Geographical proximity to Sweden leads many people in Europe to underestimate the cultural differences. Sweden is a modern Western country, a democracy, a free market, and has many internationally successful companies. Thus, there shouldn’t be that many differences. But there are: there are many internationally successful companies throughout Europe as well as in Sweden, but […]
With understatement and an easy-going manner you can win over Dutch business people instantly. Therefore, short and concise presentations are a must at a first meeting. Product details and figures can be offered at a later stage and in more informal discussions. Until then, and before the facts are the focus, the Dutch want to get to know the people with whom they will start a business relationship. You’ll notice this in the way people address you and each other—almost immediately you will be on a first-name basis, similar to Anglo-American countries. Titles are generally not used in the Netherlands anyway, and status symbols are rare as well.
Each and every opinion matters
With an egalitarian way of thinking within the Dutch society in general and the comparatively flat corporate hierarchies as a consequence, lower level employees—even newly employed trainees—may express their opinions in meetings and negotiations or contribute to problem solving. Everyone is heard in the Dutch consensus culture. Communication is direct and open; even criticism is expressed in a very matter-of-fact way.
In many countries a CEO would consider it critical to be the face greeting a new business, and thus underline the seriousness of the first meeting by showing up in person to represent his company. On the other hand, Dutch companies may send skilled managers, who will examine an offer or business idea objectively. Even in final negotiations, the employees of the responsible department, and not an executive representative, will often take the lead.
You will likely only meet the managing director after the initial assessments and meetings, but throughout the course of the project, the estimates and recommendations will be made by the appropriately skilled employees, who usually maintain close personal contact with management. An executive decision will only be sought if a consensus cannot be reached.
In return, international managers meeting with a Dutch delegation should always address and involve all those present, regardless of their hierarchy level. In Dutch companies the employees can completely realign their boss. Every opinion matters.
Compromises are appreciated
With this in mind, understand that in negotiations both sides must be prepared to concede a point. Each negotiator will face direct and critical questions and ultimately put his cards on the table. Only if the Dutch have the feeling that a fair compromise has been reached they will consider a business deal successful.
Dutch leadership is easy-going and goal-oriented. In the Netherlands, not only the land but also the hierarchies are flat. In spite of being the boss he or she is “primus inter pares”, a member of the team just like anybody else. Managers always involve all team members, seek consensus among them and convince everyone of the meaningfulness of a planned project.
Dutch are generally pragmatic. They speak directly and bluntly say what they think and mean what they say. Everyone is at eye level with each other. Accordingly, Dutch companies are also comparatively informally managed. The hierarchies are flat, the boss and the staff are on first-name terms. The boss’s office door is always open for everyone.
Different ranks are mostly incidental in a collaboration. The Executive is responsible for the successful team building and sees himself as primus inter pares, a member of the team just like anybody else. Status, title and formalities are considered unnecessary. Referring to one’s rank in a Dutch company risk a direct backlash from employees and achieve anything but a demonstration of their decision-making power. What counts here is the daily personal performance as well as a congenial demeanor, but never the assigned position, tenure or age.
Easy-going way and high performance ethos
Dutch managers are cooperative and often see their main task as motivating and supporting their team. Nevertheless, their leadership style is strongly task-, result- and goal-oriented due to the Protestant work ethic. A high-performance-ethos is deeply rooted in Dutch society. Discipline and efficiency form the basis of economic thinking.
In spite of their relaxed nature, Dutch executives will therefore not tolerate any lack of work ethic or inefficiency on the part of their employees. The top priority for all is always to achieve the common goal as quickly as possible. The boss keeps track of the big picture, coordinates the individual areas and keeps all the threads together. However, task fulfillment is team work.
From the discussion among all to the consensus among all is critical to success. Facts or problems are rigorously analyzed and discussed until a solution is found in consensus with all. Of course, in Dutch companies the boss makes many decisions, but he will consult all relevant employees and bring together different opinions.
This also means that you will often find many more employees being involved than you would anticipate. In Dutch companies, for example, the secretary might be sitting in the project meeting and will contribute an equal opinion on the planned project. Factual instructions however, without explaining the meaning and purpose behind the task, can easily miss the target. Everyone must be kept in the loop and feeling included into the big picture.
The advantage is that everyone is actively thinking and noticing what is going on around them. Management mistakes are often revealed at a lower level, because Dutch employees do not blindly follow. The disadvantage may be that even for small issues everyone wants to be involved, which often takes a lot of time.
Be aware though, if Dutch employees are not convinced of a task they are asked to carry out, it may well be that they simply don’t do it. It is therefore essential for a leader to persuade and win employees over to a plan or project. Then, commitment, engagement and loyalty are fantastic. The initial loss of time is often regained later in the project.
Professional and private matters are flowing
Professional and private matters are never kept completely separate in Dutch companies. To talk about personal topics is quite common in everyday office life, and so you will see the Dutch manager chatting to the porter about his last holiday. Informal conversations also often serve to straighten out the relationship between colleagues as well as between team leader and team members after a conflict or heated debate.
It is equally important that family life and job life remain compatible. With eight per cent, the Netherlands has the highest proportion of executives in part-time employment in Europe. This is based on Dutch flexibility as well as their desire for a lot of personal freedom. Dutch employees or CEOs will never doubt the leadership qualities or competences of their part-time management staff. The fact that there are still electric time clocks recording attendance in many companies around the western world is considered as something prehistoric by Dutch HR people.
Flexibility is key
When working on a project, Dutch are flexible and solution-oriented. They don’t have to plan everything, but rather rely on responding quickly and easily to emerging problems. That is why they like to have plenty of room for maneuver. They perceive too much planning as a limitation. Nevertheless, the Dutch will meet deadlines reliably. The same applies to agreed conditions and process operations.
Katrin Koll Prakoonwit