Merge's Blog

Decision-making by consensus – Dutch style

WindmillLast week, I spoke at a conference in Amsterdam, Holland to employees from the European and Middle Eastern operations of a client’s organization.  A senior executive opened the meeting on Wednesday morning by welcoming all the participants to the Netherlands, and during his speech, he reminded employees about what the Dutch are famous for – tulips, cheese, canals, windmills, wooden clogs, the polder model …  Wait!  The polder model?  I was certainly aware of the rest, but I’d never heard of the polder model before.  He obligingly explained.   The polder model is a process of decision-making by consensus, something that the Dutch are widely-recognized for around the world.

The polder model has its origins in the unique polder geography of the Netherlands – land reclaimed from the sea – which requires constant pumping and maintenance of the surrounding dikes.  Ever since the Middle Ages, when the dikes were first constructed, different communities living on a single polder had to learn how to cooperate and get along, because without unanimous agreement and shared responsibility for the maintenance of the dikes and pumping stations, the polders would flood and everyone would suffer.  Interestingly, throughout history, even when different towns on the same polder were at war with one another, they still had to cooperate in this one respect.  The existence of the polders is credited with creating a Dutch culture where people had to learn to set aside differences for a greater purpose.  The most well-known example: the Dutch economic recovery of the late 1990’s.  Starting in the early eighties, employers, government and unions jointly agreed to a comprehensive plan – shorter work days and less pay for more employment overall – to revitalize the ailing economy.  It worked; and it is this polder model that is widely acknowledged as being a significant factor in Holland’s economic recovery of the late 1990’s.  The term is now used much more widely, in situations beyond just economics.  The easiest way to describe it is “cooperation despite differences.”  Nevertheless, despite its apparent success, there are critics of the polder model.  Those who disparage it complain that because all parties have to be heard, the process is slow and protracted, and it makes timely decision-making very difficult.

What do you think about the polder model in your role as a leader?  Would the polder model approach create a better team environment, or would it put the brakes on progress? I of course have an opinion, but I’m curious about yours.

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