The Polder Model in Action

Have you ever heard of the Dutch polder model? It’s a political term referring to consensus decision-making. However, here in Holland, it is used within organizations as well.

A small windmill, perhaps twice the height of a person. It looks like it's made entirely of wood, and the four vanes do not have sails on them so it is probably not turning. It stands next to a ditch in a green grassy field.
A small windmill like this was used to pump water up from a lower to a higher level body of water. The land that is drained in this way is called a “polder.”

What is the polder model?

The idea is that everybody in the organization (yes, including the cleaning staff) gets a say in any decision that will have any effect on them. The leaders have to make the final decision, but they will not announce their conclusions until everyone has had their chance to discuss it, propose changes, etc.

As you can imagine, such a decision-making model can be extremely time-consuming. It can take years to get anything done. On the other hand, because everyone feels that they had some influence on the decision, they’re more likely to feel some ownership of it, once it’s made, which means less resistance.

What’s happened slowly, over the last decade, I would guess, is that Holland has been increasingly influenced in its organizational models by the American/British way of doing things, i.e. like-it-or-lump-it top-down decision-making.

History of the polder model

The Wikipedia article on the polder model makes it sound like it’s primarily a phenomenon of government, in which opposing parties compromise for the greater good. Certainly compromise is a key element of Dutch politics. The article traces it primarily to the 20th century, but I would argue that the idea is too culturally rooted to be that recent. If it was that recent, I don’t think it would be so integral to other organizational structures like businesses and schools.

The article does point out that the polder model may stem more literally from polders, i.e. the land created through building dikes and windmills to drain land and control water flow. In order for localities to maintain the level of water control they needed, they had to cooperate and compromise for the benefit of everyone. If this is true, the polder model goes all the way back to the Middle Ages.

A view of four large windmills along the edge of a wide canal. Each has thatch on its roof and the vanes have white sails on them that fill with wind.
The 18th-century windmills at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO site, were built to keep polders drained, and still serve as backup pumps.

What happens when you ignore it?

Once I saw a great example of this tension between the two approaches at the secondary school where I was teaching:

Our lessons were 45 minutes long, and some classes met as block hours of 90 minutes. Some subject departments, such as science, wanted these block hours for labs or other longer activities. The school leadership had been mentioning for several years the idea of moving to longer block hours for all subjects.

One day, in their team meetings, the team leaders asked the teachers whether they preferred 60-minute or 70-minute lessons in the next year’s schedule. Not if they wanted longer lessons; just how long. Well, the teachers went ballistic! When was this decision made? Who says we want longer hours? Why weren’t we consulted?

This reaction obviously took the school leaders by surprise. They called a whole-staff meeting. Well, I’ll tell you, I normally hated these whole-afternoon meetings and often struggled not to nod off. This one was the most entertaining meeting I’d ever been to! The teachers were furious, and not at all afraid to let the school leaders know it!

The school principal presented his arguments for longer hours. His main argument seemed to be that longer lesson hours allow teachers to vary their teaching style more, so that in a given lesson students take part in several different activities.

What was fascinating was that the teachers didn’t necessarily disagree with that (although there was a certain amount of scepticism that a teacher who drones on for 45 minutes isn’t just as likely to drone on in the same way, only for 60 minutes!). Rather, the teachers were outraged that no one had asked them whether they even wanted longer lessons. One actually stood up and shouted at the school leader during the meeting.

I have to admit that I, from my American point of view, found it all more amusing than anything else. Not that I found my colleagues’ concerns unimportant; just that it was such a clear illustration of this unique aspect of the Dutch culture. In an American high school, the teachers would have had to just accept the decision. I’m not saying that’s better at all; it creates a lot of resentment. But it sure is a lot quicker!

In the end, in response to that anger, the administration sent the question back to the teams to discuss and make a recommendation. Teachers organized a ballot a few days later as well. To be honest, I don’t even know how it ended because I left that job the next year.

It all came down to the polder model. The school leaders had broken the rules. All they would have had to do to avoid all of this anger was to send out a questionnaire ahead of making the decision, or ask each team to make a recommendation. Then they could have gone ahead with whatever they decided. Instead, resentment was the obvious result.

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Pinnable image: 
Text: The polder model in action: Dutch decision-making (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo)
Image: a small brown windmill next to a ditch


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Hi Rachel,
I’m Dutch and I work for a German company. Last week we received an e-mail telling us we had to work extra on a Saturday. I was furious, my German colleagues didn’t bother. Thank you for making me realise my cultural blindspot!
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