Europe, oh Europe. A strange accumulation of a vast array of different countries, different cultures, and different languages. Each with its own norms and values. Some good at particular sports, and some… less so. Europe is often seen as a continent that can be split in two: Northern and Southern Europe. And while that is technically true – there are many cultural differences between the southern and northern countries – the two blocks of countries are far more heterogenous than we might think.
Germany may be the prime example of that very notion. Despite more than a few similarities between Germany and other Northern countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, it clearly resembles its other neighbours too. In many parts, Germany isn’t all that different from Poland and other Mid-European countries. You could even make an argument that Germany itself consists of two different countries, stemming from when it was divided in two global blocs after World War II.
Keep the German culture in mind
Something to take in mind is the notion that a country’s culture is always directly reflected in its corporate culture. When looking to hire personnel from Germany or looking to bring in personnel from other countries into Germany, some knowledge with regards to its corporate culture (and therefore its culture in general) is an absolute necessity.
While culture is something we’re taught, and not innate; it is transmitted through our social environment, not through our genes. Personalities are what they say on the tin: personal. That means that even though we may be fully intertwined with a certain culture, its subsequent set of spoken and unspoken rules, its values, and everything else – we do have an ability to break free from what seems like part of our DNA at times: our culture. Empathy is the first step toward understanding that your colleague or employee may live by different rules. Not because he or she is a bad character, but because of his or her cultural background.
The cultural model of Geert Hofstede
To map out a company or organisational culture, many use the cultural model of Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, who sadly passed away in February 2020 aged 91. Hofstede’s work is not undisputed – and attempts have been made to develop an alternative to his model. Management consultants Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner once came up with their own seven-dimensional culture model, but it failed to catch on at a larger scale.
Hofstede’s model starts with the definition of what culture really is. He describes it as ‘the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others’. Hofstede then continues to identify the differences between cultures based on six dimensions.
The six dimensions of culture:
1. Power Distance Index: the degree of accepted inequality and hierarchy in a society
2. Individualism versus Collectivism: the degree to which people want to act more as individuals than as members of a group. In this, the emphasis lies on an autonomous individual or family, clan or community that determines the role of the individual.
3. Masculinity versus Femininity: focuses on the extent to which a society stresses achievement or nurture. Masculinity is seen to be the trait which emphasises ambition, acquisition of wealth, and differentiated gender roles. Femininity is seen to be the trait which stresses caring and nurturing behaviours, sexual equality, environmental awareness, and more fluid gender roles.
4. Uncertainty Avoidance: the dimension that describes the extent to which people in society are not at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty.
5. Long-Term versus Short-Term Orientation: the former describes the inclination of a society toward searching for virtue, whereas the latter pertains to those societies that are strongly inclined toward the establishment of the absolute truth.
6. Indulgence versus Restraint: revolves around the degree to which societies can exercise control over their desires and impulses.
The German culture: masculine and sober
Looking at a context of a Southern versus a Northern culture, and taking Hofstede’s model as the backdrop, there are five main differences that we are able to pick out with regards to the German culture.
1. With regards to the Power Distance Index, Southern countries score high, while the Northern countries score low. Southern countries have a tendency to largely accept hierarchy and inequality easier than their Northern counterparts. In the North there is more of an emphasis on equality and an (equal) distribution of power.
From the outside looking in, Germans often seem fairly formal and polite, which could lead to a high score with regards to power distance… but this isn’t quite as black and white as it may appear. It actually doesn’t say much at all about the power relations. After all, it’s no surprise the somewhat outdated Rhineland model stems from Germany. Employers are generally not only expected to strive for profit maximisation and to implement the wishes of shareholders, as is the case within the U.S. and U.K. dominant Anglo-Saxon model. Germans have to go one step further: they must serve the interests of employees and other parties involved in the company and involve them in every type of decision-making.
2. With regards to individualism, Southern countries score low, with more of an emphasis on loyalty to family and authority (think of the church, too). The Northern countries are far more individualistic.
The latter applies to Germany. Though they don’t touch their Western neighbours, the Netherlands, which is commonly seen as the most individualised society of Europe. To quote Hofstede: “There is a strong belief in the ideal of self-actualization. Loyalty is based on personal preferences for people as well as a sense of duty and responsibility. This is defined by the contract between the employer and the employee. Communication is among the most direct in the world following the ideal to be “honest, even if it hurts” – and by this giving the counterpart a fair chance to learn from mistakes.”
3. Masculinity is strongly represented in Southern countries, as is the case for Belgium. Northern countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands score higher on femininity.
Though the sentence above may indicate a certain feminine sentiment about Northern European countries, Germany is the firm exception to the rule. Its culture is relatively harsh and focused on performance. According to some expects, this is visible in the notion that the Germans never lose on penalties – and their football team has been so successful over the past decades. Not because they play so well, but because of their winners mentality.
To quote Hofstede again: “Performance is highly valued and early required as the school system separates children into different types of schools at the age of ten. People rather “live in order to work” and draw a lot of self-esteem from their tasks. Managers are expected to be decisive and assertive. Status is often shown, especially by cars, watches and technical devices.”
4. Uncertainty Avoidance is a high-scorer for Southern countries, while Northern countries are seemingly more indulgent.
Germany tends to be somewhere in-between. They tend to abide by the rules, laws and regulations. The tendency to avoid uncertainty, however, is countered by their systematic and critical approach to everyday life. “If a technical device malfunctions, a Germany will read the entire manual to find the exact description and solution of the problem”, this article states. Individual expertise and substantial assertions are generally appreciated in Germany – far more than in Southern countries.
5. A final interesting remark about German culture is its common appreciation for soberness. This is another area where the Germans really differ from other Northern countries, and particularly in comparison to the Southern Countries.
Moderation is often preferred over a sense of pleasure, work is preferred over leisure and self-discipline over spoiling yourself. It seems that people are less able to enjoy life than in looser, hedonistic societies. Societies with a low score in this dimension have a tendency to be cynical and pessimistic.
East versus West?
For a long time (up until 1871), Germany had been an accumulation of individual states. The unity up until WWII was short-lived, hard-fought and mainly very unstable. For a long time, Germany was divided in two: East and West Germany. Considering the Berlin Wall didn’t fall until in 1989 and Germany wasn’t officially unified until a year later, you can even wonder to what extent Germany has really had an opportunity to become one.
At the very least, cultural difference between what was once East Germany and what was once the Bundesrepublik still exist. According to Hofstede, the most important difference is the even stronger emphasis on restraint and sobriety in East Germany. The ‘Ossi’ does not excel in the joy of life.
Stay tuned for parts 2, 3 and 4 of the ToTalent Germany Series.