Dutch business culture – Anecdotes from outside the fishbowl

An important step towards becoming a competent player in the international work environment is having a good understanding about one’s own culture. Like water to a fish, the influence of our own culture is often invisible to us. Getting an outsider’s perspective can help exploring the waters we swim in and learning more about our own cultural baggage.

With the aim to get insights of how Dutch business culture is perceived by non-Dutch individuals, I recently spoke to three foreigners who are currently working in the Netherlands. I asked them to share a little anecdote about their experience working with the Dutch with me. Thereafter, I matched their feedback against the attributes ascribed to Dutch working culture and contrasted it with their culture in order to highlight potential areas of dissent.

Here is what they shared with me:

Singaporean: “I experienced occasions where a junior staff openly questioned and criticized his boss’s idea and surprisingly he did not even seem irritated by it at all.”

Compared to most Asian cultures, Dutch communication is very explicit and direct. To say what you mean and to mean what you say is valued. Be aware that this degree of directness and frankness can come across as being disrespectful or blunt for individuals of cultures in which communication is more indirect. Dutch hierarchies are considered relatively flat and in many other cultures exercising open criticism to a person of higher status or rank is deemed a taboo.

French: “To my surprise, in team meetings everyone regardless of position or area of expertise can speak up and share ideas. To me meetings appear like a haphazard exchange of ideas with no clear target being pursued. As we discuss a lot and try very hard getting all team members’ buy-in on certain ideas, it can take a long time until decisions are made. This can really frustrate me at times.”

The Dutch decision-making process is based on consensus. Involving everybody, making sure all opinions are heard and eventually finding a compromise that all parties can live with can be a lengthy and complex process. More confrontational cultures, such as French or German, where final decisions are taken by the highest ranking individual, might view the Dutch meeting culture as inefficient.

American: “I work in quite a big office and every now and then my boss makes rounds and asks all staff if they would like to have a refill of their coffee. I don’t think I have ever been served coffee by my boss before this.”

Being an egalitarian society, Dutch consider every person as equal and try to treat him accordingly. Many other cultures maintain a certain degree of power distance and attributes such as age, status or gender influence the role someone plays in his environment or society. Take note that in cultures with high power distance leaders who do not exercise their authority might be taken for weak or uninfluential.

Ready to jump outside your fishbowl?
Cultural awareness and cross-cultural communication trainings as well as specific country courses offered by Akteos can help you successfully maneuver through the oceans of the international business world.

Carolin

Carolin BarrCarolin is a German national with more than 10 years of international experience. After her academic study in Austria and Indonesia, she gained professional experience in commercial and non-profit organizations in Germany, Singapore and the United States. Carolin completed a Master of Arts degree in Cross-Cultural Communication and is  working as intercultural consultant for Akteos. She provides intercultural training courses on the cultures of Germany, Southeast Asia and the United States as well as on Cultural Awareness and Cross-Cultural Communication.

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