Monday, 25 January 2016

The Polish individualist

Walking past a long line of stationary cars in the rush hour this morning, I had another insight into cultural differences between Poles and Britons. [WARNING: Sweeping broad-brush generalisations follow, of course there are exceptions, but I'm trying to present a Big Picture.]

Sitting fuming one-per-car in traffic, these individual(ist)s cannot not bring themselves to collaborate with others in getting to work. The streets of Warsaw are bunged up solid with one-per-car commuters driving short distances to work because it's beyond them to even think of sharing a bus, tram or train with their fellow citizens. We could all whisk into work in half the time by public transport were we to cooperate effectively with one another. If even half of those who had an alternative to driving took it, Warsaw would be an even better place to work.

The wonderful British 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, has, I think, some very Polish characteristics. There's no doubt that the protagonist played by Patrick McGoohan is clearly on spectrum. Often brusque in his dealings with others, he is obsessed with small details and takes the matter of his personal freedom very seriously. He is accused of being 'unmutual', of not wanting to get on with his fellow inmates. Being 'mutual', showing a willingness to cooperate with others with the aim of a building a better society for all - the notion of win-win (or even win-win-win) does not come easily to Poles.

Business in Poland is far more adversarial than it is in the UK. Both parties to a contract subconsciously consider that the natural outcome is that there will be a winner and a loser in this deal. And they'll do everything to ensure the other party doesn't win, often doing themselves down in the process. In the UK, there's a basic, background appreciation that things can be done on trust, so less time is spent ensuring one's interests are protected. The cost of mistrust is high - between businesses (lengthy legal contracts); within businesses (internal audits, compliance teams); between citizens (padlocks, crowbar-proof doors, alarms, security services); between tax authorities and taxpayers (endless kontrole - audits).

Building trust across society is the best investment any nation can make in itself. Everything else - education upward - stems from a basic belief that we can all trust one another, our neighbours, employers and government. And while that background level of trust has been steadily growing in Poland over the 18 years I've lived and worked here (it's still not as high as in the UK), I fear it may be going to reverse, taking into account the 19th Century mindset of Jarosław Kaczyński.

Yet there is clearly something about Mr Kaczyński that appeals greatly to many Poles. PiS is currently enjoying a 42% approval rating in the polls. Statements from government ministers against 'lefty liberal fads' such as cycling, vegetarianism or recycling resound with the grumpy individualist, who, like Patrick McGoohan will not be pushed around. The PiSite nagonka aimed at the WŚOP charity has something to do with the high profile of its organiser Jurek Owsiak successfully getting people to pull together. The concept of individualism (in opposition here to teamwork, rather than collectivism) is very Polish. This is not the 'rugged individualism' of the American West, rather an unhealthy individualism that cuts off the 'other'; nasz and nie-nasz.

Why are Poles such individualists? Why are they not so good at teamwork and collaboration? The very word 'collaboration' has negative connotations in Polish - and for good historical reasons. Poles tend to be better at solitary work, focusing in depth of the subject matter, rather than working in teams. Brits are good at teamwork, sharing a project in a cross-disciplinary approach, avoiding the information silo.

This, I think, comes from schooling. In the UK, there's a school subject called 'games'. One afternoon a week, for two hours, there will be competitive team sport activity - for all pupils. Football, cricket or rugby for the boys, rounders and netball for the girls. In Poland, there's WuEf - Wychowanie Fizyczne (literally 'Physical Education' or PE). Seen as a non-subject by children and parents alike (the number of zwolnienia or sick-notes I wrote for Moni and Eddie does not bear thinking about), WuEf entails little more than getting changed into shorts and a vest and running round the gym hall for half an hour. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it's the lack of that ingrained teamwork that has held Poland back; its sporting heroes on the international arena tend to be individuals rather than teams.

And Poles love to live in hierarchies, clawing their way up the vertiginous career ladder from młodzy specjalista, via specjalista to starszy specjalista. They don't like sharing information within the company, the starszy specjalista fearing that the młodszy specjalista is after his job. Which of course he or she is. A boss of a British company in Poland employing several hundred people told me that the day he posted the new organisation chart, showing who reports to whom, he was inundated by petitioners telling him that this reporting line was unfair, or that this person (shown above the petitioner on the org chart) should actually be lower, based on age, length of service and education.

Having said all of the above, collaboration in the workplace is attracting a backlash (see this article from the current Economist). Maybe Poles' ability to focus in solitude is an unrecognised reason why the economy's been doing so well. Whilst open plan offices are not controversial in the UK, in Poland they generate much resentment when they are being introduced by multinationals, while Polish firms (especially state-owned enterprises) tend to stick to the traditional long-corridor-with-individual-offices layout.

How this will pan out in the long term, with innovations in technology threatening to upset the world of work as we know it, is a moot point. Which approach will prove more resilient - the teamwork-based collaborative approach, or a cluster of focused individuals beavering away in solitude?

Time will tell.

This time last year:
Winter woes and a crisis of creativity

This time three years ago:
Warsaw - the more it snows

This time four years ago:
Get orf my lairnd!

This time five years ago:
A Dream Too Far - short story

This time six years ago:
Compositions in white, blue and gold

This time seven years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time eight years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing in fog


Paddy said...

Fascinating post. I'm reminded of the cliche of the Polish love of the dashing cavalryman - the swordsman relying on his individual skill with a sabre - described by the Wehrmacht in '39 as follows "Polskie żołnierz jest brawurowy, niewymagający, chętny, twardy i wytrzymały w marszu, lepszy w natarciu aniżeli w obronie". Could that pluckiness explain the rise of the family owned Polish mittelstand despite all the difficulties in the 90s and put Poland's young entrepreneurs in IT and tech in good stead? Hope so.

Bartlomiej Kowalczyk said...

I agree that new generation of Polish nation behaviour come from the schools. And because schools are run by the old rules, pupils will act the same as the generation of my parents. I think combination of Polish indywidualizm and British Team work is a great power, that we can build in time with benefit for both societies.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Paddy:
The Polish mittelstand is at a crossroads - either it can keep developing as it has done - with great success - this past quarter-century, or it can up its game, think global and really scale up its operations, as the German mittelstand did starting from the 1960s. To do so, it must take on board more open management styles, including empowerment of employees ('bottom-up continuous improvement') and flatter hierarchies.

@ Bartek:
"Combination of Polish indywidualizm and British teamwork" - exactly right. 303 Sqn was the top-scoring unit in the Battle of Britain because raw Polish pluck, tenacity and skill was married with British training, technique and technology. There's huge upside in the British-Polish business cooperation!

Anonymous said...

excellent post Michael and really thought provoking. I read most of your blog but rarely leave comments. Keep up the great work as its a highlight of my time online reading your thoughts and comments. Many thanks

Bob said...

Michael - on vacation in the US and have eschewed all things Polish while here. Chris however suggested I look at this post and I am glad he did. You are, as they say in the UK, 'spot on'. As you know I was part of the team that started PTK (now UPC) in Poland in 1990 and the human resources issues I can speak about would easily fill an evening at the pub - perhaps we can collaborate :) and have a discussion and you can do a post about it - mid-Feb?

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous:

Many thanks for your kind words! Makes writing worthwhile :-)

@ Bob:

Glad you're keeping up while on holiday - I'm back in Warsaw 19 Feb, Lent - so beery catch-up will wait till after Easter!