This article was originally published in The XPat Journal Autumn Issue

By Chris Smit

Different Roles in Different Cultures

I like the saying an ex-colleague introduced me to: “We all do the same things, just differently”. In other words, we all eat, drink and sleep, but what we eat, when we eat, how we eat, and even why we eat is culturally determined.

This is also true when it comes to the managing of people in organizations and matters like leadership.

Basically, there are four types of management styles.

  • Autocratic (e.g. “Get me coffee now!”)
  • Paternalistic (e.g. “You know it’s a good idea if you got me coffee. Now!”)
  • Consultative (e.g. “I would like some coffee; how do you think we can organize that”?)
  • Democratic (e.g. “Who is in favor of coffee; let me see a show of hands… And who thinks John should get it?”)

Autocratic management is generally the perception we get – fed through the media – about, for instance, Russia. Or the dictator running North Korea.

Paternalistic management is found in countries that have a strong hierarchy – like France, Belgium, South America and Asia.

And you probably guessed it; consultative management is found in the Netherlands (not only in the Netherlands, of course; also in Germany, the UK – all countries with a weak(er) hierarchy).

And, finally, democratic management is not really a style of management. At least not for organizations or corporations.

Why the Why?

Have you ever wondered why, when a manager asks a Dutch co-worker to do something, the Dutch co-worker almost always replies with “Why?”.

This is because, in the eyes of the subordinate, his boss is not really the boss. His boss simply does a different kind of different work and certainly shouldn’t think he’s the boss.

And since every Dutchman has an opinion, even if they don’t have one, the subordinate will want to know why his boss wants him to do something and whether this should be discussed or not – in case he might actually have an opinion. In other words, consultative management. As the case may be, initiated and demanded by the subordinate.

What Do You Think?

While in countries with a relatively strong hierarchy, you will find the boss announcing what has been decided either by him or by his boss. In the Netherlands this will not happen as it has a relatively weak hierarchy.

Most Dutch people complain about the fact that it takes too long for a decision to be taken – yet if there is a strong, decisive, even paternalistic manager who is trying to impose his decision, the Dutch will object –  if not revolt.

In the Netherlands, the manager is expected to involve his or her people in the decision-making process. Even the generally quiet people should be asked their opinion. If the manager wants to cut corners and enforce his decision, his Dutch colleagues will not be in agreement with this.

The Answer to the Question

So, the answer to the initial question in this article (“What’s the role of a Dutch manager in the office?”) is multi-faceted. A Dutch manager does not have to be knowledgeable about everything that is going on in the organization. There is a general belief that he can limit himself to knowing stuff when he actually needs to know that stuff.

The Dutch manager is expected to consult with everyone who is a potential stakeholder in any decision he would like to make. If he doesn’t, his colleagues (and subordinates) will make sure he does. He certainly should not think he is anything or anybody special – even if he is an expert and/or has a proven track record in his field of expertise. There is a famous Dutch saying that works really well here: “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg” (simply act normal, that is crazy enough).

And to get the most out of his or her people, it is crucially important that the Dutch manager simply create a pleasant working atmosphere. A plant here, a cup of coffee there. A place where there is a lot of individual freedom for the employees. And not too much work pressure.

So, there you have it. The blue-print for a successful Dutch management style. I’d be really interested if you could let me know if you think this will be of any help to you.

Want to better understand the Dutch and learn how to work with them? Get in touch with Chris Smit at https://culturematters.com or write an email at chris.smit@culturematters.com.

Share this article
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn