“I want to build bridges”

Ingo Kahl has for more than a decade been chairman of the Staff Council of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). As part of the “We at the MDC” series, he reveals what to him is so unique about his work.

About our “We at the MDC” series


The MDC aspires to provide all employees with an attractive work environment – through an outstanding infrastructure and through collaboration with leading researchers, but also by being a place where tolerance, respect, and good interpersonal relations are paramount. It doesn’t always succeed in equal measure at attaining these aims. Our series introduces you to people who are engaged in this field. It also sheds light on internal processes that seek to ensure a positive organizational culture. And it provides tips for an attentive togetherness.

Read more about the series “We at the MDC”.

Mr. Kahl, you joined the MDC in 2004 as head of the Building and General Services Department, now the Central Services Department. What moved you to run for a position on the Staff Council in 2008?

I felt comfortable at the MDC and I liked my work, but I wanted to contribute in another way too. The work of the Staff Council interested me, so I stood as a candidate in the Staff Council elections of fall 2008. I actually wanted to be a part of the council to gain some other experience and didn’t intend to immediately serve as chairman and be released from my normal duties. But I was then elected chairman at the inaugural meeting. Shortly thereafter, when someone was found to take over my duties, I began serving full time on the Staff Council. 

What motivates your engagement on the Staff Council?

It’s important to me to be there for the employees, to provide them with guidance and advice, and to have a say in matters that have overarching relevance. That includes, for example, agreements on personnel issues that concern all employees. We on the Staff Council – which is currently comprised of 13 members – represent the employees’ interests. We, of course, have differences with the employer. From the very start, it was important to me to build bridges and meet in the middle as much as possible – in other words, to find solutions that all parties could accept.  

What issues do MDC employees come to you about?

That varies widely. Many have questions about the collective agreement, about notice periods, about part-time employment for older workers, or about how they can move to a higher pay grade. We’re not allowed to give legal advice – so when legal issues are at stake, we advise employees to consult a lawyer. Another important issue is conflicts with colleagues or supervisors. In any case, it makes sense to turn to the Staff Council for advice and assistance. 

What do you especially like about your work?

Gaining insights, being involved in lots of different things, and generally seeing the MDC from a different angle than employees normally do. One can make a difference … although it’s not possible to stop a moving train, especially one set in motion by the Board of Directors. But we have our ears on the tracks and can hear the train coming. We may then be able to change the direction somewhat. However, there are also a lot of areas where we have no influence, such as restructurings. These involve, for example, the employer’s right to give directions, which enables employees to be transferred without their consent. 

A decade is a long time. Has anything changed since you took up this position?

I have the impression that the level of stress and conflict is increasing. The psychological strain caused by work is rising, also because of the blurring of borders between work and private life that has become so widespread. For example, a colleague reads an unkind email from their boss on the weekend, which of course ruins the rest of their weekend. In the past several years, many things have become more formalized and more rigidly organized than they were in my first years. 

Could the leadership culture be improved?

Certainly. An important issue here is communicating appreciation. There is often a lack of recognition of an employee’s efforts. This could be words of praise, for example, when one’s boss says, ‟You’re doing a good job.” But there are many ways to show appreciation. I would also like to see social competence and leadership skills become key selection criteria when recruiting management staff. Research groups leaders at the MDC are above all excellent researchers – but other qualities are needed to be a really good leader of a group.  

If there weren’t a Staff Council, would the MDC be a different organization?

Not entirely. But some things would certainly be different if the Staff Council didn’t make inquiries and ask for clarification or at times didn’t repeatedly call attention to problems. There are matters that are regulated by law and on which the Staff Council must be consulted or which must be discussed with us. An example are pay grades, which the Staff Council scrutinizes as to why certain activities are classified in a particular way. Here, the Staff Council makes sure that the pay grades are assigned properly and that employees are treated equally. The Staff Council is also participating in the task force charged with addressing harassment and conflicts that involve bullying or bossing behavior. I think having this task force is a good thing, because it provides a forum to discuss issues that move many employees but aren’t discussed very openly. There will certainly be measures, guidelines, trainings, and events that will change the MDC – and the Staff Council as a representative body and me as an individual will be actively involved in the change processes. 

Wiebke Peters conducted the interview.