Bringing positivity to German workplaces

Tom Barfield
Tom Barfield - [email protected]
Bringing positivity to German workplaces
Photo: Randall Birnberg

Randall Birnberg is a positive psychology coach who's trying to bring the science of happiness to German workplaces. In an interview for JobTalk, he explains how he came across his calling – and how Germans have responded.


Seven years ago, Chicago native Birnberg was working as an English teacher in Aachen, going into companies to teach groups of employees.

He soon saw that Germany had a big problem: people weren't happy at work.

That's a serious setback for a country that prides itself on its strong economy, as happiness among employees can be a big boost not only to the working environment, but also the bottom line.

“My biggest challenge is to convince managers that this stuff works, with the scientific story,” Birnberg explains.

“In German culture, they love stats, where it was happening, who was doing it, the numbers behind it. It's totally the opposite of something esoteric or far-out – these are scientifically proven tools and methods for better working conditions.”

Birnberg says that positive psychology methods can help workers become 35 percent more productive and reduce absenteeism by 50 percent.

Even so, this is often a tough sell to managers, who are often relatively happy with the way things are going.

“Germans are a very productive, efficient, get-things-done-on-time society,” he says. “The average person works 9.8 hours per day. If the job needs to be done, they'll stay there till seven – not like countries where they watch the clock.”

'War Grandchildren'

But behind that strong work ethic and efficiency lies a habit of not addressing things that might be holding workers back from even greater achievements.

Birnberg explains that many German managers today are the children of people born during the Second World War – so-called Kriegsenkelkinder (War Grandchildren), born between 1958 and 1975.

That makes for a triple-pronged set of psychological blocks which they learned from their parents, whose own parents remembered the hardship of the First World War and the Depression as well as sharing in the trauma of the Nazi dictatorship and military defeat.

This generation, the Kriegskinder (War Children) – born between 1938 and 1945 – learned from their parents not to look back at the past (too painful), not to examine their own feelings (too much guilt) and above all to keep pushing forward and building up the new Germany.

“When people of the second generation came home to their parents, those war children, they didn't say, 'good job on your homework',” Birnberg explains.

“They would say, 'you need your homework, you need your education. Why didn't you get a one [the highest mark in the German system]?'

“Now they're running German companies, they didn't learn from their parents how to get praise, recognition, compassion.”

Emotional intelligence

It can be especially hard to teach those managers to employ positive psychology in their relationships with their employees because they've been brought up to expect people to just get on with things.

“Managers can take it as a personal attack,” Birnberg says. “They say, what am I doing wrong?”

He uses the example of an employee going through a spell of arriving at work late.

A German manager would be likely to sit him down and simply tell him to stop the unwanted behaviour.

“There's no question that maybe Jack has an issue. Maybe his wife has been ill and he has to take the kid to school this morning,” says Birnberg.

“I say, how about 'Jack, we love what you've been doing at the company, you've been here 20 years, you do good work. You've been coming in late – what can we do to help you with that?'

“That's not only compassion, that's just good business.”

Steps to success

Birnberg suggests that managers think about two simple ways to improve their relationships with employees.

The first is simply empathizing more with employees' problems – “put yourself in their shoes”.

And the second is showing more appreciation of employees' work more regularly.

“Get rid of the once-a-year review, the Mitarbeitergespräch. You need regular praise, give more appreciation and acknowledgement,” Birnberg says.

As for employees, one of the most important routes to happiness can actually be expressing gratitude.

“First thing when you get to work, instead of reading any emails, write three emails thanking somebody for something that happened the day before.”

The second top tip is just getting away from the desk and going to eat lunch together with other people – something that can provide a welcome break or a high point to the day.

And lastly, it's important when working to keep a list of things you've accomplished. Birnberg suggests writing three things down before leaving each evening “so they can leave the office going, 'today was a good day'”.

Expats have it easy

That might all be true for German workers and managers – but what about expats?

Birnberg suggests that they actually have it easy because they're almost forced into a positive-psychology way of thinking.

“The crux of what I coach is, wherever you put your focus is what grows.

“This is not rocket science: if you want to buy a particular car, you start seeing that car everywhere. If your wife wants to get pregnant, she sees kids everywhere.”

Being nudged into focusing on getting the most out of their experience living abroad can mean that expats simply spend more time and money on the good things in life.

“Most expats don't spend their money on material things, they spend it on experiences,” Birnberg says. “Studies show that that makes you happier.”

Of course it helps that some expats might have some of the heavier burdens that preoccupy many people – like a place to live or a car – taken off their shoulders altogether by their employer.

But that doesn't mean that others can't use the same methods.

"I have a mission, and my German girlfriend is behind me, she's like, we have to change the culture here, we have to tell people, you've got it made, look at what you've got," says Birnberg – before wishing The Local an excellent rest of the day.




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