21(116) 2015
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HR & Professional Training

Poland's Hidden Multiculturalism

by Timothy J. Bridgman – Intercultural Trainer and Programme Manager, SZKOLENIA ŁÓDŹ
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Poland is a special counrty. Ask any businessman sent on a foreign assignment to Poland and they will confirm this, providing you with endless examples in both praise and criticism of a nation that somehow welcomes yet pushes away outsiders in equal measure.

While on the surface cities such as Kraków or Gdańsk now come across to tourists as idealistic Polish equivalents to Vienna or Copenhagen, other major cities in Poland such as Warsaw or Łódź cannot avoid but openly reveal something more complicated going on under the surface, where past issues are only now starting to be addressed and where international exchange plays a vital role in the future.

Foreigners transplanted into this environment, including even the most experienced international managers, can find themselves dropping in and out of what they would consider normal life and an episode from a surreal 1980s Polish comedy series. Surrounded by colleagues, friends and partners, continually switching from hot to cold, from pragmatic to romantic, all with seemingly little or no structure or reason.

Poles themselves are famous for their curious mix of national pride and despair giving rise to a superiority/inferiority complex that makes categorising Polish national identity near impossible. If a foreigner then tries to ask a Polish national for help understanding Poland they are likely to hear “don't even try” or “you won't understand”, so without guidance the only option is to start making up your own ways to categorise and understand the country. This is a risky and dangerous business.

Can Cultural Models Help? Gesteland's Guesses.

Faced with such uncertainties, it is not uncommon for foreign managers based in Poland to turn to cultural models for help. There are now many of these cultural models available, some of which are world famous, and nearly all use something called 'Cultural Dilemmas' to explain how culture works and why cultural differences occur.

The idea behind cultural dilemmas started in the 1950s in the work of social anthropologist Edward T. Hall and was then brought to attention worldwide through the management studies of the Dutch interculturalist Geert Hofstede in the 1980s. Hofstede created a set of questions for profiling international business employees to determine their cultural background and beliefs using sliding scales containing diametrically opposite beliefs on extreme ends. For example, on one scale you can either be self-motivated (individualist) or group-orientated (communitarian). If you are 100% self motivated you must be 0% group orientated and vice versa. So the theory goes...

Cultural dilemmas have became standard practice for business culture studies across Europe and the US. Hundreds of cultural dilemmas have been identified by which to measure cultural difference. Now, welcome back to Poland... In the much respected book Cross Cultural Business Behaviour by Richard R. Gesteland (4th ed. 2002), worldwide business traits are examined using four cultural dilemmas: Relationship Focused or Deal Focused (negotiating), Formal or Informal (hierarchy), Polychronic or Monochronic (time), Reserved or Expressive (communication). If you then go to the section 'The Polish Negotiator' you will find the following descriptions on what to expect in Poland:

1. Deal focused or relationship orientated?

“Poles can be classed as either moderately deal focused or moderately relationship orientated.” So to win a contract in Poland you must meet the financial and technical requirements, but the contract will also go to inside contacts and connections.

2. Polychronic or monochronic time attitudes?

“Younger Polish business people are aware of the importance of punctuality, schedules and deadlines. They admit with some embarrassment that visitors are often kept waiting”. So even though Poland intends to be efficient and organised, the reality is endless overlapping jobs, constantly changing timetables and everyone accepting this.

3. Reserved or expressive communicators?

Poland is “Variably expressive”. In other words, you can expect a range of emotions extending from reflective and patient, to loud and interrupting, all from any individual person depending on their context or situation.

The information contained in Gesteland's Cross Cultural Business Behaviour was primarily obtained through the author's own practical experience as an international management consultant. In the introduction to the book, Gesteland explains: “The material in this book comes from three decades of observing myself and others spoiling promising business deals because we were innocent of how business is done.” He then further states that the individual country profiles were based on “more than 1,000 business negotiations I have conducted in some 55 different countries.” Finally, and to add most credibility to his Poland statements, in the first paragraph of the author's foreword he expresses his thanks to Janusz Jacewicz of the Gdansk Foundation for Management Development in Poland for his assistance and insights provided in the 4th edition.

But at the end of the day, all of this is of little help. It tells foreigners that Polish nationals can be efficient like Germans, flamboyant like Italians, law-focused like Americans or network-based like Russians. It is at this point that most decide to give up on cultural models and jump in at the deep end. Some manage to swim, others don't.

Is Poland Similar to Anywhere in Europe? Hofstede's Half Science.

Prof. Hofstede's classic study, documented best in his famous book Culture and Organisations: Softwares of the Mind (1997) is different to Gesteland's study. Still regarded as the seminal work in the field, Hofstede's study is primarily a quantitative analysis of data originally obtained by Hofstede when working for IBM in the 1960-70s from over 100,000 questionnaires issued to IBM employees in over 70 national subsidiaries all around the world.

As there was no IBM subsidiary in the People's Republic of Poland, it therefore seems safe to assume that the Polish data was not obtained through the IBM research, but rather at a later date. Instead it seems probable that this data was collected through further studies such as Kolman, Noorderhaven, Hofstede and Dienes, Cross-cultural differences in Central Europe (2003) using a personal profiling questionnaire similar to the one now available at Hofstede's home website entitled Culture Compass. This is a questionnaire containing 42 pairs of questions to which the respondents are asked to give their preferences on a five-point scale. For example:

Which best describes your preference and/or the situation in which you feel yourself most comfortable?

This is crucial information in the interpretation of the Hofstede's results for Poland. It shows that the data gathered may be from a questionnaire structured to return polarised results, where all the questions are in the form of cultural dilemmas (direct control from a boss is a sign of distrust/trust) for which a 'both' response cannot be registered. Instead the respondent must select 'neutral', a response which could equally mean 'no opinion' or 'neither option' as much as 'well actually... I can easily do both depending on the situation'. This could mean that the defining characteristic of Polish business falls outside of the Hofstede survey. But... This doesn't mean we can't learn from Hofstede.

Hofstede uses six cultural dilemmas to measure culture in countries. These are: Power Distance (Poland 68), Individualism (Poland 60), Masculinity (Poland 64), Uncertainty Avoidance (Poland 93), Long Term Orientation (38), Indulgence (Poland 29). In isolation these statistics mean nothing, but when compared to other countries patterns begin to appear.

Results taken from //geert-hofstede.com/countries.html August 2015

The clearest pattern that soon appears is when comparing the results for Poland with Germany, USA and Russia (arguably the countries that most influence Polish culture). When doing this, Poland's results in many of the categories consistently occur in the middle, half way between the results of these other countries. This could be because half the people believe in one extreme and the other half in another, or alternatively, it could indicate that there were many 'neutral' responses where people in Poland were able to do both?

Hofstede's quantitative analysis focuses on looking for correlations in the scores of countries on the six different cultural dilemmas. To achieve this, he plotted many graphs comparing country scores for combinations of two dilemmas. From these he was then able to reach conclusions such as high power distance (hierarchical societies) and low individualism (collectivist societies) are directly related. However, it will come as no surprised to find out that in regard to this conclusion, Hofstede classifies Poland as an exception or a non-conformist country. “The Polish culture houses a ‘contradiction’: although highly individualistic, the Polish need a hierarchy. This combination (high score on power distance and high score on individualism) creates a specific tension in this culture, which makes the relationship so delicate but intense and fruitful once you manage it. Therefore, the manager is advised to establish a second “level” of communication, having a personal contact with everybody in the structure, allowing to give the impression that “everybody is important” in the organisation, although unequal.” (Text taken from //geert-hofstede.com/poland.html 2015)

The most important conclusion comes from looking at all of Hofstede's graphs collectively together. By doing this, examining how all countries are plotted out against each other, it is visually possible to find out whose results most often come closest to whose. Or in other words, it enables you to pin-point the country whose culture is most similar to our own. And the results for Poland are...

Switzerland (French Speaking)
Belgium (French Speaking)

This may at first seem surprising, but an amazing point can now be made. That, according to Hofstede, the countries/regions in the world that are most similar to Poland are all European and multilingual. How can it possibly be that Poland is similar to these?

Example graph (1 of 7 available) taken from Geert Hofstede 'Culture and Organisations: Softwares of the mind' (3rd ed. 2010)

Discovering Poland's Hidden Multiculturalism

According to Eurostat, Poland is the most culturally homogeneous state in the EU, but Poland's history tells a completely different story. Empires, invasions, repatriations and shifting borders have created a modern Poland that only professional historians (and Poles) can ever hope to understand, where today's culture is almost untraceable to the movement of people and power over hundreds of years. And this is all before World War II.

After World War II, until 1989, Poland was in effect an occupied nation where people were forced to function under a Soviet administrative system (work and education), yet chose to model their day to day life on modern US culture (music and entertainment). If you look at US and Russia results on the main cultural models you soon find that the two countries are very frequently culturally opposed. The idea of a country being able to live with both cultures simultaneously is a quite remarkable achievement.

Of all the cultural models and theorists, the only person who shows the essence of the Polish experience is Richard Lewis in his 'Cultural Types' model. In Lewis's book When Cultures Collide (3rd ed. 2006) he describes Polish behaviour at meetings and negotiations by saying: “As with their speech style, in behaviour Poles fluctuate between pragmatism and sentiment. Generally they seem to want a little of both.” However, what is so useful about the Lewis model, is not the original version, but a small adjustment made to the model that reveals how certain countries can have hidden intercultural potential.

Image taken from Richard Lewis When Teams Collide (2012)

The original Lewis model uses three interconnected communication styles: Linear Active (cool, factual, decisive, planners ), Multi Active (warm, emotional, loquacious, impulsive) and Reactive (courteous, amiable, accommodating, compromisers), which are arranged in a triangle to form three interconnected cultural dilemmas: Linear Active/Multi Active, Multi Active/Reactive, Reactive/Linear Active. Poland finds its self located midway along the Linear/Multi Active scale.

A further diagrammatic triangle is then drawn to extend the Cultural Types model into the 'Hybrid Types' model. This model places Poland into a group called 'Linear/Multi Active Hybrids' which are described as 'broad-minded cosmopolitan types – humorous and persistent', a definition I'm sure all Polish nationals would welcome.

Image taken from Richard Lewis When Cultures Collide (3rd ed. 2006)

It is this diagram that is again updated into the 'Mediators' model, a cross-cultural skills model that identifies the few lucky countries around the world that are capable of work involving international cultural mediation. Poland lies exactly on the border of becoming one such nation.

Image taken from Micheal Gates, Richard Lewis Communications, closing keynote presentation When Cultures Collide at GBTA Europe Conference 2012. (Please note from 'Cultural Types' model, that nearly all major worldwide outsourcing destinations including India, The Philippines, Ireland, Malaysia, Bulgaria are all located as either mediator or borderline mediator countries).

Conclusion - new multiculturism

So perhaps now is the time to start changing the way we think about and define multiculturalism. Perhaps we should stop thinking only in terms of large immigrant populations leading to increased multiculturalism within a country, but also that a now unified group of people with a mixed cultural past can also contain within themselves all the same abilities and potential as a culturally diverse community. All that needs to happen is for this community to embrace and develop their past.

As far as Poland is concerned, perhaps final proof of Poland's multicultural potential is to look at how well the nation travels and how successful Polish emigrants are at integrating into other countries, succeeding in business and inter-marrying. As everyone knows, Poles are famous for all of these and no other European country even comes close to Poland when it comes to succeeding abroad as immigrants. Now times have changed and for the first time in nearly a century Poland is inviting international businesses to set up in Poland to be able to access this valuable resource directly from its source. It is an opportunity that should not be missed, but foreign assignees take note... Your cross-cultural skills will be tested to the limit.

Timothy J. Bridgman is an intercultural trainer and Intercultural Business Trainings Programme Manager at Szkolenia Łódż. If you wish to read more about British/Polish cultural difference in the workplace a free ebook entitled 'Positively Disappointed: Business Across Cultures in Poland' by Timothy J. Bridgman is available for download HERE.

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