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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

CI In Conversation #4- Dealing with the Dutch

The topic suggests that it’s a session for Malaysians to learn and understand more about the Dutch. Surprisingly, it garnered a lot of interest from the Dutch themselves, as observed by Marco Winter, Executive Director of Malaysian Dutch Business Council and co-host of this session.

The focus of the conversation was to gain some insights into the Dutch culture to collaborate more effectively with the Dutch at work.

Here are some key traits that you must understand to work effectively with the Dutch, and why they matter.

The Calvinist root: Informal, Egalitarian and Hardworking

Aart began the conversation with his thoughts on what people enjoy most working in a Dutch environment. He thinks that people do enjoy working with the Dutch because they are quite informal, yet hardworking, serious and professional. This is rooted in the Dutch Calvinist tradition and illustrated by many Dutch proverbs, “Idleness is the devil’s pillow”, “Hard work and dedication will build houses like castles”, and many more that indicate hard and serious work. In the US, the value of a person is measured by how rich he is. That’s not the case in The Netherlands. You may be wealthy, or you may be important but that does not automatically grant you respect. You’ll have to earn it.

The Dutch sense of efficiency

Suerd then shared with us his experience of being a Dutch abroad. The first thing that he noticed when he first came to Malaysia seven and a half years ago was the erratic way that the locals were walking. “I was making my way along a covered walkway and would almost bump into the pedestrians. People were walking here, there and everywhere and not following a clear and orderly path. I was in a hurry and they were clearly too slow. I thought it was something that I wouldn’t get adjusted to, but nowadays, when I’m back in Holland, I sense that everyone is in a rush and I’m a little bit adjusted to the Malaysian pace. Our schedules are full, and we plan things ahead, days in advance. One of the remarks I got from my Malaysian team when I asked how it was for them working with the Dutch is that it’s so difficult to plan a last-minute meeting as everyone has scheduled their agenda to the brink. The Dutch think that’s efficiency but it also leaves zero room for flexibility. I find that very refreshing, that you don’t have to schedule your meet-up whether business or personal, weeks and weeks in advance. You can just call for a spontaneous meeting and someone might be available on the spot.”

A sense of order

He added that the Dutch really appreciate a certain sense of order and that everything is regulated. “We have a certain ingrained cultural expectation about it and the same applies to work. There’s an expectation of how you get from A to B and we’re always in a rush, we run on the clock. I’ve learned to let go and accept that you can get from A to B without having to know exactly how when you start your journey, and also not to plan everything completely ahead because that’s the cultural expectation in the Netherlands but not in Malaysia.”

A participant commented that in the Netherlands you’ll get yelled at if you’re in the wrong bicycle lane. Suerd agreed and added that in Malaysia, it’s totally acceptable that if you miss your turn-off on the highway, you cross the hard shoulder and then turn off. It’s a bit more accepting and tolerant but in Holland you’ll get some angry horns.

Autonomy and the sense of responsibility

Aart explained that the Dutch expect people to work independently and with individual responsibilities. They see that as a way to grow and develop themselves. They expect a task to be carried out in its entirety and people to come forward with questions when required. His experience in Asia is that not everyone has the same expectations.

Consensus and decision making

Aart said that the Netherlands is an egalitarian country and the Dutch see themselves as equals. It also explains in part the informal way that people deal with each other within companies. Decisions tend to be built on consensus. If consensus cannot be reached, then the boss will need to make the decision but there’s always an effort to get everybody on board. An authoritative, directive, management approach does not go down well with the Dutch people. They like to be involved and have their say in decision-making. The hierarchy in a Dutch company is definitely there, and everyone knows who the boss is, but it’s not always appreciated if he overplays his authority.

"Goede Discussie"

Zainul has worked with the Dutch for more than 40 years. He noticed that when Malaysians join a company, they tend to be reluctant to speak their minds for fear of upsetting the seniors. Over time, they do engage quite well in decision-making. The only thing that some Malaysians find difficult is to separate what’s personal and what’s business. The Dutch could be blunt in a business discussion and the Malaysians would take offence and see that as a personal attack. He’s had to explain to the Dutch that Malaysians are not used to that approach and an apology would be expected. He went on to say that the Dutch, on the other hand, sees that as a fruitful discussion. Hence, the consensus seeking approach is a very sensitive subject. Malaysians, and the British, tend to speak in layers, in a convoluted way, but there are no layers with how the Dutch speak, they are very clear.

Suerd’s view is that a good discussion, even a heated debate, is one of the important factors in a consensus seeking process. To the Dutch, it’s almost a cultural ritual to have a good discussion as part of the decision-making process. He concurred with Aart that in the Netherlands, the Dutch value equality, where everyone’s opinion counts. The second important factor is that by not making people feel heard, it will bite you in the tail during the execution of the ultimate decision. You might have a very good plan but if you’ve not sought that consensus, people cannot identify with the solution because they’ve not had their say in the matter. Someone who’s a technical expert may disagree with the CEO and it’s actually expected. People may agree to disagree but at least they feel that they’ve been heard.

Everyone needs to be heard

He advised that Malaysians shouldn’t be afraid to voice their opinion, and in not doing so, the Dutch might doubt your competence and you’ll come across as not having an opinion. Malaysians would usually ask for five minutes to think about it before giving their opinions. They view the Dutch to be a bit critical and tend to choose a slightly safer and more familiar route, whereas the Dutch would say that they’re plain conservative – “What the farmer doesn’t know, the farmer will not eat.”

Aart said that it is always good to ask your staff for their input. Maybe there are things that you’ve not thought of and you’ll get them onboard. They’ll feel that they’ve been heard, they know where you’re going, and they’re committed. So, consensus if very important. The Dutch are good in teams and are very innovative – always looking for better ways to do things, sharper ways to do things, it never stops.

And one advice to the Dutch, when in Malaysia: Make sure you hear everyone's voice

Zainul worked for Shell for over 20 years. The consensus seeking approach was very much practiced there. However, he noticed that some people, especially the Malaysians, were very quiet at meetings and would let the Dutch and the British do all the talking. His opinion is that, for consensus to work, a good leader should ensure that the quiet ones are not overlooked in the heat of the discussion and bring them into the conversation.

Communication and transparency

Some of the terms in the word cloud to describe the Dutch are – straightforward, blunt, sarcastic, and direct.

Aart said that the Dutch would call it, efficient and direct communication. Having been abroad for so many years, he realised that the Dutch come across as quite rude to most people that are not from the Netherlands. Even within Europe, the Dutch have a reputation for being direct compared to other Europeans. And where he’s from, which is the countryside in the East of the Netherlands, there’s a great distrust of people who need a lot of words to explain something. He also realised that he needs to adapt when he’s abroad because sometimes it’s offensive in another cultural context.

Another term on the word cloud is ‘rude’. Aart clarified that the Dutch may come across as rude but it’s not their intention. They’re very poor at packaging a message nicely like the British do. If a British person totally disagrees with you, he will say, “I’ve listened to your remarks and I really appreciate the way you have put forward your points and there’s a lot of merit in it too. However, there are a few things I would like to remark…” and he will totally settle with whatever you say. The Dutch don’t have that elegance. They will say that they disagree with you and if you’re from another culture and not used to it, you’ll be shocked at the directness. In Asia, messages tend to be layered and nicely packaged too, but the Dutch do not hear a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘I agree’ and that is quite often the cause of many misunderstandings.

What is valued in the Netherlands is being genuine, open and transparent. It’s not just in the language but also the appearance. A good example is the Dutch prime minister going to work on his bicycle and wearing jeans when he’s at the shops. Suerd's advice to Malaysians in communicating with the Dutch is to keep in mind that the Dutch do not have a keen sense of peeling off the layers in messages, and that they may misinterpret it if it’s not packaged directly, so do double check that your message has been understood correctly. The Dutch really appreciate feedback and do not mind frankness in a conversation.

Zainul found the experience overwhelming when he first started working with the Dutch. He said that Malaysians need to get used to the fact that the Dutch are blunt, but they all mean well. He actually likes dealing with them because he knows where he stands, and he can be as direct back.

The Malaysian perspective on the Dutch

With regards to the delights and challenges working with the Dutch, Zainul finds it a delight that

- The Dutch are informal and on first name basis from the word go. It helps to break the ice and put everyone at ease.

- The Dutch are very punctual (most of the time) and if you arrange a meeting with them, you had better be on time. They’ll be there five minutes early, waiting for you. And if you’re late, they’ll be sure to point that out. The Malaysians, of course, have this flexible and stretchable time. They’ll walk in half an hour late and think that it’s acceptable. Speaking of Dutch punctuality, Zainul related an occasion when he was invited to dinner by a Dutch couple and was told that it’s polite to be a few minutes late to allow the host to get everything finalised and ready. He found that very odd given that the Dutch are known for their punctuality.

- The Dutch are direct: Zainul likes how direct and frank the Dutch are. They’re open and blunt but the bluntness helps because you know exactly what they mean. They call a spade a spade.

In terms of challenges, Zainul says that

- The Dutch are so structured and orderly that they plan their holiday a year in advance, and that leaves no room for flexibility. However, they do not see themselves as prim and proper because they believe that rules are meant to be broken.

- The Dutch love to speak their own language with one another when they’re abroad but when they’re back in the Netherlands, they’ll immediately switch to speaking English if they realise that you can’t speak Dutch properly. There goes your chance to practice your Dutch!

Advice to foreigners on working with the Dutch

Advice #1: Bear with us

Aart’s advice to all foreigners is to bear with the Dutch and to be patient and not be easily offended if they come across as rude because they have the best of intentions.

Advice #2: Help us to understand the layers

With regards to messages coming in layers, as pointed out by Zainul, he says that it would be good for the Dutch when they start working in an environment such as Malaysia to be aware of that, and to ask themselves what the message is and dig a little bit deeper to understand exactly what’s going on.

Advice #3: Be clear and structured in your approach

One topic that Suerd thinks is quite relevant to share is the notion of clarity and grip on the situation. The Netherlands is a very orderly country of straight roads, railroads and canals. It’s a very structured country, and so is the culture. In Malaysia, the roads are more organic and that’s also reflected in their culture. Both sides will need to keep that in mind.

Advice #4: Explain the WHAT and the HOW

A Malaysian may not take kindly to being questioned on how they’re going to do something that they’ve been doing for ten years because their perception is that one should know the job well enough after doing it for so long. The Dutch would be more comfortable with seeking clarity on how the job could be done to achieve the optimum solution. So, it’s worth it for the Malaysians to understand why they’re questioned. This is by no means a message that he feels that you’re incompetent.

Advice #5: Give us feedback

The advice for Malaysians is to provide more feedback on what you’re going to do and how you plan to do it. Spell it out, and invite feedback, especially at the beginning of interacting with a Dutch colleague. It builds trust. The Dutch, on the other hand, should keep in mind that questions, although well intended, could go down as a message of distrust. What helps Suerd is to ask a Malaysian colleague for guidance and to clarify that he has understood a message properly. Translation and explanation are very much appreciated.

Advice #6: Don't take things personally

The Dutch are very honest and straight speaking, so don’t take anything personally.

Advice #7: Be punctual

Another advice is to be very punctual when dealing with the Dutch. They do not take kindly to lateness at all.

Advice #8: Learn about the Dutch culture

Last, but not least, try and understand their culture and don’t feel intimidated by their size. They’re very hardworking and talented people.

To conclude

Aart concluded by saying that it takes some adjusting and there are some peculiarities but his feeling at the end of the discussion is that working with the Dutch is a positive experience. The Dutch are egalitarians, they listen to you and value your opinion and all in all, these are the things that will appeal to everybody that works for a Dutch company or in a Dutch organisation or institution. He hopes and thinks that this session has contributed to further deepen the understanding between the Dutch and the Malaysians. It has certainly enlightened him as he is a new arrival to Malaysia.

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