Ewa Gallou, an intercultural consultant from Poland gives us the keys to understanding the differences between the Polish and the French. She reminds us of one obvious fact: just because we get on well with our in-laws from another culture doesn’t mean that it’s the same when it comes to our professional contacts.
Is being a good manager in France sufficient to manage a Polish team?
A French Manager and his Polish team
Étienne manages the Polish subsidiary of a French public works company, ROUTE PLUS. Married to a Pole and father of two bilingual children, he knows the country, the language and the people. When he was offered a position three years ago, he felt ready to rise to the challenge of the position and the significant development objectives.
Deterioration of Franco-Polish relations
Three years on and Étienne’s having a nervous breakdown.
While the figures are as expected, there’s a real management problem: high staff turnover and low motivation in the Polish team.
Étienne is starting to feel worn out and he sometimes has mood swings.
What is Étienne’s perception of his Polish team?
It must be said that the Polish way of working is starting to become annoying. According to Étienne, they have no strategic vision of a project.
- There’s little team spirit. Everyone works on their own without sharing information.
- There’s no initiative. (e.g.: a team member realizes that a colleague has made a mistake but doesn’t say anything because he or she isn’t directly concerned.
- Behaviour of performers. In addition, if they don’t understand they don’t ask questions and don’t seek to find out.
- Everything has to be spelled out and in detail all the time.
- The delegation of tasks is inoperative.
What do the Polish think of their manager?
Obviously, the point of view is different on the Polish side:
- No management or clear instructions.
- The director gets angry when the work isn’t done.
- The former CEO was much more directive in terms of thorough and regular checks.
- Too much discussion and time wasting in meetings before moving on to implementation.
Is French-style management adapted to Poland?
Étienne’s previous success in France confirmed the validity of his method. In addition, being married to a Pole, he thinks he’s familiar with the local culture. Being doubly assured made him inattentive to the weak signals he was receiving from his team members and he didn’t adapt his management style. In fact, Etienne uses proven methods in a French work context but which are unsuited to a Polish work context:
- Implicit communication relies on the “good judgment” of employees to interpret messages.
- An understanding of French-style autonomy that gives employees a great deal of freedom of action within a defined framework.
- A “missionary” approach to work involving the responsibility of employees at all stages of a project
- A global vision that invites all stakeholders to feel responsible for the success of a project as a whole.
- A decision-making process based on confronting ideas and a dynamic application allowing for changes along the way.
What were the Polish expectations?
Polish employees are accustomed to a very different management style, (a habit reinforced by their long-term experience with the former CEO):
- Explicit and directive communication. Clear and precise instructions are expected and do not offend the “ability to judge” of the person receiving them.
- An understanding of autonomy based on support by the manager and regular feedback from said manager, allowing for the gradual acquisition of freedom of action.
- A “contractual” approach that sets out clear terms of collaboration with a detailed job description.
- A piecemeal vision of the project where everyone tends to focus on their own task.
- A generally short decision-making process, favouring a quick and pragmatic application with the possibility of subsequent adjustments.
How to restore a climate of trust?
Cultural differences, and especially the failure to take them into account, have had a considerable impact on the quality of the collaboration between Étienne and his teams. Misunderstandings and frustrations have fuelled a climate of mistrust and led to the withdrawal of the best employees as well as a certain amount of wear and tear on the manager.
- Mutual misunderstanding
o Polish employees do not know how to interpret Etienne’s expectations and instructions when they are communicated implicitly.
o Accustomed to contradictory debates with his employees, Etienne doesn’t detect the unease arising between him and his Polish teams.
- A management style that is poorly adapted to the context of working with the Polish.
o The lack of regular feedback from Etienne is interpreted more as a lack of interest than as a sign of trust.
o Étienne interprets the teams’ lack of reaction as a lack of involvement and initiative.
o Etienne’s strong reactions are completely misunderstood, in that he does not really seem to follow the project. His reactions are felt to be unfair and diminish trust.
- Differences in the decision-making and project management processes.
o The decision-making process, which in France involves an important phase of confronting ideas in order to come up with the best possible solution (culture of “brainstorming meetings”) is perceived by the Polish as an unnecessary waste of time.
o The piecemeal approach to project management of the Polish is judged badly by the French because it hinders the smooth transfer of information and collaboration between departments.
Étienne is an experienced manager in need of help. His management style has proved its worth in France, but his overconfidence and failure to take cultural differences into account have led to his management style being questioned and required a period of adaptation. Awareness of these differences is generally the first step in adjusting the way you operate and above all understanding the reactions of the teams, which may seem illogical. With support from a consultant in intercultural management, Étienne understood the stakes and was able to adapt to this new context. His teams trust him and have learned to appreciate his management style.
Ewa Gallou, Consultant Akteos, leader in intercultural training