Cultural conflicts in the Dutch working environment

Cultural conflicts in the Dutch working environment

Cross-cultural conflict can be a huge challenge even when travelling abroad, and when living in a culture that is not your own it can be particularly intense - and difficult to deal with.

When it comes to discussing cross-cultural conflict, often the best way to illustrate it is to offer an example.

How work cultures can clash

I recently spoke with a Belgian friend who works as a researcher at an academic hospital in Amsterdam. She has a passion for her job, but she was surprisingly irritated and disappointed with her superiors. Listening to her rant, I realised that she is going through a culture shock.

In a restructuring process, my friend was asked for input by her superiors. When the new structure was presented it turned out to be radically different to any of the ideas she had put forward. My friend had invested a lot of her time and didn’t realise that her thoughts had only been part of the input phase, and most of her input had been pushed aside in a later consultation round.

As a result she felt overwhelmed, frustrated and angry. In a feedback session, my friend asked her superiors to take a decision and leave her out of it. Her frustration was such that she was ready to give up on a project that had been very important to her. Her surprised superiors, however, kept pushing for consensus, which only led to more frustration on her side.

It was clear that my friend was experiencing a clash of work cultures.

Cultural differences in Dutch companies

In many of the struggles non-Dutch experience while working for a Dutch company, a cultural difference is often at the heart of it. In the above case, it was the collision between a hierarchical organisational structure (typical in Belgium) and a flat, egalitarian organisational structure (typical in the Netherlands).

When decision-making is top down, a superior takes all decisions autonomously and is solely responsible for the outcome. In Belgium my friend wasn’t asked for advice by her superiors regularly, but when she was, her critique had a good chance of persuading her superior.

The process of decision-making in the Netherlands proved entirely different. Here it is very common for superiors to wish to find consensus on every single decision. To non-Dutch, it might seem like all this debate does not lead to any decision-making and avoids anyone specific taking responsibility. That is a risky and inadequate conclusion, however.

At the core of my friend's confusion was that the behaviour of her superiors did not match her - culturally defined - idea of leadership and decison-making.

The nature of Dutch leadership

Richard D. Lewis in When cultures collide explains the nature of Dutch leadership and listening habits of the skeptical Dutch well: "In the Netherlands, there are many key players in the decision-making process. Long 'Dutch debate' leads to action taken at the top, but with constant reference to 'the ranks.'

"Dutch audiences are both easy and difficult: easy in the sense that they are hungry for information and good ideas, difficult because they are very experienced and not open to much persuasion by others.

But the Dutch do enjoy debate and even conflict. Anyone may offer an opinion."

Typical reactions to a culture shock

As a result of exposure to work ethics that differ significantly from your own, you will most probably assume that something is wrong with them, your colleagues or your superiors, and not with you.

The reason for that is that we tend to over-value our own culture. We think that our way of communicating, decision-making or leadership is more natural, rational, civilised, polite or effective.

It is because cultures are clashing that we are at the same time under-valuing and disapproving of the new culture.

Like every other conflict, a framework (in this case Dutch work ethics) that you don’t understand or are not familiar with causes you to lose confidence in the person you are dealing with. And that is a situation worth avoiding.

How to avoid work-related conflicts in the Netherlands

To go beyond the reactions of culture shock requires a self-conscious effort to understand the reasonableness of other people’s way of life or work ethics.

In the Netherlands, negating ideas does not mean negating the person. So if your idea loses ground, that does not imply that your colleagues or superiors think less of you. You’ll simply have to be more convincing the next time around.

My advice to the non-Dutch workers I coach is that if you wish to see your ideas embraced by your Dutch employer, you should back them up with convincing evidence and try to have more endurance with the give and take of the decision-making process.

Accept that you are working in an egalitarian environment that strives for consensus and that many rounds of debate consist of "give and take."

Try to accept also that you may have a different background to your colleagues from having worked in a culturally different environment and allow yourself the time to adapt.

Realise that it is not a personal clash between you and your Dutch superiors, it is merely that your (work) cultures are colliding!

What experiences of cultural conflict or clashes have you had at work? How did you resolve them? Were you able to?

Louise Dancet


Louise Dancet

I am a multilingual Belgian who fell in love with a beautiful Dutch man and traded Brussels for Amsterdam. As a legal professional with soft skills I specialise in cross-cultural...

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