Das haben wir schon immer so gemacht

If you don’t know what this sentence means, but want to work in Germany, please memorize the meaning quickly, because you might be hearing it often. It means “We have always done it this way!” and it’s a popular reply to suggested changes.

Germans are not extremely fond of change. I have many training participants who were sent to Germany to implement change and they often look at me with the resigned expression of a dog that has been in an animal shelter for too long and knows nobody will adopt him. (And that is before they start talking about the Betriebsrat and sink into utter despair).

So now you know. Germans don’t do change. Because, you know, we have always done it this way. Before you call your management and tell them that you won’t go through with that assignment to Germany, relax. It’s not that bad. We do change. But in our own way and the more you know about this way, the easier it will be (Easier. Not easy. It will never be easy).

Let’s start with delving into the German mind. Why are Germans so resistive to change? (As with everything I write in this blog please be aware that it doesn’t apply to all 82.8 million Germans. I personally know some who embrace every change). Well, if you are a regular reader, you know I have a thing for history and as so often, history explains quite a lot about culture, because it shapes culture. Let me introduce you to my great-aunt Ilse. She lived from 1911 to 2000, an average German woman, not different from most others of her generation. When she was born, Germany had an emperor and everybody was on a bit of a power high. When she started school, Germany was just losing World War I and people were starving. When she finished school, Germany was a shaky democracy with street fights and assassinations, had undergone a hyper-inflation and was just trying to find its place in the international community again. When she got married, Germany was a dictatorship and on a very bad power high. When her children started school, the country has lost World War II, was in ruins and the part where she lived was under Russian occupation. When she became a grandmother for the first time, she lived in a Socialist state. When she died, Germany was reunited and a democracy.
That is quite a lot of change for one lifetime and most of it wasn’t so great. And while the past 100 years were especially volatile, most of German history brought people experiences like this. Compare it to the US, for example, where change and risk usually yielded good results and where the political system has been the same for more than 200 years, and you might also see why a German yearns for security rather more than an American.

German resistance to change stems from the fear of the unknown, the fear of taking a risk (because that usually didn’t pay off well for us) from leaving the tried-and-tested behind. This can also be seen in Germans’ not easily changing jobs. I have a few friends whose favourite past time it is to complain about their workplace. One friend has been doing that for as long as I know (13 years now) and every time we meet, in much detail. When I suggested to look for another job, resistance was fierce. No, it was absolutely not possible because after all *insert non-convincing reason here*. Once, she half-heartedly applied for a job, had a good interview, could have had the job, but she said: “Ah, who says it will be better there? At least with my current job I know how crappy it is.” This is not an exception, I keep hearing that a lot. It’s not that long ago that most Germans stayed with one employer for their whole work life. This has changed, but the majority prefer not to change jobs.

Germans find comfort in well-known things. You can also see that when you look at German commercials. Tradition is a prominent feature in many commercials, companies like to point out how long they have been around, for how long the product has already been in existence. This builds trust, some companies even start nostalgic campaigns, showing how the packaging of the product developed over the past decades or sell the product in nostalgic package design for a while. American commercials, on the other hand, like to point out how new everything is. “New and improved” is a slogan I heard countless times in the US, it seems that everything is new and improved, always new and improved. That wouldn’t work too well in Germany, we prefer tried and trusted to new and improved. Germans trust what they know. So when you want to change something that is trusted and known, you need to give Germans a good reason to do. New just for the sake of new doesn’t work and as you saw in the paragraph about job switching (or rather “not switching”), the assumption is often “well, the new will be just as bad or even worse”. I know many Germans (myself included) whose first reaction to “new” is wariness. When something  I use, be it a mail programme, a computer operating system or a website, announces that it made changes, it annoys me. After all, I’m used to the way it was and usually the updates don’t bring major improvements (in my opinion) – on the contrary (for example: the new Thunderbird doesn’t let me include external smileys anymore, at least not without many extra clicks). New means it might look different (and not necessarily more attractive), thinks don’t work the way they used to, functions one likes might be gone and so on.

Now, while the use of a website of programme with changes one doesn’t like constitutes at most an annoyance, changes at work could mean far more. My father did a series of workshops for a company that was reorganising one of their departments. The changes were – in my opinion – very good, they gave people more independence and responsibility. Still, the company knew that it would not be easy for their employees, which is why they had these workshops to alleviate worries, prepare their staff for the changes and help them to accept them. It was more than necessary. People were incredibly scared. Many of them had worked in this department for a decade or more. They were used to their work to the processes, they knew everything and it was just fine for them. More independence and responsibility sounded scary. They were worried that they wouldn’t be able to fulfil these new expectations, that “more responsibility” would mean more work without pay raise, were wondering whether the change meant that jobs would be lost. In the course of the workshops these uncertainties were taken care of and once people knew what exactly was awaiting them, they were less scared and started to adopt a more positive approach.

The same applies when work processes are changed. This is a favourite time to use the “Das haben wir schon immer so gemacht” sentence. We have always done it this way, it works, so why do you want to change it? Remember, this is a culture that strives for stability, that puts trust in tradition and known ways. (Our Reinheitsgebot – the beer purity law – is 501 years old now and do we make the best beer? Yes, we do.) So if you come into your German office and happily announce that processes have been revamped, everything will be changed and the world will be a better place, chances are that you will be looking into sceptical faces. People will want to know why there needs to be a change in the first place, what exactly will change and what it means for them.

There is a reason that we are the culture that came up with the great word “verschlimmbessern” – making something worse by improving it. If you come with a vision, pack it back into your briefcase. People are not easily enticed by visions, people want facts. What Americans call the “big picture”, Germans call “lack of necessary details”. Remember, culture is what works well and for Germans it does work well to concentrate on details, to make detailed processes, to prepare thoroughly. German products are reliable and have an excellent reputation (let’s just forget about Diesel cars for a moment….). But some sentences on that later because the attitudes are changing a bit.

So, now you know that Germans with their volatile history strive for security, don’t like uncertainty, want details and processes. If you want to implement change successfully in Germany, it might be helpful to keep these things in mind. Maybe it will take longer than in your home country, but consider it an investment into the future (hey, we are adapting too, we are learning to do small talk even we consider it a waste of time!). Avoid uncertainty as far as possible by providing information, information, information. This can be done by workshops, by FAQs on the intranet, by meet and greet hours…any method that helps people to voice their concerns, to be taken seriously, to be given answers. A convincing reason for the change is also helpful – Germans do change if it’s necessary, just look at how environmental issues are handled here; Germany was usually first to implement changes in this area. We do change, but we need a better reason than “new is better”.

It might also be helpful for you to remember why the people working for or with you might resist the suggested change – to remember that it’s not obstinacy, complacency or laziness, but rather fear. If you take this seriously, it will probably end in less frustration for you and more cooperation from your employees.

As announced, there is another aspect that needs to be discussed. Generally, as I wrote, tradition and reliability work for Germany. We might not be known for the most innovative ideas, but people trust German products for a reason. Still, Germans are starting to realize that too much resistance or indifference to change isn’t always a good method. Just recently, the company Solarworld was in the news. Just some years ago it was the world-leading company with regard to solar energy, now it is insolvent. One reason given is the lack of the company to stay on top of new developments, to chance to more cost-effective production, to adapt to a changing market, which is now in the hands of the Chinese. Other German companies saved themselves by being more open to change, by adopting unknown and maybe unconventional processes. Innovative start-ups show that there are Germans who think creatively and are willing to explore new paths (interestingly enough it took the economic crisis of 2007 to make people realize that sometimes one has to risk something instead of relying on a life-long job). So, in this change-resistive culture, things are changing.


(Hm, WordPress is telling me to switch to their improved editor. Naaah. I won’t. This one works fine.)

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