Cultural differences in the Works Council are often the root cause of a problematic relationship and communication problems.
Not only can we observe issues between people with different cultural backgrounds in the Works Council, but also cultural differences between the Works Council and the Bestuurder. As a Works Council, you should be aware of cultural differences and discuss these openly. Preventing misunderstandings and improving on collaboration is the best way forward.
Note: in this article, cultural characteristics and differences have sometimes been exaggerated to clarify the meaning of the story.
in which situations can cultural differences occur?
These are often organisations where people of different nationalities work, such as multinationals. However, cultural differences are not only caused by different nationalities. In general, there are two situations:
- Cultural differences between the Works Council and the Bestuurder
An organisation with a foreign parent company and/or non-Dutch Bestuurder that have a Dutch Works Council. In such a case, you have to deal with cultural differences between the Dutch Works Council and the foreign parent company/Bestuurder.
- Cultural differences within the Works Council
Many nationalities or different backgrounds are represented in the organisation and, as a result, in the Works Council. This leads to cultural differences within the group of Works Council members.
The second situation – cultural differences within the Works Council – is becoming increasingly common. Many multinationals employ a mix of nationalities. This is also the case within Dutch organisations; you will encounter different cultural backgrounds there. When you put people from different parts of the country in one Works Council, you’ll notice their different backgrounds and characteristics.
The same applies to organisations where two or more parts of the company perform completely different types of work. In those cases, the different habits and customs of, for example, the ‘office’ and the ‘factory’ determine the cultural differences.
The Works Council reflects the organisation, with all its variations and similarities, representing everyone.
what problems do cultural differences cause for the Works Council?
Cultural differences can lead to differences of opinion and a lack of mutual understanding. This damages the mutual trust and hinders cooperation efforts. Below are three practical cases as example provided by Sander Vrught van Keulen, Works Council coach:
1. An organisation with a foreign parent company/Bestuurder and a Dutch Works Council
an organisation in the Netherlands has an English Bestuurder and a Portuguese HR manager. The Works Council is entirely Dutch. Portugal has very different standards for work, rest, working hours, legislation and regulations, compared to the Netherlands. The HR manager made decisions that were consistent with her cultural values but violated Dutch legislation. The Works Council continuously had to put on the brakes. The English Bestuurder was very formal and looked at the Works Council with a ‘trade union mentality’. He assumed the Works Council was always ‘against’ everything and only looked out for the employee’s interest. He didn’t understand that the Works Council also considers the organisation’s interests, and he was suspicious about that.
I spent a number of hours (one day part) with the Dutch Works Council to discuss cultural differences based on various scientific studies. What are the typical cultural aspects, and to what extent do you recognise yourself and the others in this description? This narrows the focus, from a broad scope to a narrower one. I compared many different cultures, to identify the differences and similarities based on existing studies.
By starting so broadly and generally, I ensure everyone recognises certain things. That is what this is all about in the first phase. Next, I zoomed in on the specific cultures that play a role in this particular situation: English, Dutch and Portuguese. What are the differences, characteristics and similarities?
Then, we looked at what the Works Council noticed in the cooperation and communication with the English Bestuurder and Portuguese HR manager. What are the problem areas in their communication? What are the difficulties between the different interlocutors? But also: what can the Works Council do with this information? What should you avoid? What should you pay particular attention to?
By looking at this carefully and trying to see things from the point of view of the other parties, you create more awareness for yourself. In the end, the group created a manual on how to deal with the foreign interlocutors. During an off-site team day, the English Bestuurder and Portuguese HR manager visited the Works Council. This allowed the group to test whether the manual works.
2. A Works Council with different nationalities
a Works Council has French, German and Dutch-speaking members. The language of instruction is English. The German and Dutch-speaking members interact often outside the meetings because their languages and cultures are somewhat similar. In this situation, the French speakers stayed together because their English was not as good as that of the others.
At some point during a meeting, the French speakers got very upset with the others. They thought that the German and Dutch speakers were making decisions outside the meetings.
The French are used to the fact that in French culture, many things are decided and discussed outside the meeting. Many decisions are merely formalised during the meeting. On the other hand, the German and Dutch speakers are used to discussing everything during the meeting. When the French saw the others talking to each other, enjoying themselves outside the meeting, they thought things were being decided without their participation. They thought that the meeting was just a formality. They were angry about that.
in this case, I let the group explain the problem. I asked them several coaching questions. They each tell their whole story, while others listen and don’t interrupt or respond until the problem is clarified. Then the other group can respond to the story.
Sometimes there will be a lack of understanding. In this example: the German and Dutch speakers could not understand why the French were so angry. They said, very sincerely: “We don’t just decide things outside the meetings, we don’t think that’s respectful to the others.” And that was a good explanation for the French speakers. The group can discover where the conflict originates by continuously asking these coaching questions.
3. A Dutch organisation with a Dutch Works Council
as mentioned earlier, cultural differences do not necessarily have to be differences between nationalities. For instance, we have worked with a Dutch Works Council with Dutch people with a Dutch background and Dutch people with a Turkish background. The Dutch-Dutch group was very straightforward, while the Turkish-Dutch members in this group were a bit more restrained regarding substantive issues.
The Dutch-Dutch were always very open and honest, as they call it, but also convinced they were right. As a result, they often dominated conversations. The Turkish-Dutch people reacted by withdrawing, and they were often dominated by the language and attitude of the Dutch-Dutch group.
I helped discuss this problem with the entire group. The only thing that was different from the previous example was that there was no conflict.
In this case, I was the one who identified that the cooperation was not working as well as it should. I ensured they addressed that specific issue, using the same method as in the example above, with the French, German and Dutch speakers.
how does a Works Council then apply this awareness?
It all starts with awareness. Only when you are aware of a problem can you address it. That is also how it works with cultural differences. Once you know what the other person’s sensitivities are, you can consider those in your communication.”
The goal is always to be agile in your communication and to use that agility to connect with others. In the example of the Works Council with different nationalities, the German and Dutch speakers could specifically ask the French speakers to join them during lunch. But it also works the other way around: the French speakers could ask the others what they have discussed during lunch.
How a Works Council then applies that awareness is up to the Works Council. My role is only to identify and discuss obstacles to cooperation and relationships. But that awareness is a first important step towards a smooth and fruitful cooperation.”
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