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Get Closer or Stay Far

1,311 new COVID cases in Germany, 8,959 new COVID cases in Spain: these were the daily stats officially published on the 3rd of September. Both countries were facing the second wave, as the average of the daily detected cases had been increasing again since July. On the exact same day, both nations’ men’s national football teams were playing in the Nations League at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Stuttgart. That was the first round of the group stage, which ended up in a draw following the last-minute goal of José Gaya. Surprisingly, not this buzzer-beating goal was not what went viral about the match.

Actually, it was not even a real part of the match, but it happened right before it, during the anthems. As the teams lined up as usual, the world could see an enormous difference between the two nations: the German players were standing in line with distance between one other, whilst the Spanish athletes were hugging each other.

One does not need to be a virologist to know which lineup is recommended by the World Health Organization. What led the teams to act so differently, and what lessons can we take from this and implement into business and leadership?

Nations, cultures, reactions

Logically, the whole situation should have been the opposite. Based on Worldometer’s COVID database, up to the 3rd of September, more than 550,000 cases have been confirmed in Spain, and more than 29,000 people have passed away. Germany’s numbers: 248,000 and 9,400, respectively. Everyone would have thought that the Spanish athletes – with more than triple the deaths at home – would be the ones to keep their distance in such circumstances, not only for their personal safety, but also to lead by example for their country.

Just like our teams, governments around the world used a wide array of solutions to fight the pandemic. Some were fast and strict regulations, others were slow and soft, and some even seemed non-existent. Besides the economic considerations, these variations of the crisis response were based on socio-cultural diversity. It was fascinating to witness how cultural differences affected how each nation’s citizens complied with the rules of their governments. In Asian countries like Singapore and South Korea, citizens accepted even the highest limitations and got used to the nation-wide testing, daily temperature checks, and installed the newly developed tracking applications to their mobiles. On the other side of the world, in Germany, some young people organised “Corona-parties” until the detailed general order was released to ban all gatherings with more than two participants.

The Swiss Puzzle

Neha Deopa and Piergiuseppe Fortunato published an interesting and thought-provoking article about their research made in Switzerland. The small country with 8.5 million citizens in the middle of Europe was a perfect place to examine the acceptance of the restrictions and the socio-cultural effects of the reactions. Switzerland has twenty-six cantons and four languages have equal status under the law, so German is spoken by 63.7% of the population, while French is spoken by 20.4%.

They created two groups out of these two most frequently spoken languages and analysed their mobility in the different phases of the pandemic after the outbreak. The first phase was calculated from the date of the first confirmed case, February 25, until the government declared an emergency on March 16. Interestingly, the restrictions which banned all private and public events, forced restaurants to close, left only the pharmacies and groceries open, did not limit the mobility of its citizens; it only encouraged them to stay home if possible. And exactly this is the reason why they could detect the difference between the two groups’ reactions.

In the first phase, both the German-speaking and French-speaking citizens reduced their mobility at almost identical rates. However, after the country entered a state of emergency, a huge gap opened between the groups. The mobility of the citizens in the German-speaking cantons was significantly higher than in the French-speaking ones. This research confirmed that given an equal crisis with equal legal circumstances, people with different cultural and national backgrounds will have different reactions.

The German National Team is a good example for leaders about how the crisis can be managed effectively to increase compliance in a group of people. With special regulations aiming at the influence points of the nation’s personality profile, they could move on from the “Corona Parties” towards one of the best governmental strategies in Europe. The wrong regulations, however, will be such ineffective like the ones which could not lower the mobility of the same nation in Switzerland.

Common crisis, common chaos?

The pandemic has its impacts in every facet of the global economy: in every segment, company size, and location. But out of the many various types of affected firms, multinational organisations are suffering some of the most complicated effects. Employees come from all corners of the globe and put their own national personality profiles into the mix. And even though COVID is a global pandemic, owing to the different governmental strategies, these colleagues are seeing the pandemic play out in wildly different ways. For example, a colleague in Los Angeles has likely had a drastically different lockdown experience than a colleague in Singapore.

Even the smallest things could evolve into real barriers of the daily business in the past months. School lockdowns had happened in many countries, but with different starting dates and lengths, causing unforeseen chaos in the availability of multinational teams. Besides the technical challenges, managers had to manage the mental part of the situation: how the private stress influences their team members daily work, or how the colleagues can tolerate each other’s problems out of the private life.

Staying with our two nations – Germany and Spain – we can easily imagine offline conflicts, too. Many of us have a colleague who ignored all recommendations and regulations since the very beginning, don’t we? Let’s imagine how our German colleague would accept the friendly handshake or hug from the Spanish colleague just arrived from Madrid. But – as it was explained before – this behaviour is absolutely not intentional, and that makes a manager’s life extremely hard these days.

Travel limitation is another stress factor both in terms of professional and private life. Travelling to a foreign country does not only mean the risk of being infected by COVID, but it can easily happen that the new regulations will change from one day to another. Owing to that, every single journey is simply a chance to leave the family alone for at least two weeks or more – what is absolutely unacceptable for many nations in these circumstances. That is why offline meetings could be much more stressful and destructive than effective, as the participants will bring various levels of stress to the meeting rooms.

Just like in business, there is a common stereotype in sports: professionals must handle all crisis on their own, without any setbacks in their performance. Looking at the latest events of the national and international championships of team sports, one can easily find surprising results. Sport is a great model for managers to monitor: the top clubs have players with many different nationalities, and the effects of the wrong strategy will come up immediately. We could see several teams falling apart and breaking under the pressure as the players were not lead well – and we all want to avoid this in our businesses.

To avoid the erosion of engagement and of the organisation itself, decision-makers must act proactively. It is still unclear how long and how hard the second – or any further – wave will last, but many of the best employees are still experiencing significant uncertainty and stress. It is absolutely a realistic scenario that the autumn months will bring further strict governmental restrictions that companies must follow. To this end, managers must prepare their team and themselves to handle an even worse period.

Managing International Teams

There are no clear, one-size-fits-all models that can be applied to a team consisting of a mix of nationalities. It is also clear that a country’s COVID situation does not necessarily correlate to employee behaviour, just like the two national teams showed us on live TV. Biases and general communication strategies could even worsen the crisis inside the organisation and destroy the faith in the managers. But how can decision-makers navigate through this chaotic and dangerous archipelago?

First of all, managers need to know their team better than ever – both on individual and group levels. The cohesion and dynamic of the team might change frequently during the different phases of the Crisis, and smaller conflicts could escalate quickly in such stressful conditions. Although we are all tightening our belts, this is not the time to skimp on organisational development; companies should even prioritise these expenses. It is not just about surviving the crisis, you have to focus on the eventual recovery for which you need a group of motivated and self-assured team.

Importantly, decision-makers must re-evaluate their roles as leaders. People need leadership during a crisis, but the kind of leadership needed is different based on the composition of the team. The severity of the crisis will change turbulently in all countries, but not on the same timeline. That is why managers must stay abreast of the pandemic’s status where their team members are located and adapt their leadership style accordingly. Even in these conditions, people old habits will die hard, therefore it will be the leader’s task to reconcile the online and offline rules. The challenge will be to maintain cohesion, motivation, and discipline in a world where different countries can feel, more than ever before, like they are worlds apart.

For multinationals, their “starters” are the members of the upper management, and during this crisis, they are taking the field every day. But it is not enough to simply lead by example, like the German National Team did on live TV. The whole game is being played under new rules, and it is up to the managers to make sure that their team, their entire company, adapts to the new rules.


¹ Coronagraben. Culture and social distancing in times of COVID-19. Doepa and Pierguiseppe. June 2020. United Nations Conference of Trade and Development. Available at: