What are the cultural do’s and don’ts for a successful high tech career as an expat in the Netherlands?
Dutch culture is different from any other, especially in the high tech sector. Your boss expects you to contradict him. You’ll often get instant critical feedback – and be expected to appreciate it. So many meetings… but who’s in charge of making decisions?
A typical meeting illustrates several key features of the Dutch high tech culture. You’re probably very familiar with the way everyone present states his or her opinion. Sometimes the same people will take the floor over and over, of course, but the Dutch actually view that as undesirable. Everyone is entitled to share his or her views: even new employees, junior staff and people who aren’t necessarily leading the meeting. In fact, you’re expected to share them: if you don’t, you won’t perform well in the team. So it’s important you learn to get used to this approach.
Most technology professionals don’t feel comfortable enough to make a statement until they’re (almost) certain. For example, you’ll say what you think in a meeting if you’re at least 95 per cent sure you’re right, but at 60 per cent you might prefer to keep quiet. The problem is that someone might speak up who only knows 30 per cent of the facts but has a bigger mouth, and that will then determine the course of the meeting.
That means you’re obligated to speak up at all times – with the goal of getting all facts on the table. Together you can make the most thoroughly informed and widely supported decision. You’re going to have to learn to bear the discomfort of possibly saying ‘the wrong thing’.
It’s also important that you’re not afraid to admit you aren’t sure of something or that you have no idea at all. The more honest you are, the more people will appreciate it. There is no need to bluff or pretend you’re sure of yourself. People are quick to view that as lying, and that will damage your credibility. What’s more, that approach keeps problems buried and robs your manager and colleagues of the opportunity to help you.
It also helps if you have the courage to admit your mistakes. You’re unlikely to be fired over an error; most companies place more value on the fact that you and others can learn from it. So share it with others when you do something wrong; ask for help or tell people how you fixed it. That way you avoid future errors and you turn the mistake into a mutual learning experience.
In listening mode
Another important don’t in a meeting is overruling your colleagues with your opinion and no longer listening. Most meetings are a process of mutual judgement and decision-making. Of course, in a dilemma someone will take the decision and you’ll have to go along with it, but in most cases a clear communal preference will emerge and the decision will essentially make itself.
It’s your responsibility to share your view of the situation, take a position and simultaneously ensure that you truly keep listening to others’ ideas. That may sound something like this: ‘I think this and that is what’s going on here, and that’s why I propose we do that and this. How do the rest of you see it?’ Important here is the use of the word ‘I’. That makes it clear you’re describing your personal viewpoint. Explain concisely why you see it that way. Then, if appropriate, propose a course of action and end with the open question ‘How do the rest of you see it?’. That question returns you to listening mode. That’s important, because that’s how you draw others back into the discussion.
What do you do when the meeting includes someone who’s older or of higher rank? Can you disagree with them? Are you allowed to speak at all, and even interrupt them if the situation calls for it? The answer to all these questions is ‘yes’. People value a critical and open attitude. This is something the Dutch educational system encourages starting in elementary school. The Dutch consider it a basic skill to think for yourself and not just blindly accept what someone else says. For example, Dutch parents may reprimand their children with statements like this: ‘You wouldn’t just jump into the ditch because someone tells you to, would you?’
Battle the water
When you display your skills, you’ll be given the accompanying responsibility, perhaps sooner than expected. The initiative is yours. So you can never say, ‘The hole in the boat is on your side.’ In the Netherlands, you have to battle the water together. You can say, ‘I’ve identified this or that problem and I think we should solve it like this. What do you think?’ Everyone will either nod and you can get started, or it will prompt a discussion, an addition or an alternative. In any case, your initiative and ownership will be appreciated. The general principle is: it’s better to say you’re sorry afterward than to do nothing.
But if your contributions are meant to show off or to outsmart others, they’ll backfire. In the Netherlands you earn status and respect primarily by delivering good work and having a positive work attitude. You don’t earn automatic points for your position, education, family, age or gender. Show that you want to work together to achieve a better result. And then you can ask or assert nearly anything (even to the CEO). For most expats, being able to honestly say what they think, even when they aren’t a hundred per cent certain, is liberating.