National culture and company culture have a much bigger impact on meetings than many people think. Do you have good, or perhaps even advanced English skills? Great, that will certainly make your life easier. Is that all you need to know? Certainly not. International meetings deserve much more focused attention than they normally receive and require a different skill set to national meetings.
In workshops I often check whether past meetings led to the desired mutual understanding and commitment. Funnily enough, although everybody THOUGHT that everything was in place, in reality, they acted upon different understandings and emotions ran high.
This blog post is about the more obvious hands-on aspects of German meeting culture; the basics, that will help you when taking part in a business meeting in Germany with a majority of German participants. For team meetings you will need to look into a more complex skill set, reflect upon your own cultural values and their impact on conducting meetings, and know how to best bridge the gap.
How Germans see Dutch meeting culture
I asked Germans with work experience in the Netherlands about meeting culture and perceived differences to Germany. Here is a collection of their answers:
- The atmosphere is usually quite relaxed. Rather informal compared to Germany.
- It is not unusual for people to arrive late, some even walking in with a coffee in their hand chatting.
- The Dutch wanted Q&A sessions, but I never did them, because what followed were wild discussions.
- A lot of discussions, everybody says what they think, even if it is not very relevant to the topic.
- Not many things are standardized (agenda, minutes etc )
- People may or may not be prepared.
- Decisions are taken in the meeting straightaway
- Very informal. Bosses not recognizable as bosses, actually a bit more guidance would be helpful. Especially with the discussions – they take up far too much time.
As tends to be the case, these comments are heavily loaded with cultural perspectives and judgements. You can almost learn more about the commentators’ culture and expectations.
An effective and professional German meeting
So, what is considered to be an effective and professional meeting in most (traditional) German environments? If you have ever taken part in a German meeting you will most likely have experienced the following:
1. Scheduling: often long term.
2. Preparation: agenda sent out in advance. People are expected to prepare for the various topics.
3. Facilitation: leader guides throughout the meeting.
4. Small Talk: none or close to none. (‘Did you get here all right? Fine, let’s start’)
5. Agenda: strictly followed in linear order, no deviations from original agenda.
6. Start and end: as scheduled.
7. Time: kept (also for discussions).
8. Experts in the field are asked for their opinions. Short discussions may follow depending on the time the facilitating leader gives to the topic.
9. Action points: usually collected and agreed on. Possible decisions are taken later in a different circle or by the manager.
10. Leaders/Managers: lead throughout the meeting, set tone, pattern and structure and sum up final decision. (= take final decision)
11. Hierarchy: clearly visible (and expected to be). People expect managers to be visible as managers and to take decisions after listening to different opinions.
How to impress Germans:
- Be well prepared.
- Always back up your ideas with facts, research or examples.
- Be happy to give your opinion, when the head of the meeting asks for it. Otherwise, in many cases, staying quiet might be the better option.
- Say something if you have something of substance to add. Mere ‘opinion’ might not be highly valued. (especially in technical, traditional environments)
- Be visible as an expert in your field.
- Business-like approach.
- Always be on time. With clients: 10 mins before the meeting.
- Avoid last-minute cancellations or short-notice visits if possible. Of course, both might actually make sense if agreed to from both sides.
- Dress formally. Business dress tends to be rather formal especially when visiting clients or meeting the higher ranks.
- Be prepared for details: Most Germans want to understand everything in depth.
- Strictly follow up and respect deadlines.
- Always send a specialist/expert too. Experts are highly valued in Germany and build trust.
- Keep to the time lines given.
The key points to impress Germans during a meeting are structure, low-risk approach, expert approach, hierarchy and thoroughness.
Does this match your experience? I am happy to receive your comments and feedback. Of course things might be different. You need to trust your gut feeling, observe and adapt flexible. As a Dutchman flexibility might be one of your major strengths.
Anne is a German national. After some years spent abroad (United Kingdom and Japan) she started as an intercultural trainer. Anne’s roots lie in the area of ‘International business – International collaboration’ which continues to fascinate and inspire her in its complexity and richness. Anne’s vision is to create workplaces, however small, which truly foster a global mindset and which are real global players.