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German Workers: Satisfied, but Not Engaged

German Workers: Satisfied, but Not Engaged

by Marco Nink and Fabian Schumann

German workers seem to be doing OK. More than half (55%) are in the "thriving" category of well-being, as Gallup measures it, and 54% agree or strongly agree that they're being paid appropriately for the work they do. When workers get up in the morning and think of work, 66% of them look forward to the day. In fact, 69% say they're satisfied or extremely satisfied with their company as a place to work.

But there's a difference between "satisfied" and "engaged." And that difference is costing German businesses and German workers.

Why Is Engagement so Rare?

Gallup's most recent State of the Global Workplace report found that 15% of German workers are engaged, 70% are not engaged and 15% are actively disengaged. Gallup's approach to measuring engagement places employees into one of the three aforementioned groups that characterize the extent to which employees are motivated by a sense of support and emotional attachment to their employer. The positive effects of engagement can be seen in greater profitability, productivity and discretionary diligence. Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the German economy between 80.3 billion and 105.1 billion euros per year in lost productivity.

So how can Germans be famous for their industriousness -- and deservedly so: since 2001, seven in 10 have said they'd keep working even if they inherited so much money that they didn't have to -- and still be so disengaged?

Because to leadership, workers' emotional needs just aren't on the radar. German businesses are quite good at fulfilling certain transactional needs, such as job security (extremely satisfied: 51%) and lots of days off (on average, 30 vacation days; German workers who are extremely satisfied with the amount of vacation days: 44%). They are lousy at fulfilling emotional needs, such as letting people do what they do best every day (extremely satisfied: 32%) and installing great managers (extremely satisfied: 31%). In short: German companies are good at satisfying employees and bad at engaging them.

Germans Rate Importance of Meeting Job Needs Higher Than Their Satisfaction With These Needs Being Met
On a scale of 1.00 to 5.00
  Importance of need Satisfaction with need Difference
  GrandMean GrandMean  
Job security 4.52 4.28 -0.24
Great colleagues to work with 4.44 4.24 -0.20
Vacation days 4.33 4.15 -0.18
Doing what I am really good at 4.45 3.96 -0.49
Great manager 4.35 3.77 -0.58
Autonomy 4.13 3.72 -0.41

The problem is one of people management. Seventy percent of engagement is determined on the team level; only 30% is systemic to the organization. It's not because managers want to be poor people managers. Most want to create an engaging workplace for their team, with the retention, safety, well-being and quality improvements that follow engagement. But they can't seem to get it right. Engagement isn't improving. Just as many workers were engaged in 2002 as are engaged today.

German workers want great managers, but they don't get them.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Leaders pick the wrong people to be managers. A 2014 Gallup study found that half of all German managers said they got their role because of their expertise and tenure in their company or field (51%) or their success in a previous nonmanagerial position (47%), not because of their talent for managing people and leading teams. While proven expertise is important, it's a poor indicator of quality people management skills. The talents required to produce excellence are different from those required to inspire excellence.

2. Managers get too little of the training and support they need to engage workers. In the past 12 months, only 40% of managers participated in a training program to improve their people management skills. But the problem transcends companies. Universities, colleges and vocational education institutions are the training ground for management in Germany, but most German programs focus almost exclusively on educating managers on business economics, administration and classical management theories. These programs should place an equal emphasis on the skills needed to manage and engage workers, because strategies and processes are only as good as the people who execute them.

3. To put it simply, people management always plays second fiddle to operational management. Management Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) don't incorporate the quality of people management. They focus almost exclusively on financial and operational numbers. So even those managers who do understand the business impact of engagement and who are capable of engaging a workforce can run up against systemic barriers, artifacts of Germany's old command-and-control leadership structure. That's bad for people and companies: Operational goals and KPIs can shift quickly in today's markets, but humans' emotional needs (e.g., praise and recognition, constructive feedback, opportunities for development) are stable. As a result, a focus on engagement as a KPI could provide stability for workers, managers, leaders and companies.

Now Is the Time for Change

The good news is that some German businesses are already getting it right. Those that have worked on engagement have achieved significantly higher levels of it: Gallup's analysis reveals that the engagement rates of these companies (43% engaged, 45% not engaged and 12% actively disengaged) are much better than the national average (15% engaged, 70% not engaged and 15% actively disengaged). And auspiciously, the number of workers saying their managers are more partners than bosses is rising (77% today, vs. 56% in 2006), a strong indicator that perceptions of a manager's role have shifted.

Findings from Gallup's State of the Global Workplace report suggest that now may be the optimal time for a systemic shift in management theory and practice. Only 10% of employees say they are less secure in their job now than they were a year ago. Seventy-five percent of employees strongly agree or agree they are confident in their company's financial future. Since the reunification in 1990, Germany's unemployment rate is the lowest it's ever been.

The workplace, it would seem, is a place of real security for many Germans. Leaders should be proud of that, but they should also build on it. Institute engagement-oriented changes now, while workers give leaders the benefit of the doubt, as other German firms already have. Expand workers' thinking while workers are in an expansive mood, and raise the bar for management. Germans are rightly praised for caring about work -- Germany should care about workers, too.

Learn more about Gallup's global workforce study and discover how your organization can tap into human capital and revitalize productivity.

  • Download the free executive summary from Gallup's State of the Global Workplace report, or order the full report now.
  • Watch our on-demand webinar to get vital insights directly from our workplace experts.
  • Listen to our podcast featuring Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management, to hear his thoughts on what workers worldwide need from their bosses.


Marco Nink is a Senior Practice Expert at Gallup.
Fabian Schumann is a Business Development Managing Consultant at Gallup.

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