The Dutch are known for their communication style: one of directness, precision, clarity and pointing out the inevitable elephant in the room. Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian, became an internet sensation at Davos in 2019 when he pronounced it felt like he was “at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water” (in reference to the 'double standards' of the billionaire audience).
This Dutch approach stems from people of the lowlands having water as a common enemy, where getting to the point quickly and factually was a matter of survival. The Dutch people were therefore forced to work together to find a common solution. Communicating honestly about opinions and sharing ideas mattered. Viewing each other as equals is still an important aspect of their interactions today, and "sorry" is only used when they really really mean it. (Cue the Brits apologising reflexively with abandon.)
So what’s the big deal?
Some companies have expressed that when hiring ‘nice people’, these employees find it hard to give direct feedback and moreover struggle to be empowered to do so. The prevailing work culture can also add to this difficulty.
In a business context, avoiding speaking up, might be seen and taken as a negative. The presence of respectful and transparent communication, whether it be reporting errors or raising potential issues, is crucial to innovation. Adopting this at a cultural level is a challenge that requires self-awareness, respect and practice.
Dutch 'Corporate Rebels', Joost Minaar and Pim de Moree are ‘radical transparency’ advocates: “secrecy can be the enemy. Employees are clueless about how things function, and what strategy they are meant to follow [...]. The dividends of secrecy are distrust, ignorance, gossip and poor performance.”
Unchecked, teams can quickly become disillusioned and dysfunctional with deeply embedded trust issues.
The real problem in avoiding raising an issue is that we don’t have the opportunity to get clear about the facts, nor the potentially troubling assumptions we have made about them. Amy Edmondson cautions that self-editing can be "the enemy of flourishing", clouding action, innovation and peer-to-peer appreciation.
A seasoned mediator friend recently confessed to me that the phrase "separate the people from the problem" can seem like an absurd approach to conflict resolution, since "people are the problem".
Yet, if you are working together respectfully to ask questions, challenge potential assumptions and foster transparency, the possibility of getting caught up with petty or toxic misunderstandings diminishes.
The approach is about taking the emotion out of tough conversations and working together to improve outcomes. It’s remarkable what can flourish when you can freely question and innovate within a team.
Here is your invitation to embrace respectful directness and bring some Dutchness to that next meeting or call!
By Christina Clark
Founder of Workculturati
Do visit: https://www.workculturati.com/fostering-psychological-safety for further information about our offer.
Do read: Andrew Hill's excellent FT interview with Amy Edmondson