A crosscultural perspective on crisis management- Interview mit Prof. Dr. Mayank Golpelwar and Maren Ehrlichmann

In an unstable world, what are our options for the future?

Is there a particular German way to react to (the current global) crisis?  Are Germans more fearful than others? What can we learn from other people with regards to crisis management?

In short, what would a crosscultural view on crisis  management look like?

"Finding the right balance between caution and readiness to make mistakes will be a challenging task",

argue Prof. Mayank Golpelwar and Maren Ehrlichmann in the third  "Who cares" expert interview.

Prof. Dr. Mayank Golpelwar is Professor for Intercultural Management and Intercultural Communication at the School of International Business, Hochschule Bremen. He is involved in the research and transfer projects "All-Set", "GlobalReady", and CONFIDENT.

Maren Ehrlichmann studies International Tourism Management at the School of International Business, Hochschule Bremen. She is working as a student assistant in the transfer and research projects "All-Set" and "GlobalReady", and has recently returned from her semester abroad in Bali, Indonesia.

Is there a particular German way to react to (the current global) crisis?

Let's focus on the COVID-19 pandemic as a major example.

Although the institutions in Germany were very involved in reacting to the pandemic, there were certain specific German reactions to the crisis. However, it is important to note that this was true for almost every country or region. Like almost every other country, Germany was taken by surprise by the pandemic and had to quickly find solutions to the challenges that the pandemic brought with it. In contrast to Asian countries such as China, India, or Indonesia, the major difficulty for Germany and most of the European Union was the lack of local production of consumables such as masks, medicines, and other supplies needed to combat COVID-19 [1]. In keeping with a preference for increased efficiency and cost benefits, Germany had few production facilities for consumables and relied heavily on supply chains, in which it has been the top-ranked country since 2014 [2]. The breakdown of the supply chains during the pandemic led to the disadvantageous position of not being able to procure the necessary consumable goods in 2020 [3].

Another aspect that dominated the pandemic years was the uncertainty-avoidant preference of German institutions and public discourse [4]. This resulted in long discussions and consensus-building processes regarding several issues, including how best to proceed, whether students should be allowed back to school, whether stores should be allowed to reopen, and what measures should apply. This, in itself, is a remarkably positive approach, in tune with the low power distance culture in Germany [4], but together with an otherwise positive strong federalism coupled with a slow bureaucratic process, made the much-needed quick decision-making difficult [5], in contrast to countries like India and Israel, which made quicker decisions and implementations [6, 7].

This was what happened during the initial period. However, the strong emphasis of German culture on both aversion to uncertainty and long-term orientation [4] was apparent in an effective long-term response. Testing was widespread, and two-thirds of the population were fully vaccinated by October 2021 [8]. Even regarding the Ukrainian crisis, we see a similar development. According to a EURACTIVE report [9], Germany had a long-term fossil fuel import understanding with Russia, which, though efficient and profitable for the country, made it extremely dependent on the source. The supply through the pipelines from Russia was so profitable and efficient that Germany - a leading industrial nation - did not have a single Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal. By 2008, 42% of the total domestic consumption was sourced from Russia alone. With the use of coal as an energy source increasing after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, this dependence deepened further, with more than half of the coal requirements imported from Russia [10]. Even since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Germany remains the 2nd largest importer of Russian fossil fuels after China [11]. However, similar to the long-term COVID-19 vaccination success, through diversification of energy supplies, Germany has reduced the import of natural gas from Russia to 0 by September 2022.

Both cases indicate that the German approach favors long-term stability over quick and agile decision-making.

Which narrative do Germans tell about themselves?

It is actually difficult to talk about "Germans" as a homogeneous group, given the differences among various regions in Germany and the individuality of each person.

Nonetheless, there are a few things that German people would probably say about themselves that most likely apply to a large part of German society. Certain attitudes such as a strong work ethic, punctuality, and efficiency are prevalent factors that a German person would use to describe themselves and their social environment, as these standards are taught in schools and often in German households ("Ohne Fleiß kein Preis") [1]. In comparison to other cultures, they may be perceived as cold and technocratic, at least from an outsider's perspective, as they often communicate directly and are well-structured, which might even appear as controlled [2]. Even though there is a well-maintained social system in Germany, German people often aim to be independent and create their own happiness ("Jeder ist seines Glückes Schmied") [1].

Nonetheless, even if Germans might appear reserved and only interested in themselves or their work, their family and friends, as well as the society and people who need help, are important to them, which they show through political or social engagement such as civic associations, political parties, or organizations [1, 3].

Is it possible to argue that Germans take themselves too seriously?

All in all, it can be said that a major part of German society has a strong sense of responsibility regarding world events [4].

German children are taught early on to develop an awareness of Germany's history as well as to reflect on global issues such as wars, the climate crisis, and inequality. Moreover, starting from kindergarten, Germans are encouraged to form their own opinions, engage in discussions or demonstrations, and make their own decisions about their lives and attitudes [5]. Reflected in the media and news, global events play a crucial role in the German society and activate Germans' sense of responsibility.

Therefore, Germans may take certain problems or current events seriously, as they not only know from past generations what inhuman actions humanity is capable of, but they also have the freedom to express their opinions and take action in a secure country like Germany [4, 6, 7]. The seriousness of their approach can also be attributed, in part, to the low-context nature of communication in German society [8].

"German Angst" is term frequently used - Are Germans more fearful than others?

If we consider fear as a psychological phenomenon, it depends on the individual, specifically their upbringing, learning, values, attitudes, and behavioral responses. However, observing the response of others in one's social group can also lead to a fear of the unknown [9].

When referring to "German Angst" as a political phenomenon, it may actually be more related to a frequent hesitation to act without complete certainty in the decisions made by institutions within society and politics. It is common to hear this connection to "slowness" or "indecisiveness" when discussing German institutions [2]. This tendency to avoid uncertainty and prepare thoroughly before taking any action can ensure better quality control over the end results, better safety, and trust in German products and institutions. However, it can also result in excessive documentation and red tape, as well as rigid rules, hindering swift decision-making and action [10].

This fear of failure and resulting indecisiveness is not only apparent in politics but also in German society as a whole. This has been linked to the trauma of past generations, with the importance of not repeating past mistakes being emphasized in basic and higher education in Germany. Consequently, people are cautious about making poorly thought-out decisions [11]. However, there is now growing support for developing a tolerance for making mistakes ("Fehlerkultur") in society [12]. Finding the right balance between caution and readiness to make mistakes will be a challenging task. Nevertheless, the concept of German "Angst" is evolving, and the society will carefully redefine this balance in the coming years.

Can we talk of a "First World Problem"?

We might say that some current crises, such as the climate crisis or the war in Europe, are mainly "developed world problems."

This is not because developing or emerging countries are not concerned with global crises, but rather because they have more pressing issues to address, such as the fight for equality, access to clean water and healthcare, protection against crime, political stability, and improved education. These are just a few examples of the enormous challenges faced by developing countries, which are not only more urgent but also more significant to their populations than taking action on climate change.

People living in Western countries are generally more content with their political and social situations, enabling them to "afford" to focus on other concerns, such as climate change, and work towards a better world for future generations. However, first-world countries must not forget that Earth is a shared resource and that they must work collaboratively, not only to combat climate change but also to address inequalities between first and third world nations [13].

What would actually be done differently in other countries such as India or [Indonesia]?

According to the Asian Development Bank [14], Asian countries such as India and Indonesia face a range of social, natural, and cultural challenges.

In addition to their vast social, cultural, and political diversities, both Indonesia and India regularly contend with a variety of natural disasters or crises, such as floods, droughts, earthquakes, and landslides, due to their geo-climatic conditions. Over the years, many states have developed disaster management and prevention plans to minimize the impacts of such disasters, including providing humanitarian assistance and taking proactive measures such as warning residents before disasters occur [15].

There is some scientific support for the idea that facing uncertainty promotes more out-of-the-box, agile solutions, which might be a reason for the relatively quick response to crises in these countries [16, 17]. Germany has been successful in creating a safer and high-quality living environment while prioritizing the long-term over the short-term.

However, in uncertain and unexpected crisis-ridden situations where previous plans are of little help, the response may leave much to be desired. An example is the flood disaster that occurred in central Germany in July 2021. Despite existing crisis plans, German public institutions had little experience dealing with such a crisis and failed to inform affected residents, resulting in preventable deaths that could have been avoided with a more agile response management [18]. Similar to the previously mentioned situations, we are confident that following such crises, the German long-term response will be more efficient and effective.

What can we here learn from other people with regards to crisis management?

People often come up with unique solutions to the challenges they face. Due to climate change, as well as rapid urbanization and industrialization, every region in the world now faces new challenges. Globalization and advances in supply chain and travel technology have resulted in the global spread of both positive advancements and previously localized challenges (such as epidemics) to other communities around the world.

This means that our particular solutions in our region would benefit greatly from learning and adapting solutions from other regions that have experience in dealing with similar challenges. In response to the previous question, Germany's preference for long-term, uncertainty-avoidant solutions would likely benefit from observing and adapting from the experiences of societies that have developed the necessary solutions. Such frugal solutions may not have the refined industrial finish that German solutions possess, but they are still efficient and resilient. Examples of such innovative solutions include M-Pesa in Kenya [19] and Sothiou dental care in Senegal [20].

Not just Germany, but every region in the world could benefit from learning from other regions and adapting suitable solutions with local customizations.


Interviewerin: Dr. Monika Blaschke