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German culture: the advantages of being hierarchical, procedural and rigid

Thursday April 10th, 2014

A well-researched article today in FD concluded that in the economic recovery after the financial crisis of the last few years, Germany is the fastest growing economy in Europe, and the speed at which Germany is getting back to pre-crisis production rates is impressive. The Hamburg harbor is busier than ever before, Siemens cannot cope with the increased demand for their new generations of gas turbines, and German construction businesses are preparing for an impuls in demand for the coming years and foresee labour shortages. Just a few examples of Germany leading Europe out of the crisis years.

The German culture differs from the Dutch business culture in a number of ways. We zoom in on 3 regular prejudices against Germans in the workplace:

  1. Authority and hierarchy are very important to Germans. Anything that contributes to status and position is very well researched (what academic degrees has the other person, how long is he in business already, what is the professonal background of the people you deal with, at which position in the company are they). Business is hierarchical, and people with authority are treated with lots of respect
  2. Rules and processes ‘rule’. Germans adhere to protocol and are often called the ‘masters of planning’. Figuur_Blog9Formal documents that are missing can block an entire business deal, and decision-making can be slow when permission is sought from a wide variety of authorities and specialists. The uncertainty-avoiding nature of Germans make them look for anything that provides certainty, and rules and regulations help with that
  3.  Rigid. Germans make sharp distinctions between right and wrong, allowed and forbidden, black and white. This provides them the structure and order they so much look for, but comes across to us as inflexible and rigid. Breaking the rules for the benefit of the company is unheard of in Germany; rules are there to be respected, and even if they don’t work and block progress, a German will never break the rule

The above decription of German culture comes form a Dutch perspective, obviously. But there’s always two sides to every story. In the case of the Dutch – frequently described by other cultures as ‘direct’ and ‘blunt’ – the other side of the story is that we have the intention to be honest, and our directness serves the purpose of ‘saying it as it is’. In a similar way, there is very good sides to the specifics of the German culture as well, and other cultures realizing this and then using it in their advantage may very much benefit from a business relationship with German partners. But how to appreciate the Germans and take advantage of their business culture? A lesson for the Dutch:

  1. Authority and hierarchy can be used to take shortcuts and enforce decisions. When processes are slow and complex, spending time to get buy-in from those higher in rank and position can help to realize business deals in a fast and efficient manner. The advantage of authority and hierarchy is that it provides clarity in decision-making. We Dutch can learn from that!Figuur_Blog9_2(1)- (1)
  2. The advantage of rules and processes is that they describe in detail how things are supposed to be done, and this can be used in your advantage when dealing with Germany. Make sure you ask lots of questions to understand their processes, structures and interests in detail, and use that knowledge when making a proposal. When your proposal already fits their procedures and structures, it will be easily accepted by the Germans. Detailed and good listening skills are essential for this!
  3. The rigidity that we experience from our business counterparts has a clear advantage as well: when a decision has been taken, this decision will not be changed anymore. In the long run, this provides efficiency, while the Dutch tendency to discuss everything at length often blocks efficiency. Dutch business people are highly respected by their German counterparts when they stick to decisions that have been made, and when they expect this from their fellow Dutch colleagues as well.

Respect for hierarchy and authority, following rules and processes and being clear and     rigid in decision making have never blocked the progress of companies like Siemens, Adidas, Bayer, BMW or Carl Zeiss. On the contrary. The public image of quality and strength of these brands has done them lots of good. An important lesson for the Dutch when planning their long-term economic competitiveness, and setting aside the investments needed for high-quality education for our future workforce.

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