How to handle cultural differences in your team
The Dutch business landscape is becoming increasingly more international. Companies are gasping for new talent, but can’t find it in the Netherlands due to its tight labour market. That’s why they’ve turned to professionals from beyond the Dutch border. Acquiring foreign talent brings along quite some challenges. Which we are more than familiar with as we also recruit and guide young professionals from all over the world. Based on her experiences, director Sabine shares the pitfalls and challenges of international expansion, how it affects your team, and how you can best deal with this.
The first international employee
The chance that an international employee feels right at home is far greater with a team already comprised of people with different cultural backgrounds. Sabine explains: “A single person with a non-Dutch background will always be seen as the exception within the team. Once you hire more internationals, the pendulum shifts, and English becomes the main working language. But it also has a reinforcing effect, according to Sabine: “Once you have an international employee in your team, it is easier to hire more.”
Official working language
“A lot of our clients – large banks, pension funds, and insurance companies – have a lot of international employees but still use Dutch as the main working language. These organisations often still have a large group of employees who have worked there for over forty years. Many of which find it difficult to keep up with the changing workplace.” says Sabine. There is a tipping point, but it is difficult to say exactly where that point is. “It differs per organisation. And you might be able to change the working language on paper, but your employees are the ones who truly have to embrace it and bring about the change.”
More than speaking the same language
Adapting the working language is the most obvious way for your multicultural team to flourish. However, adding international talent to your team takes a lot more than just speaking English. Cultural differences in the workplace are often underexposed. Sabine explains: “Hierarchy, leadership, collaboration, and feedback: every culture has its own written (and unwritten) rules of conduct.
In Dutch business culture, there is a limited amount of hierarchy. However, many countries have a distinct hierarchy with strict rules, which makes certain requests feel unnatural to its people. For example, suppose you tell a young professional who hails from one of those countries to share their opinions more proactively during the meeting. They will most likely feel more uncomfortable doing this than a Dutch native. In the Netherlands, you are (almost) forced to share your opinion, whilst, in most other countries, you have to build a level of seniority before you can do so.”
Understanding each other's origins
‘We saw that our 2022 young professionals program was comprised mostly of young professionals with an international background. Our talent managers immediately followed a relevant course to be able to coach them more effectively and to be able to better advise their managers. Because every country has its views on the meaning of work.’
An incredibly useful training, because mutual understanding play a huge role in this process. Sabine gives an example: “Last week a supervisor told one of our talent managers that one of the international young professionals wouldn’t speak her mind when asked what she thought about her job. The talent manager explained to him it was because he is her manager. His role and the dynamics between them influenced the way she responded. He advised the supervisor to ask one of her colleagues what she thought, as she was probably a lot more open to them. Speaking your mind to your boss isn’t something that’s accepted in all countries.
Managers can’t expect someone to completely assimilate simply because it’s our culture. It’s a two-way street Sabine says. ‘Because, on the other hand, internationals do have to understand the way things work over here. By trying to comprehend each other’s origins, you don’t leave any room for lack of understanding.’
The number of international employees in the Netherlands has increased quickly over the past years. ‘Cultural awareness isn’t increasing alongside it’, says Sabine. She explains: ‘Personal development and functionality of the team are often of secondary interest, with output being the main goal. A data analyst’s report will be reviewed more thoroughly than their position within the team. Once the focus shifts towards team interaction and proper training and development, people tend to achieve success faster. This leads to them being happier at work and sticking around for a longer period. And that’s what a manager likes to see. However, it does take some time, which is something that people often don’t have enough of.
‘Delving into cultural differences as a manager and asking yourself what you know about a country and what type of working culture they have makes a huge difference. This doesn’t just count for those in a managerial role,’ Sabine adds. ‘Cultural awareness can be a huge eye-opener for the entire team. Talk to your team about their background and habits and what role these play during working hours. It will boost collaboration and create more understanding for one another.’
‘Your first job brings many challenges, but even more so for international students looking to start their career in the Netherlands. Managers who supervise young professionals often lead large teams. They have much more on their plate than guiding this new international colleague. Our young professional program is the perfect solution for them,” Sabine explains. “Especially when guiding young professionals who often only moved to the Netherlands for their studies, as the cultural aspect is often forgotten about.’
Finally, Sabine gives another example: ‘Solid Professionals is currently supervising two young female professionals from Iran, where a lot is going on at the moment. The situation plays a role in their lives during all hours of the day, including their time at work. We consider what this means for them and how we can take it into account.’ Our talent managers, therefore, pay extra attention to relevant cultural challenges. ‘In addition, we are setting up a community for international starters, a network they can fall back on,’ concludes Sabine.