Agreeing to … agree

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

The saying goes, “God made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands”. This is because much of the country lies below sea level, and so consists of polders (land reclaimed from the sea). The upshot: if you lived in the Middle Ages and were at war with your neighbouring city, you still had no choice but to cooperate when it came to maintaining the polders. Do so, or drown.

This is said to be the origin of the term polder model, that particularly Dutch version of consensus decision making. In fact, the Dutch republic was itself based on consensus, made up of seven autonomous provinces which all had to agree on big decisions. Likewise, in modern-day Dutch politics, no party has ever managed to win a parliamentary majority, meaning that all governments are necessarily coalitions.

All this means that the Dutch are said to be inherently disposed to cooperation and consultation. Indeed, in the 1982 Wassenaar Accords, trade unions famously agreed to accept lower pay for employees, in exchange for more employment in return. (Before this, the Netherlands and its absurdly generous welfare system were said to suffer the ‘Dutch disease’ of ‘welfare without work’.) But the agreement helped kick-start what became known as the Dutch economic miracle, and is still held up as a shining example of polder-model decision making.

But the polder model isn’t quite God’s gift to efficiency, as anyone who’s ever worked in the Netherlands will know. Because EVERYone’s opinion must be heard – from the boss and staff to the window cleaner, the intern and the office pot plant – the process takes as long as Linda de Mol’s botox injections are many. This has meant a fall from grace for the polder model in recent years, and a shift towards the more American-style free-market capitalism while maintaining the European social welfare model.

Nowhere is the tightrope over this middle ground more evident than in that age-old Dutch business favourite: the Meeting. Nothing – no seachange in corporate ideology, no earth-shattering revolution of economic practice – will ever shake the sacrosanctity of this staple of Dutch business culture. Meetings have always been held in abundance here, and doubtless always will be. It’s just that now they exist as a peculiar reincarnation of the polder model, where you’re forcibly made to attend, handcuffed to a chair and impelled to voice your opinion – or worse, ‘feelings’ – on decisions that have already been taken. Welcome to the new wave of consensus decision making.

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