Cultural Differences

I recently attended a very interesting presentation by a gentleman named Kevin Brownsey about the cultural differences between Poles and other nationalities. I was a bit skeptical at first – there are a lot of amateurs in this culture business. To prove my point, a New York-based company prepares future expats in Poland with the following question: “The business meeting has begun, and although it is only 9:30 in the morning, shot glasses have appeared on the table. A toast is now being made in your honour. You are expected to drink the vodka. Glasses are raised. What do you do?” The answer should probably be: you have landed in the wrong country.

Kevin’s presentation, however, was very professional and enlightening. He focused on a number of issues which define culture in a company. I realized that many legal problems I deal with have their roots in cultural differences.

Poland is a high power distance culture – the boss is always right and does not expect to be questioned. This is very different from the Netherlands. In the famous “15 Million People” song about the Netherlands, there is a line which says “the country where no boss is really the boss”. The high power distance culture often goes hand-in-hand with a high need for certainty, an expectation to get very detailed instructions and not be given a free hand, which requires a high degree of trust.

Displaying trust can be mistaken for naivety by someone from a less trusting society. In Poland, understandably when you take into account the way Poland functioned during communism, trust is something you really have to earn. As Kevin pointed out, showing a lot of trust too soon is often seen as a weakness. Most Polish managers’ ideal corporate culture is tribal: high power distance and group dependent. While listening to all this, I thought back to a few cases I had worked on. A Dutch agricultural investor who had signed a series of one-sided contracts with his future Polish partner, probably counting on the fact that once the business was successful they would work together happily.

Unfortunately, this trust proved misplaced: the Polish partner was busier with creating his own image than with the business and a costly separation ensued, which took a decade.

Recently, I had a very similar case in a completely different sector and although the separation was quick, it was also very expensive. A large UK company had just taken over a fairly sizeable Polish company when they hired me.

They originally put full trust in the local management, which had taken the tribal culture to a whole new level – each manager (four in total) had their own kingdom, with their own lawyers, their own model employment contracts and all with their own private side business going on. Again, a very costly and long separation and even now the walls between those kingdoms have yet to be fully pulled down.

When doing business in Poland, it is very important to be aware of these cultural differences. Although working towards a more open corporate culture, where you can rely on your staff to give honest feedback rather than having them tell you what they think you want to hear, is definitely possible and worth working towards.

However, especially in the beginning, it is good to be less trusting, hire a lawyer, set clear rules of cooperation and show the local management who is boss. This will avoid (legal) conflicts in the future. A trusting cooperation can be achieved over time. I ask the reader to forgive me if I seem too negative, but maybe that is just an occupational hazard.


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