How to swim in a Dutch working environment

How to swim in a Dutch working environment

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In this series, personal coach / trainer & owner of In2Motivation Peter Koijen talks about how internationals in the Netherlands can make their time at work more enjoyable: from leadership and motivation tips to increasing work pleasure and to altering your mindset in an ever-changing work environment.

I was a Dutch expat once in Italy. I actually lived in two different cities, Padova and Milan. I had a fantastic time and gained many valuable experiences.

In this article I would like to take my "swimming" experience as a metaphor and share my tips on how to survive in a Dutch working environment, whether you have just arrived or have already been working here for a while.

Learning by experiencing

When I moved from Padova to Milan, I decided to take up swimming lessons. I had had swimming lessons when I was younger: in fact, I had four diplomas, including one for life-saving.

Taking classes in Italy, however, was a very different experience to what I was used to in the Netherlands. The dress code (both in and outside the pool) was different and the level was higher, too.

Understandably, I was outside my comfort zone. I had to remain self-confident and try to relax. If there is one thing I’ve learnt about swimming (or any other water sport) is that you need to be relaxed in order to perform well and not risk your life.

Why do I mention all this? Because the best way to learn is by experiencing! Of course, I would have loved to have had some advice first, since that would have allowed me to "blend" better, but still, learning by doing is by far the most effective method.

Tips for "swimming"

These same concepts apply to working in a Dutch environment. Whether you are talking about behaviour, communication, dress code or culture, in a constantly changing working environment where diversity is the norm, there are numerous factors you need to keep in mind in order to adapt and survive.

Here are a few tips for "swimming" and adjusting to the way Dutch and international companies work in the Netherlands. Naturally, the following are generalisations and will obviously differ depending on the company and your own background.

So, I’d like to bring four aspects to your attention that follow the research of Geert and Gert Hofstede on cultures in organisations.

 Signs & Signals

This includes all typical signs and signals found in a culture. In the Netherlands, for example, these include the Dutch flag, the colour orange, and so on. Similarly in a company, one example of a sign is the logo.

Start by learning a bit about the meaning of the logo so you gain a basic understanding of the nature of the company and its history, whether it is a typical Dutch company like KLM, ABN AMRO, ING or Shell, or international ones that are based here.

Now, investigate emails, information boards, the meaning of the logo, etc. and look for signals - both verbal and non-verbal.

Try to understand the higher values of the company. What they are "selling" apart from products and/or services? In order to swim you need to understand these first!


Being a leaders and/or leading staff in the Netherlands probably works a little differently than in your country. Whether you are reporting to your Dutch manager or you are part of the management team, expect to treat and be treated the same as the rest of the team.

Following the "polder model," everyone is expected to express his / her opinion and have a fair share of the pie when it comes to influence and respect.

Therefore, your Dutch manager or leader (and some of those managers who are not leaders) will speak directly and will expect you to give your opinion quickly and just as directly.

Note that even though they are aware that you come from a different culture, you may have to be a bit more direct than you are used to. The same applies when you are dealing with your colleagues or when you are leading or managing others.


Rituals are the way things are done in the company. Systems and processes tend to be structured, tested and planned a long time in advance.

The Dutch working environment bases its security and control on confirming, structuring and reconfirming via the electronic highway.

If you are used to more face-to-face contact (or through the telephone), you can make a difference, but you will find some of your colleagues will pressure you to answer them via email. In fact, you might have to use emails much more than you usually do.


Start by asking your colleagues to tell you some typical expressions they learnt from their parents when they were young. These often indicate their values.

Why? Because expressions you are familiar with could bond you, while those you don’t know might give you better insight into how they think and act. Pay especial attention to the latter.

Also, bear in mind that some Dutch expressions will be very different, with many referring to water or wind. One example is "high trees catch a lot of wind," which means that the higher you are in an organisation, the more resistance you will experience.

Another famous quote is "acting normal is crazy enough." It means that standing out is often not appreciated, a deeply-rooted belief that clashes a lot with other cultures.

A piece of advice

Finally, one last point is just remember to enjoy the ride! This is a period of stories. Stories that you can share later on. So, create the best "story book" ever!

There is nothing better than stepping out of your comfort zone and just going for it! Be as prepared as possible; but remember that you need to feel self-confident and relaxed in order to swim!

In2Motivation is an international personal development training and coaching company run by Peter Koijen. For more information on introduction workshops and international NLP training courses in Amsterdam, please visit the website or send an email.

Peter Koijen


Peter Koijen

owner of in2motivation

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