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The Swedes, the Dutch and the Germans; hierarchy, consensus and punctuality

Tuesday June 10th, 2014

In a recent workshop on communication across cultures, I met a mixed group of 35 Swedish, Dutch and German participants. It is normal practice for me to adjust the slides to the participating cultures in the audience, so all typical dimensions of culture were presented showing the scores of these three countries. At first sight, we deal with 3 cultures that are quite similar:

–       in both the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany, all people are considered equal, and similar rules and laws apply to everybody (and although the way we deal with hierarchy is different, all three countries take the principle that everybody is the same and can reach the same status and power depending on achievements)

–       people live their lives with a low degree of interdependence; people are expected to design their own lives, takes personal responsibility for things, and everybody takes care of herself (the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany all are individualistic cultures)

–       consensus when taking decisions is important; before a decision is taken, every person needs to be heard, has the opportunity to share her opinion, and some form of agreement needs to be found that is acceptable to all

–       punctuality is important: when a meeting starts at 4, you are expected to be there at 4 sharp. Later will be frowned upon. Although company culture can override this principle, in general Germans, Swedes and Dutch are all three known for their punctuality. Somebody form Costa Rica, the Emirates, India or Italy will not see a difference and will consider all 3 extremely punctual. The only people who see the difference is the Dutch and Germans themselves: the Dutch perceive the Germans as extremely punctual (rigid, inflexible), while the Germans perceive the Dutch as loose (unstructured and sometimes indifferent)

–       emotions are not shared publicly. As the cultures are primarily task-based, work is about the task at hand. Content-driven business cultures are the norm, where strong personal relationships are nice to have, but not a necessity. Task comes first. It fits these cultures to keep your emotions for yourself; the ‘cold’ North-Western European cultures are not known for warm personal interactions

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The interesting part of the workshop came when we started sharing our differences. This became clear right at the start. I had asked the managers of the 3 groups to introduce their own culture. The host of the meeting, the Dutch manager – a woman responsible for tax operations in her company – shared several characteristic aspects of the Dutch culture. She had done the research herself, and presented her findings. The Dutch regularly interrupted her to make additions, jokes and correct what they found to be incorrect. Then came the German manager: he talked about the German culture, and every now and then asked his fellow Germans if they had anything to add. Only when asked, they nodded politely or mumbled a few words. Then came the Swedish manager, who introduced one of his subordinates on stage: she took over frequently, interrupted her manager a few times and added her own stories. They were on stage as two equals, seeking input from their fellow Swedish all the time. For an outsider, it would be hard to determine who was the manager.

With this we get to significant differences between the three cultures:

–       In Germany, the hierarchy is strong, it is clear to everybody who is the manager of the team. She is expected to represent the team, and when doing so the team members are silent. In Sweden and the Netherlands, manager and subordinates have completely equal status: although there is a company hierarchy, this is purely functional, and the manager will have to work just as hard as the others to defend his opinion and drive decisions

–       Related to this (and to the Hofstede dimension of Uncertainty Avoidance), there is a difference is office culture: where in Sweden and the Netherlands an “open-door-policy” is respected (anybody can walk into the boss’ office and have a conversation all the time, the boss gets coffee at the same coffee machine as the others and the boss joins in small talk and chats about private life), in Germany the hierarchy is much more visible. The boss has a bigger office, often private when employees share open-office spaces, and people don’t just walk into the boss’ office to share their opinion. Formality rules, and it’s quite clear who is the boss and who is not

–       Where the Swedes are masters of consensus building and the Dutch (with their ‘poldermodel’) will always look for the perfect compromise between all opinions in the room, the German culture is far more masculine and hierarchical. When a decision is to be taken all are heard for their inputs. Strong discussions can emerge, where people question conclusions, challenge data and attack positions. When this is over, the boss – or the leadership group that needs to reach consensus – decides. From the moment the decision is taken and confirmed by the boss, everybody will respect the decision and carry it out. The Dutch on the other hand are well-known to continuing questioning decisions once taken

–       The way to persuade others of your ideas differs: Germans are usually focused on principles. They want to know what methodology you used to base your conclusions on; they are focused on theoretical concepts and general principles. This is different in Sweden and the Netherlands, where people are taught to first present their conclusions and recommendations. These conclusions are supposed to be built from facts and empirical observations, rather than principles and concepts. So Germans will perceive Swedish and Dutch as rather reckless: they just take some observations from real-life and draw conclusions, without proper understanding of the overall framework and theory. The Swedish and Dutch however perceive the Germans as very rigid and abstract: they always talk vague general principles and don’t understand what happens in real-life at the work floor.

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So what are the lessons for employees from companies like Electrolux, Ikea, Nuon/Vattenfall, Ericsson, AstraZeneca but also Spotify and Skype? We limit ourselves here to 3 tips for Swedish (and Dutch) professionals dealing with the German business culture:

–       Respect the hierarchy and anticipate it: start influencing the German hierarchy prior to the formal meeting, make sure that the bosses on both sides can reach agreement, and make sure you influence their opinions prior to the decision-making moment (don’t wait for the final meeting!). Once the decision is taken, do not question it anymore. Copy German managers on e-mails; this is the way to keep them updated and informed, and this will not easily be seen as negative (as it would be in the Netherlands, where cc-ing the bosses is more an undesired escalation path)

–       Build up your presentations based on facts, data and figures. Prepare well. Deduce general principles from facts and data, and show how your conclusions follow from general principles. This is the way your conclusions will be accepted. Do not start presenting unfounded recommendations; the Germans won’t take you too serious anymore

–       In Germany, respect the rules and procedures. These are not designed to bother you, they are there as the Germans increase the quality of the product or service with it. Never bypass the rules: respect them, and bend your proposals such that they fit into the German framework. Show how your proposal helps the Germans to reduce uncertainty and increase the quality, and your proposal will fly

Similarly there are tips for the Germans to deal smoothly with the Dutch and Swedes. Base on the above story you may be able to deduce them yourself. If you need help on this, let me know. And make sure to be updated when my book ‘Managing through a Mirror; effective business communication where cultures meet’ releases on September 18th. Follow this link.

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