Are you aware of your own cultural programming? Are you a Dutch manager, and did your international colleagues tell you before that the Dutch are quite ‘blunt’, very direct and totally insensitive to hierarchy?
‘Managing through a Mirror’ is the title of my new book, which will be published this summer. The underlying theme is that – in order to be effective across cultures – a manager first will need to examine the effect of his own behaviors on others. He will need to understand his own cultural programming in order to understand the impression that other people have about the Dutch culture. But very often you are not really aware of how your culture is perceived abroad.
Although you recognize that the Dutch communication style is direct, you will often think “It’s not that bad, ‘blunt’ is really an exaggeration”. We like to be very honest, so we’d better say what we really mean, rather than use these weird long sentences the English use to say ‘No”. We find ourselves very honest, and ‘blunt’ in our view is not really an accurate description of ‘how we are’. The same holds for hierarchy; many Dutch participants to my trainings will point out that the hierarchy in many companies is quite strong, and that the Dutch still take it very serious, so that the image that foreigners have of the Dutch aversion against hierarchy is not accurate. That’s what the Dutch think, however, to foreigners the picture is much clearer: the Dutch are rude and blunt, also their superiors.
You only get aware of your own cultural programming, and the effect on others, when you talk about this with foreigners. These are fascinating conversations, as you always learn new things about your own culture. A recent participant in one of my trainings told me the Dutch are overly critical, usually moaning and complaining. When they are asked to do something they will always first ask “Why?” and start to argue, rather than
just do it. And they complain and moan all the time. They do this by going into a room and talking about all the things that are not going well. In the room they put a big table in the middle, and they call it a meeting. But since no decisions get taken, it’s not really a meeting, but more a ‘talking club’. And when the Dutch have assembled everybody for their meeting and are finally ready to start, somebody shouts out ‘coffee?’ and the next 15 minutes are spent to get everybody coffee.
There is a positive side to this meeting culture. In today’s ‘Financiële Dagblad’ the Dutch ‘poldermodel’ is raised as an example of something uniquely Dutch: “Where in other countries the battles between employers and unions escalate and result in massive strikes, the Dutch ‘social partners’ are busy designing a better society.” The ultimate example of a meeting, where many parties get together and discuss their opinion, results in carefully designed compromises (another typical Dutch word) that are supported by influencial interest groups, government bodies and advising committees.
It is good to be aware of your own cultural programming. Next time you propose to have a meeting to your Russian or Spanish colleagues, know that the above quite accurately describes their image of what the Dutch mean when they say ‘meeting’. Should you adjust your approach? No, not always. Use the good parts of your own Dutch programming to your advantage, and get busy building win-win coalitions and bridges between conflicting interests. At the same time, avoid the image of the indecisive Dutch: prepare decisions upfront, create buy-in and support before your meeting starts, and use the meeting to formalize the decision. But obviously after you got coffee and you made sure that everybody has been heard: you’re still Dutch!