Last update on July 15, 2019

How can cultural differences lead to workplace conflict? What are the warning signs to watch out for while working abroad? Learn how to avoid clashes in a multicultural work environment as an expat.

A Belgian friend of mine works as a researcher at one of the academic hospitals in Amsterdam. She loves what she does. The other night we talked about work over a home-made dish of pasta. Surprisingly, she was highly irritated and disappointed with her superiors. Listening to her rant, I realized that she is going through culture shock in her workplace.

How doing your job can lead to a culture clash

My friend’s superiors wanted to reform the counseling of PhD students. In the process of restructuring, they asked my friend several times to give her opinion. When the new structure was presented it turned out to be radically different than any of the ideas she had put forward.

My friend had invested a lot of her time and didn’t realize that she was only part of the input-phase. While she had been flattered to be part of the organizational process, she was now shaken by the fact that most of her input had been pushed aside in yet another consultation round.

As a result she was overwhelmed, frustrated and angry. In a feedback session my friend pleaded with her superiors to take the decision behind closed doors and let her be. In other words, she was ready to give up on a project that had been very important to her. Her superiors were surprised and kept pushing for consensus, which only lead to more frustration on her side.

This is just one example of how expats might experience a clash of work cultures when working abroad.

Clash of business cultures: Leadership and decision-making

Usually, culture is at the heart of any struggle that expat workers experience. In the case of my friend, the collision is between a hierarchical organizational structure (typical in Belgium) and a flat, egalitarian organizational structure (typical in the Netherlands).

When decision-making is top-down, a superior takes all decisions autonomously and is solely responsible for the outcome. In Belgium my friend wasn’t asked for advice by her superiors regularly, but when she was asked for her opinion, her well-dosed critique had a good chance of persuading her superior. The process of decision-making in the Netherlands proved to be entirely different. Superiors who wish to find consensus on every single decision are very common. To non-Dutch (myself included) it might seem like all the debate does not lead to any decision-making and avoids taking responsibility. However, this is a risky and inadequate conclusion.

What was really confusing my friend is that the behavior of her superiors did not match with her culturally defined idea of leadership and decision-making.

Richard D. Lewis explains the nature of Dutch leadership and listening habits of the skeptical Dutch well (source: When Cultures Collide):

“In the Netherlands there are many key-players in the decision-making process. Long ‘Dutch debate’ leads to action taken at the top, but with constant reference to `the ranks`.

Dutch audiences are both easy and difficult: easy in the sense that they are hungry for information and good ideas, difficult because they are very experienced and not open to much persuasion by others.

But the Dutch do enjoy debate and even conflict. Anyone may offer an opinion.”

Typical reactions to a culture shock

As a result to being exposed to work ethics that differ significantly from your own work ethics, you will most probably assume that something is wrong with your colleagues or your superiors, not with you. Maybe it frustrates you that your mostly-European colleagues don’t appreciate the importance of Ramadan or the Lunar New Year in your culture, for instance.

The reason for that is that we tend to over-value our own culture. We think that our way of communication, decision-making or leadership is more natural, rational, civilized, polite or more effective. Because of the clash of both cultures, we under-value the new culture and disapprove of it at the same time.

Like every other conflict, a framework (in this case Dutch work ethics) that you don’t understand or are not familiar with causes you to lose confidence in the person you are dealing with. And that is worth avoiding.

How to avoid work-related conflicts?

To get beyond the reactions of culture shock requires a self-conscious effort to understand the reasonableness of other people’s way of life or work ethics.

In the Netherlands, negating ideas does not mean negating the person. So, if your ideas lose their ground at the office, that does not imply that your colleagues or superiors will think less of you. You’ll simply have to be more convincing next time round.

Here is my advice to my friend and to any other non-Dutch worker I coach: to see your ideas embraced by your Dutch employer, you should back up your ideas with convincing evidence and try to have more endurance with the give-and-take of the decision process. Accept that you are working in an egalitarian work environment that strives for consensus and that many rounds of debate consist of ‘give-and-take’.

Also, try to accept that you may have a different experience having worked at a culturally different work environment, and allow yourself the time to adapt. Realize that it is not a personal clash between you and your Dutch superiors, it is merely (work) cultures that are colliding!