Thursday, May 8, 2008

Both sides of Dutch directness

Knobby treesIt's been a very tough week: everyone has struggled to come to terms with the announcement and to start to think about their changed futures. On balance, I think that the Dutch do much better than Americans in comparable circumstances.

I think that it connects back to their "directness":

Despite being reserved, the Dutch have a manner of speaking that may startle you: they tend to come to the point quickly. This directness is, in fact, seen by the Dutch as a positive personality trait. Tilburg University

Probably because of my research background, I've always appreciated the clarity. People say what's on their mind, good or bad, and have a thoughtful discussion if there's an issue. I've learned to take time to stop, have a sit, listen, engage: it's a very social and open process. I've only gotten into trouble is when I don't *really* engage or when I try to 'table' a discussion by implying that it doesn't interest the entire group.

Since Tuesday, our days have filled with all sorts of large and small group meetings to give people a chance to talk things out. The GM held an all company meeting today that was wonderful. He simply took questions, speaking conversationally from his heart to the roomful of people. Nobody got tense unless he was evasive: questions focused on why this happened and about what comes next. They had suggestions for the head of the Worker's Council, and observations on what they'd read in the papers. They were openly complementary when they heard honest truth. It was in total, marked contrast to the adversarial challenges and grumbling I've heard in similar US meetings.

Every small group meeting, whether staff or floor-level department session, begins with a 'round the circle' sharing that allows each person to talk briefly about how they feel about the events. Many people share personal difficulties or concerns, doubts about what they've heard, or perspectives on what comes next. There was little discussion, people just listened.

This same emotional directness carried into casual hallway interactions. When I asked "How's it going?", people always stopped to say "not too well", to talk about it, to ask questions about how I'm doing, what plans I might have. They still have a disquieting insight about what might be a concern, asking questions about the impact on my family and how long I might be allowed to stay.

I talked to an HR rep, who confirmed that in times of trouble the Dutch prefer to put things on the table, to support one another generously, and to be publicly open about their concerns. "How else could you work things through?" It's much different than I'm used to. They have a quieter process, one that leaves few behind or alone. And it's led created a spreading consensus about why this all happened and where their loyalties lie.

I don't think that the American VP who arrived to talk from index cards about "operational leverage" really understood his audience at all: they were confused and a bit insulted by how it all was presented. The team had to, in effect, back up and do it again today, in their own way, as a group. I was really impressed by the compassion and respect between the managers and the team, and the give and take as everyone sorted things out.

I took a long drive out around Meerkerk this evening, just to have a think about it all. It's a beautiful evening, sunset over the broad fields and reflecting off the silvery canals. A good evening to reflect on all of life's lessons that have to be learned at these times.

No comments: