Do We All Agree?

Dutch Politicians can appear wimpy. During negotiations this may play out well………

Consensus has always been in the DNA of the Dutch. It is the basis of what the Dutch call ‘effective decision-making’. The expat is often fascinated and frustrated by this culture of consultation and tolerance. Fascinated, because there always seems a way out of the most complex social controversies. Frustrated, because being part of a work environment that is built on the premise of consensus might be maddening for those from more hierarchical or decisive cultures.

Protest Movemement of the 60s

‘Consensus-thinking’ allows for relatively relaxed changes in society, according to Historian James C. Kennedy. He studied the Dutch culture of give and take and compared the protest movements of the 60s in Amsterdam, Paris and the USA. Kennedy concluded that, in comparison with for instance the USA, social changes occurred comparatively swiftly in the Netherlands. While many holding power in the USA and France resisted the developments in the 60s, the Dutch leaders did little to maintain the status quo. Not so much because of their progressive nature, but because of their conviction that changes were inevitable. Moving along with the times seemed to be the only sensible option. The Dutch political elite never really excluded, but instead embraced, deviations of thought and the minorities representing these views. The counter-culture therefore was facilitated by the ability of the dominant culture to self-criticise, and was eventually ushered into the social mainstream.

Emergency Situations

It is taken for granted that the quest for consensus frustrates rapid decision-making. In fact, on some occasions, it can lead to disruption. In emergency response situations, for instance, consensus seeking might generate contradictory reflexes. The preferred Anglo-Saxon approach to disaster response is command and control. In times of an emergency, response needs to be direct and unequivocal, with central control. The incident command system (ICS) is crafted around this thinking. As in the USA, in the Netherlands there are numerous disaster response actors. However, the Americans accept the need to relinquish power to a central command, while the Dutch do not. There are many sacred cows in these low lands, each with their own view and position. Even when there is a necessity for swift and unambiguous emergency response, the preferred approach is command and co-ordination. This practice will only work if the players have been granted generous mandates in order to prepare for and justify their individual interventions. When the dust settles there are always calls for more centralisation. In hindsight, a more vigorous and central response would have been appropriate! But as time passes, these calls are quietly drowned in the swamp of consensus. Power remains divided.

Co-ordinator and Facilitator

This is a disaster for people from societies with a preference for more hierarchical structures. Where not the techno-rational arguments are central, but the socio-emotional. Effective decision-making in the Netherlands is based on its technical quality and social foundation. The stronger the foundation, the more effective the decision-making and its implementation. It boils down to a reconciliation of views. That is why the preferred leader profile in the Netherlands is that of a co-ordinator or facilitator. He or she may be the boss, but should be available for, and capable of, constant negotiation with others – even subordinates. A Dutch leader will not stand above a network and rule it from the above. No, he is part of the network. This is perhaps the reason why Dutch Royals are so popular. The Royal Family unites, but does not exercise power. The Dutch love their Royal Family, as long as they do not meddle in their affairs.

Dutch Politicians

The Dutch do not tolerate visible power. Power holders must not be cocky. Being normal is crazy enough, to paraphrase a Dutch expression. You will not see the Dutch prime minister half-naked on a horse, toting a gun. Nor will he swing a club to show his winning drive. A Dutch prime minister will show himself in bleached jeans, on the beach and with his team.

Dutch politicians sometimes create an image of wimpiness, and quite a few need not make much of an effort to appear awkward. In intercultural circumstances, Dutch power holders may receive sympathy, but pity is more likely. During negotiations this may play out well, however, since the defence of the opposition crumbles upon so much magnanimous clumsiness. But patience is often tested, especially if yet another view is taken into account in the decision-making process.


When the Dutch negotiate amongst themselves it could be said: when the Dutch negotiate for a horse they will get a camel. In some other cultures people don’t like camels and one party ends up with the horse – full-blooded and fit for racing – while the other gets the donkey. Take the recent negotiations for a Dutch coalition government. Talks go on and on and the end result is always that party principles are diluted into a policy that may accommodate most people, but will leave no one happy. And even then, agreements are not written in stone. New views might arise as they go along and these should, of course, always be considered. Cynthia P. Schneider, former US Ambassador in the Netherlands once said: “We believe in ruling by majority. Does the minority want anything different? Well, bad luck. The Dutch, on the other hand, always want to see everybody happy. To me, this seems a bit problematic. I would find it very frustrating to work with that model. But until now it appears to work well for the Dutch.” And it has for centuries. The Netherlands has never had a hierarchical culture with loyal subjects; people of all walks of life have always joined hands as they pushed back the crescent seas. As Popla toilet paper once pointed out in a commercial: “King, emperor, admiral: Popla is for us all”.