Picture the following situation: You are the boss. One of your direct reports, that you trust because of his dedication and professionality contradicts you publicly in a meeting with your superiors. Technically he had a point, but how dare he question your authority in front of the other board members and the CEO. There will be consequences …

Why on earth did he do, what he did …

Well he could be a disloyal employee who wants your job …
… or what happened is a cultural misunderstanding between a Vertican and a Horizontan.

Which tribe do you belong to?
Is your native language Vertikaans or Horizontaans?

In Vertican homeland you think in categories of hierarchy and territory. You negotiate your rank and play ritualized games in order to determine your place in the pecking order. You know your position in the wolf pack and show respect to your leader.

For Horizontans such categories simply do not exist. Their goal is to be part of a community; they feel on eye level with others, because they don’t have a concept of status. If your employee is a Horizontan, the flaw in your proposal just became obvious to him during the meeting, so he pointed it out – naturally. After all he is very enthusiastic about your project and wants it to succeed.

Horizontans often have no problems admitting mistakes publicly, since the idea of saving face is foreign to them. Horizontans even emphasize their weaknesses in front of others – for them it’s a way to bond and forge relationships. “I’m so stupid, I made a mistake.” – “Never mind, a similar blunder happened to me, too.” – And whoosh the two Horizontans are best buddies.

Witnessing that kind of exchange the Vertican is bewildered or annoyed. Why for God’s sake is he belittling himself, doesn’t he want to succeed and move forward?

Oh yes, he might want to succeed, but in a Horizontan environment you are supposed to be modest and humble. People who strive openly for success or show off their talents are excluded or disliked.

In coaching I keep explaining this concept to Horizontan clients, who had a conflict with their superior, because they had overzealously disrespected hierarchy and status – not being aware of it.

May I enter your territory?

What is it like to be a Horizontan? Picture the following situation: You are at a conference. In-between presentations, everyone gathers outside around the standing tables. You feel a little lost, but then you detect a colleague beside one of the keynote speakers. You’d love to meet him, so you join them at the table. Your colleague makes no attempt to present you. No one seems to notice you or talks to you. You feel terribly awkward and ask yourself: “Why are they ignoring me?”

What happened in this example is that a Horizontan entered Vertican territory without asking permission or presenting himself with function and position. So the Verticans ignore him, because he’s no part of their game. The intruder has worse than low status – no status at present. In order to gain a position at the table you would have had to say something like: “Hello, my name is Peter Miller, I’m head of the IT department for XY (state your highest rank) may I join you?”

If the group at the table were fellow Horizontans, he would have been greeted warmly while approaching; they would have made space so that he could easily join their circle and they would have introduced him to the topic they were just discussing.

In coaching with Horizontans, we practice the introduction with the highest job title and rank, which doesn’t feel right to Horizontans, who think they are showing off. They might manage “I work at the university” instead of saying “I’m professor and chair holder for computer science and member of the university board” or “I work for XY Car”, instead of saying “I’m head of the development department and responsible for 180 direct reports with an annual budget of 20 Mio €”.

And I’m not exaggerating, if I tell you, that I never met a true Horizontan who was actually capable of showing off.

So are you more successful, if you are a Vertican – no, not necessarily – it always depends on your social and professional environment.

Sociology versus biology

Some sociologists and linguists equal Vertikaans with male communication and Horizontaans with female communication, which they consider the result of gender-typical education and socialization.

Having worked with many men and women leaders in coaching and having analyzed their personality structure (mostly with help of the Process Communication Model ® – PCM profile ), I know that this is only partially true, because there are quite a few women who are Verticans at birth and quite a few men who are Horizontans. There are many dialects of Horizontaans and Vertikaans and quite a lot of speakers are or become bilingual. Your upbringing plays a certain role, but in my professional opinion a lot of brains are wired horizontally or vertically from the start. So you either think in categories of status or community.

By using the Vertican/Horizontan model we can actually tackle questions of status oriented communication and behavior without getting lost in gender debates. The goal in coaching is to identify different hierarchical cultures and learn how to elegantly move around and communicate adequately in any given context, that’s what emotional intelligence is all about.

Why bother to learn a foreign language?

As a Horizontan, you should brush up on your Vertikaans in order

  • to be listened to,
  • to reach your goals and realize your ideas,
  • to know what games are being played and in order to join if you choose to,
  • to avoid violating generally accepted rules of behavior in Vertican country,
  • to avoid unintentionally adopting a low status.

As a Vertican it’s equally important to know Horizontaans in order to

  • do business in with Horizontans,
  • be respected and trusted,
  • reach your goals and realize your ideas,
  • motivate different kinds of people,
  • avoid missing out on human potentialor losing it,
  • get good results.

I’m happy to tell you more about Vertican and Horizontan culture in my next blog article: Maybe you would like to know why a group of Verticans can only start work if the hierarchy is established or what kind of ritualized power games are played, when a new group are formed;

I’m also excited to learn about your experiences with Verticans and Horizontans, just send me an e-mail koester@coaching-in-wuerzburg.de

Until then, keep your eyes and your mind open!
Take care and all the best


Stefanie Köster M.A. studied psychology, pedagogic, linguistics and geography at the universities of Würzburg (D) and Poitiers (F) in France. Before she became a fulltime coach in 2010 she worked in geographical research, as an officer for international relations, quality manager and auditor for the Department of Lower Franconia and as a project coordinator und consultant for the German Federal Program for Diversity and Tolerance. At presents she is a self-employed business and leadership coach and teaches soft skills, communication and negotiation at the University of Applied Science Wuerzburg/Schweinfurt. She has lived in Canada and France and coaches in English and German, with a good working knowledge in French. As a coach she specializes in the topics leadership, neuroscience and emotion coaching (working with those emotional blocks that keep you from fulfilling your full potential), self-management, emotional intelligence, communication and negotiation. Stefanie has worked with male and female leaders from various cultural backgrounds, politicians, expatriates and HR specialists. She is a certified coach for the Process Communication Model ®, wingwave ®, emTrace®, intercultural coaching and training (JUBI), a member of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and owner of the Vertikaner® model trademark.
Stefanie Köster, Executive Coach