Road map for navigating the Dutch office jungle
If you’ve found yourself working at a Dutch company, you’ll certainly have good stories to tell when you come home at the end of the day! That’s because many habits and customs are just a bit different than what you’re used to, and the Dutch think these idiosyncrasies are as normal as can be.
It’s no secret that the Dutch are direct and adore succinct communication. For the Dutch, it’s more important to convey a message clearly than to do so with a great deal of tact. They are more task- and result-driven than they are focused on building good relationships. The Dutch are therefore also not big on small talk (koetjes en kalfjes) in a business context. This is because, in the Dutch culture, relationships aren’t necessary for getting the job done—but they can of course help!
Dutch compliments: ‘Not bad’
Compliments from your Dutch colleagues will seem to come few and far between, at least initially. They are there, but they come packaged in Dutch modesty. ‘Not bad’ (niet slecht) is about as enthusiastic as you’re likely to get from a Dutch person. If someone says this about a report you’ve written, you’ve actually done a brilliant job. Some other commonly used compliments from the Dutch include ‘it’s okay’ (best goed) and ‘it’s nice/alright’ (wel aardig).
Moreover, on that same ‘celebrated’ report you could still come across quite a few comments. This is what the Dutch would call ‘constructive criticism’: well-intentioned tips to further improve your report. This has everything to do with the Dutch loving to share their opinions and wanting to prevent others’ heads from growing too big. People who agree with everything and don’t give feedback or criticise can quickly gain a reputation for being ‘yes men’ and/or stupid.
A jumble of opinions
In Dutch organisations, it is standard practice for everyone to be able to give his or her opinion. Equality is an essential work floor principle. The organisational structure is often flat with short communication lines, and colleagues have both a great deal of responsibility and freedom. The result of this is that decision making can be time-consuming, as stakeholders with decision-making powers first have to consult one another.
And then there’s the matter of time… The Dutch are nearly obsessed with planning their day. Every hour is planned in advance. One of the biggest mistakes you can therefore make in the Netherlands is to be late or show up to a meeting unprepared; they think you’re wasting their time if you do this. If you want to plan an appointment, suggest meeting in at least two weeks. The Dutch are bothered by appointments made at short-notice because they often have to rearrange their whole week to make it happen.
Tips for expats working in a Dutch organisation
- Communicate in the Dutch communication style: focus on getting your message across.
- Give your opinions on subjects which concern/involve you and don’t feel inhibited by hierarchical differences.
- Don’t interpret professional criticism as a personal attack. The Dutch see giving tips as being helpful.
- When you give presentations, keep them short and focus on facts. Make sure there is enough time after the presentation for questions and answers or a discussion. The Dutch love this.
- Deadlines are holy. If you are not able to make one, ask for additional time well in advance of the deadline.
- Be respectful of time. Make sure you are 5 minutes early for appointments and stick to the time allotted for the meeting.
- The Dutch like speaking English with you, but if you go to the trouble of speaking Dutch informally with colleagues, they’ll be thrilled!