Germany and the Netherlands: where hierarchies meet

flags-143171_640Today I gave a training to a group of managers from a Dutch Lease company. One story that came up proved very illustrative of the differences in way-of-working between Germany and the Netherlands. Although in many aspects the Dutch and German cultures are similar, there is one significant difference: the way we deal with hierarchy.

What happened in this company is that the Dutch and German team needed to reach agreement on a contract for a client, and one of the members of the Dutch team had been working on this contract for a while. He could not agree on some final details of the contract with his German counterparts. After long discussions they ‘agreed to disagree’, and brought the issue one level higher; their managers now had to resolve the issue. And so they did; the high-level managers discussed together, agreed how to resolve the issue and organized a meeting to close the contract.

In the meeting the contract was discussed and the two managers explained briefly how they had decided to resolve the remaining issues. The Dutch person who had prepared the contract before however decided to speak up, and voiced his concerns. He explained to his manager the risks he had identified, and that he proposed to resolve the issue differently. The Dutch manager listened attentively to the arguments, asked some questions and then proposed to settle. At the same moment the face of the German manager radiated strong non-verbal signals of surprise, astonishment and perhaps anger.

Why?

From the German perspective this final decision clearly was up to the two managers now. The lower-level employees had failed to reach agreement, and now it was in their hands to decide, which is what they did. Once that decision has been taken by the high-level managers, proposing then to resolve the issue differently is not done. What is surprising to the Germans is that

  • the employee raises his concerns over and over again, even after a final decision has been taken
  • the employee opposes his boss in the final meeting, with a clearly different solution than what the boss proposed
  • the Dutch boss listened attentively to the arguments of his employee and gave him all space to voice his concerns (while just before he had agreed a different solution with his German counterpart); can this Dutch manager be trusted if he changes his opinion that quickly?

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From the Dutch perspective indeed the final decision was up to the two managers, however, when concerned about the solution the managers propose you have to speak up. For the Dutch it is perfectly ok to:

  • openly voice your concerns and propose new solutions, even after a decision has been taken. When you have good arguments and you think you can contribute to a better solution, you have to speak up
  • to take a different position on an issue than your boss, even in a public meeting. Hierarchy is taken less seriously by the Dutch, who even take pride in being blunt and direct about their opinion (even when this contradicts the boss’ opinion)
  • pay attention to an employee who voices a concern; involving everybody in the decision-making is important, and reaching consensus is what the Dutch manager is after

Two men in airport lounge discussingVery different perspectives on the same issue. What could the Dutch employee have done to prevent the German team to be shocked by his behavior?

  • He could have pre-discussed his concern with the German and Dutch manager, and advise them – privately, not in public – to take his concerns into account before taking their decision
  • He could have spoken individually to the German manager, and pre-warn him that he had a different opinion and that he wanted to bring that up in the meeting. Asking his German superior for advise, this would have given the German manager the possibility to reach a solution that all could agree to, prior to the final meeting
  • The Dutch employee and his manager could have been more sensitive to the German way of dealing with hierarchy; re-opening the discussion in public while the highest managers had already reached a conclusion, is not done, and undermines the hierarchy that is so important in the German business context.

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