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Dutch Business – Striving for balance
2019-10-07 | By Lorne Holyoak
A fellow Canadian who works as a manager for an IT company with offices in Amsterdam warned that working with Dutch colleagues might be challenging. I could expect to spend my time negotiating every little change in plans and might find that colleagues expect to go home on time, instead of working all night to meet a deadline.
So what is the truth about Dutch business culture? The Dutch can be canny negotiators and good at finding ways to optimise their advantage, but work-life balance trumps material wealth. The eenmanszaak (one person business) illustrates the point nicely.
A work-life balance
It is not uncommon in the Netherlands for professionals to set up as self-employed through an eenmanszaak. For example, if there is a shortage of a particular profession in the Netherlands, some workers quit their jobs, set up as a self-employed professional, and negotiate better terms working as a contractor at the place where they were previously employed!
Typically, eenmanszaak is set up to make a good living, improve quality of life and have more control over one’s career. Self-employment is not seen as a pathway to enormous riches. Similarly, the objective of many Dutch start-ups is not to sell to a bigger company for millions of Euros, but to establish a secure and stable career trajectory. While there are always exceptions, it is helpful to be aware that in the Netherlands success is not necessarily measured in terms of riches, but more frequently in work-life balance, respect and integrity.
Which is not to say that the handelsgeest is not alive and well in the Netherlands. This term refers to the commercial spirit or ‘gift for trading,’ and is an integral part of Dutch business culture and indeed Dutch identity. The Dutch East India Company was the forerunner of the modern corporation, and the Dutch pride themselves on being excellent traders, understanding that the essence of a good trade is when both parties benefit, so that the relationship can continue overtime. Often in Dutch businesses, you will find that the objective is not only to get the best deal possible for your organisation, but an exchange that allows both sides to come away feeling like winners.
This attitude towards trading is also reflected in industrial relations. Employers and employees cooperate on setting priorities, planning activities and making decisions. Consensus building is the key to understanding Dutch business culture. This doesn’t mean that managers don’t lead but are expected to create consensus and mediate relationships, rather than taking decisions unilaterally. To some extent, the role of managers depends on the organisation. The consensus-building model is perhaps more prominent in non-profits and the public sector than it is in the private sector. Nevertheless, because Dutch society is broadly speaking more egalitarian and transparent, Dutch businesses tend to be less hierarchical than in other countries. Managers have to make decisions, but the decision-making process is consultative and inclusive.
That inclusive process does mean meetings–lots of meetings. Sometimes non-Dutch professionals complain that too much time is spent on meetings and consensus building. However, when you understand that the egalitarianism that characterises Dutch society extends to the business culture, you can understand the importance of meetings. It is expected that everyone will contribute to the discussion, so be prepared to offer your thoughts on any agenda item! It can take some time to reach a decision, but once a decision is made it is expected that it will be implemented swiftly.
Expect meetings to starton time, to follow the agenda that has been set, and to provide everyone with the chance to speak. They will be fairly relaxed and informal otherwise, and, despite what you may have heard, Dutch people are not automatons who think that chit-chat is a waste of time. Small talk about weekend plans or Dutch trains is not uncommon in the first few minutes of a meeting while waiting for everyone to arrive.
Dutch directness is probably the most famous stereotype and usually accompanied by the suggestion that the Dutch are not good at reading context or distrust politeness. The truth is that the Dutch are courteous and good at listening carefully in order to get the full picture. They speak clearly and are not afraid to offer unfailingly polite and even-keeled criticism to superiors and clients. Remembering there is a motivation to get the job done right the first time can offset any blunt communication style found in Dutch colleagues.
About the author
Lorne Holyoak is a development anthropologist and aspiring writer who hails from Canada. He has worked as a volunteer with ACCESS in Utrecht.