes will encourage micromanagement. Younger colleagues will, due to the relative precarity of their positions, tend to be more fixated on perfection and worried about things going wrong than the colleagues in their 50s who have been there long enough to have relaxed into their roles.

 

I still don't know what the answer is, but I am now working with an external mentor (a German) to help me get another perspective on all of this. Check out Daniel Ryan-Spaulding on Instagram, he's done some really funny material on the trials and tribulations of working with Germans.

 

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I think it all depends on your definition of "taking leadership". Are you trying to be a leader or a manager? The way you describe the situation, it sounds like you have reached a dead end during a brainstorming session and while people are trying to come up with solutions, you suddenly start giving commands to people for further investigations. Nobody likes being bossed around, especially by people who are supposed to be your equal. In my experience, Germans react to being inspired by fresh (but reasonable) ideas and proper organisation. This is the value that you bring to the group. You can use ideas to stimulate the discussion and include part of their own ideas to the plan while praising them. Then, once the whole plan seems to be robust and low-risk, you can suggest a course of actions and indirectly assign tasks to people. You said so yourself, you need to "get people to follow you". It's just done in a different way. You need to earn the leadership role and not (only) by being the loudest person in the room.

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Germans react to being inspired by fresh (but reasonable) ideas and proper organisation. ... You can use ideas to stimulate the discussion and include part of their own ideas to the plan while praising them. Then, once the whole plan seems to be robust and low-risk, you can suggest a course of actions and indirectly assign tasks to people.

And, I'm asking sincerely ...

 

How do you handle impasses?

 

I.e. How would handle a situation where you're in a flat hierarchy with Junior developers who have a few years of experience, and are about to make a very common mistake you've seen often in your 30 years experience ... but they're really convinced of it and you can't make them change their minds (often because the mistake won't be apparent for a year down the road?)

 

As a person who has been a manager (although, not in this specific situation), I strongly encourage positive reinforcement, and creating an environment that allows for an open, uninhibited, exchange of ideas. But, at some point, people do have to have a decision maker. Trying to come to every decision by committee - especially when you have a very disparate group of skills and experience in a group, often means 30 minute discussions last a week ... or never get resolved at all.

 

I will admit, that this is one of the faux pas I have made in German culture. As a rule, the German decision making process is often painfully slow, inefficient, and (honestly) somewhat nonsensical to an American mindset. While I'm aware of this, and aware of the need to be culturally sensitive - it is the crux of the question. How to handle ineffective processes that are, unfortunately, often engrained into the culture. 

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