Over the past few years I have often been asked what the main differences in the workplace culture between my native Austria and the United States are. I still don’t have the perfect reply, but here are some observations. First and foremost, Austrians have a dislike for authority, particularly in the workplace. Austrians are well educated, they take pride in their work, and they think highly of their own skills. Therefore, they don’t like to be micro-managed – in Austria’s workplace, everybody is supposed to know what to do, how to do it and when to do it, and everyone wants to exercise that right. Viewed through a positive lens, this means that in most cases, Austrians don’t need anybody to breathe down their necks and can largely be left alone with a set of broad objectives in mind. When a supervisor becomes too directive, then employees will get frustrated. Unfortunately, and this brings me to my second point, disagreement with one’s superior is often not expressed openly in Austria. If managers don’t pick up on their employees’ dissatisfaction, the workplace could easily turn into a place that breeds a toxic culture of complaining and gossiping. And once that has happened, it’s hard to turn back the clock in any culture. The issue of not voicing one’s own feelings points to another important trait – Austrians’ need for consensus and (often false) harmony. In Austria, people don’t like to be direct. We often avoid speaking our honest opinion for the fear of being impolite (or maybe the fear of making a fool of ourselves). This is even reflected in Austrian’s use of German (or English…) as we tend to use a lot of passive voice, conjunctives, and the like. On the upside, this means that sticky situations that carry the potential for conflict are often resolved around conference tables rather than taken to the street. As a result (among others), Austria has one of the lowest numbers of labor strikes in the world – measured in minutes only. My next observation has to do with change. Change comes in many forms – for instance in the form of the introduction of a new management process, the adoption of a new software package, the hiring of a new (god forbid, foreign) manager from outside, or the simple disruption of daily routines, to name but a few. The negative attitude against such developments is easily explained through Austrians’ risk averseness. In Austria, children are brought up on children’s stories and proverbs that are sown with the same patterns all over: obedience and conformity pays, while rebellion and individualism are punishable. This certainly plays into the hands of those seeking group think and stability, but it doesn’t work well for those who want to reward individual initiative. Individual initiative is often suspicious to Austrians – not necessarily because we wouldn’t enjoy the rewards, but more importantly, because we don’t like to stand out and we don’t want to bear individual responsibility when things go wrong. When problems arise, mistakes are made, or failure occurs, responsibility is often and foremost believed to be “systemic” rather than individual. And finally, Austria is a land of traditional values. It is still a society that is dominated by masculine orientations in which men are engineers and women nurses and, unfortunately, where there is no gender equality in the workplace. It’s hard to find women in top positions in Austria, and women with equal qualifications earn about one third less of what men would earn in the same positions. Like in most countries, there is a divide between urban and rural areas, but by and large, men rule. The upside is that while Austrians like to keep work separate from their private lives, they are very performance- and goal-oriented.
I’m certain I have missed a ton of helpful observations, and I’ll keep working on the topic. In a future blogpost, I will also address how foreign managers can adapt their practices in order to succeed in Austria’s cultural environment.