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Occupational Psychology

The human factor

München, 07/25/2014

German bosses are “tough on the person”, says Felix Brodbeck. But what do workers really need to enable them to be most productive? Brodbeck, an occupational psychologist at LMU, can now measure the impact of high- and low-quality leadership.

Humane orientation – the term is easy enough to understand, but German executives show little aptitude for what it refers to. (Photo: Pavel Losevsky / Fotolia.com)

German executives are lucky that a trait which is deleterious in one context may be advantageous in another. The trait at issue here is the German concept of leadership, which entails the avoidance of any expression of approval for subordinates in direct interactions with them. The latter are treated neither respectfully nor even politely by their superiors, and hardly ever praised. German managers lack the human touch – what business psychologists term ‘humane orientation’. Conversely, they are intensely goal-oriented, which helps them to tackle problems head-on and achieve their aims. Moreover, their success is undeniable. “German business is in good shape,” says Felix Brodbeck, Professor of Organizational and Occupational Psychology at LMU Munich. However, this does not mean that all is well. Together with a consortium of international collaborators, Brodbeck has analyzed the German style of personnel management in the course of a survey of corporate cultures in 61 countries. When ranked in terms of humane orientation, German bosses were placed third-last.

German managers are ‘tough on the person’, says Brodbeck, and this attitude can be explained by the context in which they operate. “They work in a business environment that is structurally person-oriented. This humane orientation is embodied in the legal rights of participation accorded to employees’ representatives by the Betriebsverfassungsgesetz. The direct involvement of works’ councils and trade unions in management decisions ensures that the interests of employees are taken seriously.”

“In German firms the tone is brusque”

The GLOBE study also showed that German employees expect less consideration from their superiors. “In German firms, the tone is generally brusque,” as Brodbeck puts it, and adds that this is seen as the typically German manner – straightforward and direct. “But subordinates are also quite assertive. If they don’t agree with something, they say so. That is a very valuable trait in terms of getting the job done. Arguments over how best to tackle the task at hand are a good thing. And German employees and managers accept that.”

But recent developments are challenging the rigorousness of German business culture. “The psychological demands on management and staff have increased enormously, particularly in the non-industrial sector,” Brodbeck points out. And this is reflected in a significant rise in the incidence of psychiatric illness among the working population. The German Association of Psychotherapists has analyzed data from health insurers, and information provided by the state pension system, for 2012. The survey showed that 12% of productivity losses and 42% of cases of early retirement were attributable to psychological disorders.

According to Brodbeck, it would be a mistake to ascribe this development to the heavy hand of the boss. A wide range of factors can contribute to occupational stress. “Performance demands have greatly risen. As a result of globalization, not only are many more companies internationally active, they now face competition in an environment which spans the world. And in the worldwide contest for market share, the new benchmark is the punishing pace that has always prevailed in the North American market. The international orientation and the need to compete with the very best accounts for the high levels of stress in the business world,” he says. On top of this comes the blurring of the boundaries between work and leisure caused by modern communications. Everyone is accessible by e-mail or mobile phone at all times, in the evenings and on weekends. “Many people now find it hard to leave the workplace behind them and enjoy their leisure time,” he adds.

Suddenly, the German style of leadership, which gives the task at hand priority over the needs of the employee, is looking outdated. “Leadership that promotes wellbeing is the coming theme. The health of the workforce is a crucial productivity factor that has long been disregarded,” Brodbeck points out. Moreover, a reorientation in this sense becomes even more urgent in light of the weakening of the legal structures that underpin the humane orientation of business in Germany. Only about a quarter of all salaried employees now work in the manufacturing sector, where the trade unions have traditionally been strongest. Conversely, the service sector is booming, and the proportion of jobs which are not subject to trade-union oversight is growing. “Working conditions in services are relatively more arduous and demands on performance are very high. In employment relationships in which the trade-union-based context of worker participation is lacking, managers have a much greater role in motivating and guiding employees,” Brodbeck warns. “In this respect, they have a special duty of care in regard to their staff.”
Nicola Holzapfel / Translation: Paul Hardy

The complete article is available here. The original, German-language article appeared in ”Einsichten – das Forschungsmagazin No. 1, 2014“, LMU‘s German-language research magazine.