Working independently

Many job advertisements will promise their employees the opportunity to work independently. An independent work environment, without constant oversight or having someone ‘looking over your shoulder’, is viewed very positively.

This is also an indicator of trust. Constant check-ins with one’s boss about the status of a project are neither necessary nor desired. In the German workplace, too many check-ins suggests an over-dependence on guidance on the part of the employee. Such ‘needy’ employees require a lot of ‘hand-holding’ – something which no German employer feels like doing.

Do it yourself! (DIY)

Geh’ nicht zu Deinem Fürst, wenn Du nicht gerufen wirst – Do not go to your ruler, if you have not been summoned – this is nothing more than an order not to ride your boss’s coat-tails.

Selbst ist der Mann – Do it yourself! Only those who think for themselves can act for themselves, too. And he who is capable of thinking and acting independently is also ‘master of the situation’ – and has ‘everything under control’.

To be one’s own master – which Germans value very highly. The how? Please, no spoon-feeding!

Independent. Self-managing.

In many job postings German employers promise eigenständiges Arbeiten – literally independent work, meaning the freedom to do the work with little influence from next-level management. Selbständiges Arbeiten – self-managing work without constant status checks, without anyone “looking over your shoulder”, is highly attractive to German employees and job-seekers.

It is a sign of trust in the person’s ability. Constant feedback to the boss on the progress of work is neither necessary nor desired. Too much communication between levels of hierarchy is in the German context a sign of Unselbständigkeit – inability to work independently, self-managing. They need to be “taken by the hand” (hand-holding). And noone in Germany, neither team lead nor member, wants to waste time doing that.

Plumber, Electrician, Banker

In German companies the head of a department or project team assigns tasks to the team and to individual members, who carry them out ideally without any supervision. This logic is also at play in business relationships between customer and supplier.

When a German contracts a craftsman or mechanic – plumber, electrician, handyman – to do a job, he or she does not go beyond explaining the problem which needs to be solved. Everything else is left up to the person contracted to completed the job. The German customer expects the job to get done without any more input or oversight from them.

It‘s the same approach when one goes to the bank. The customer explains their financial situation, states their goals and then expects the financial advisor to do the rest, meaning come up with a financial plan. The bank employee, like the plumber, only contacts the customer if it is absolutely necessary.

When follow-up is ok

Despite German reluctance to use follow-up, there are situations in which it is unavoidable: In order to stick to a well-defined plan; when the customer requests information; if work results are not delivered on time. The Germans prefer the term nachfassen – literally, after hold. Or nachhaken – literally, after-hook or -check.

Follow-up in Germany can be either negative or positive. Negative in the sense of control. Positive in the sense of support. Follow up – negative – questions one’s ability and willingness to produce good work results. At the same time – positive – it is essential to checking technical details, getting necessary information, verifying due dates.

Organizations which are time-driven rely on follow up. News organizations are just one example. Any and all forms of logistics is another. Timing is critical. Schedules need to be met. Employees are under pressure. Deadlines are deadlines.

Follow-up can be supportive. An older, more experienced colleague can inquire in a friendly way about the status of another’s work. A team lead who coaches her team well knows when and how to follow up by simply asking “How are things going? Can I help in any way?”

Follow-up by colleagues on a report, speech, or published article is positive. It means that they have taken sincere interest in your work. It also gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their competence by asking intelligent questions.

In German team meetings follow-up is the rule, not the exception. Open action items can be addressed directly. Team members establish a common baseline of information.

Finally, there is another very legitimate reason to use follow-up in Germany: If things are not going right, if an error has been detected, if the work is being performed improperly. In such cases there is only one course of action. Follow up, and fast!

Mistrust, a Virus

Follow up in Germany is a sign of mistrust, of doubt in one’s reliability, in that person’s ability to deliver what they have promised. For Germans typically only commit if they are close to absolutely certain that they can execute.

Germans are very sensitive about mistrust, and do not deal with it well. A fictitious example: Small team. The members have their individual tasks, but need to collaborate at certain points. They work well together. The team lead can pay less and less attention to them. A new team member, though, begins to take advantage of the lead’s hands-off management style by looking for personal advantage.

The other team members become a bit unsettled. A few others also begin to think only of themselves. Mistrust creeps into the team, the points of contact become strained, collaboration more difficult. Their boss sees the signs and reacts by scheduling team meetings more frequently, checking on each team member’s work. Then come the emails and phone calls going into more detail.

The increased follow up strains relations. Several of the team members begin to look for alternative jobs within the company. A top performer is gone within a month. Others have sent out their resumés. Follow up can lead to mistrust, a virus with potentially deadly results.