Finns are afraid of making wrong decisions for no reason

News article

Finns have something to learn from German work culture, says Andreas Kotzschmar, a German who has moved to Finland, and gives the slightly untalkative Finns some praise.

The informality of Finnish interaction made an impression on Andreas Kotzschmar when he began studies in the Espoo University of Technology in 1994. Kotzschmar felt Finnish managers to be friendlier than those in Germany, where the hierarchy was stricter.

– In Finland I could just walk up to a professor to ask them something. I also liked how people didn’t address each other formally in Finnish like they do in German. 

In addition to its informality, the small amount of interaction was a surprise to Kotzschmar.

– The lack of interaction was difficult for me at first, especially with Finnish men. However, I noticed that if you manage to make a strong connection with a Finn, it will last even if you don’t see each other for years. Here friendship means a lot and once trust is earned it is kept.

Here friendship means a lot and once trust is earned it is kept.

Kotzschmar describes the German workplace as more competitive and aggressive than the Finnish one.

– If Germans share their information in the workplace, they miss out on a chance for personal gain. In Finland people stick together and share information even if they were in competition with each other.

Quicker decisions and more small talk

Finnish companies could learn faster and more robust methods of decision-making from German work culture, Kotzschmar says.

– Finnish managers are afraid of making the wrong decision, even though you can learn from mistakes. Managers must of course listen to their subordinates, but sometimes too much democracy slows the processes down. Finnish managers also have the bad habit of avoiding the telling of bad news. If a manager fails to disclose bad news, their subordinates are unable to plan ahead.

To make Finnish companies more internationally competitive, Kotzschmar suggests that workplaces adopt a more open culture towards day-to-day communication and small talk.

– When I was working at a steel mill in Raahe, for example, I used to discuss ice hockey with my co-workers because my son played hockey and one of them coached the junior team. Talking about these kinds of small things breaks the ice and leaves you in the other person’s mind. If all you talk about is work, you don’t seem particularly interested about the other person. 

If all you talk about is work, you don’t seem particularly interested about the other person. 

Kotzschmar can get by in Finnish, but he does not consider himself a fluent speaker.

– Not all Finns want to speak English even if they understand it. When my clients at the steel mill noticed that I understood Finnish my relationship with them improved tremendously. 

Kotzschmar has now been unemployed as of March. Previously he worked as a sales and product manager at the international fireproof material manufacturer RHI Magnesita for 13 years, specialising in the Finnish steel market. Kotzschmar is currently in the process of founding his own international consulting company. 

– Because of the coronavirus, it will be at least another year before my company starts up. I wish to remain optimistic, but I must also stay realistic.

Multiculturalism is a trump card

Mira Kivistö, ConTe’s HR and recruitment consultant, has studied cultural differences in working life and led career coaching sessions for immigrants on Finnish culture.

According to Kivistö, SMEs are especially shy to hire international experts, even if the applicant had the required expertise.

– Managers are uncertain of how to deal with cultural misunderstandings or how to act if the applicant’s proficiency in Finnish is inadequate. However, one should keep in mind whether speaking perfect Finnish is always so necessary. The best way to learn a language is to use it at work.

It is important that everyone gets the same opportunities regardless of their cultural background. According to Kivistö, the cultural backgrounds of employees should not be faded out into the background, but their cultural expertise should be harnessed.

– If you are designing a product for a specific international market or a multicultural clientele, your organisation would do well to tap into cultural expertise within the company instead of hiring an external consultant.

Andreas Kotzschmar is often mistaken for a Finn. – Once I had to show my ID to prove that I am German.

How to understand Finnish work culture?

  • Recognise your values and how your culture affects them and tell others how these factors affect you.
  • Familiarise yourself with values important to Finns and try to adapt to them. Being punctual, for example, tells a Finn that you appreciate the other person and their time. However, you do not have to turn Finnish; you can still keep your cultural background and personality.
  • Is  your organisation expanding into international markets or trying to tap into a wider customer base in Finland? Or is your workplace trying to recruit international experts? Bring your cultural knowledge to the workplace.
  • Be curious and ask about another person’s culture with genuine interest. Culture is just one part of a person; it is the personality that counts.

HR and recruitment consultant Mira Kivistö, ConTe