Business success in translation

In a global market, businesses are eager to expand abroad but some deals may be lost in translation. Poland Today spoke to intercultural communication experts to grasp a better understanding of Poland’s business styles in relation to dealing with EU neighbours.

“You may meet people who have a completely different understanding of the world, and that’s the beauty of it,” says Wojciech Kolodziejczak, life networker and Polish specialist for Akteos, a leader in cross-cultural training. It has all the trappings of a cliché, but in the modern European business marketplace, intercultural communication is proving increasingly beneficial. In Poland, an awareness of cross-cultural differences is vital for business relationships to grow.

Poland is Europe’s modern business success story. Upgraded last year to developed market status by FTSE Russell, thereby joining the ranks of the world’s 25 most advanced economies, it continues to defy expectations, with its economic star rising ever further by the day. A certain insulation from the turmoil of financial slumps, however, does not mean the country is neglecting its global or European cousins. Far from it.

It was Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, says Kolodziejczak, that first brought intercultural awareness to the fore in the country. “It had to open its borders to other cultures,” he explains. “As a result, the country is changing.” Driving progress then, as now, were high levels of international investment and cooperation, which might make it seem as if there is a global awareness of the differences between business styles in communicating with Poland.

But though the rise of intercultural understanding has contributed to its success, there is a long way to go. This begins with multinationals recognising the legacies of past economic attitudes, which still lie heavy today.

Entrenched attitudes

For Kolodziejczak, Polish business relationships struggle most from the repercussions of tradition and history. For all its budding international connections, Polish business relationships can resemble the nation’s age-old moniker as ‘a country on the moon’. Kolodziejczak blames the “shadows of the post-communistic world” as the reason behind limited employee connection, even within Poland itself. “When I teach networking to Poles,” he explains, “it’s very hard for them to trust each other.”

In the 2017 World Bank Group Doing Business report, Poland was ranked 24th globally in terms of ease of doing business, though the European Commission’s Public Administration Characteristics and Performance report in 2018 suggested that Polish businesses often demonstrate “a preference for behaviour focused on rivalry and competition rather than cooperation,” an attitude which stems from the spectre of post-communistic suspicion. This makes trust a slippery issue, especially between Polish and multinational businesses. Polish business runs on passion and etiquette, but this is set against a historical sense of reservation and sincerity, with a goal-orientated focus.

The British-Polish Chamber of Commerce (BPCC), meanwhile, suggests difficulties arise because Polish business attitudes are constantly transforming and therefore difficult to manage – and this is mainly down to a generational divide in business attitudes across time. Though history still plays its role, they point out that that “younger generations are more familiar and at ease with Western European and American styles of conducting business, but for a large part of the older population, memories of communism, its fall and the economic transformation in the 1990s are very strong.”

While this focus on competition and expansion may be good news for entrepreneurs operating in the Polish marketplace, international communication is necessary to note and exploit these differences as Poland faces a different future.

Talking business

Kolodziejczak argues more can be done to recognise intercultural divides, believing that “most people think that in this globalised world, everything is connected – that there are no differences, we all speak the language of business.” But, as he points out, with underlying issues of distrust between companies, it is difficult to become fluent.

Keen to stress the early-stage difficulties in business communication, Kolodziejczak says, “The Dutch, for example, are quite direct, the Polish are direct, too. More than, for example, the British, because British culture is a high-context culture.” In the business world, this is a doubleedged sword – and Aleksej Heinze, Associate Professor in Digital Marketing, agrees. “Because Polish collaborators are generally responsive and comply with agreed deadlines and high-quality work outputs,” he says, “they are often selected as international project partners.”

Speaking the same language is not all that it takes to communicate efficiently

As more direct business leaders, Poles can execute projects well, though employee management may get lost in translation. Konrad Krzysztofik, Senior Global Production Manager at Lionbridge, a provider of translations and internet marketing, understands that this too begins with historical precedent and the importance of recognising paterns of behavior to improve intercultural awareness as Poland develops its international business relationships.

His workshops on intercultural communication reinforce the idea that “speaking the same language is not all that it takes to communicate efficiently”. He points out that, ironically, the term ‘phatic communication’ – denoting language used for social interaction or more commonly known as small talk – was coined by acclaimed Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. And, for sociologist Adam Aksnowicz, doing business with Polish companies is fundamentally diverse. Though Poland still bears a traditional hierarchical business structure, it is open to new approaches, with a “critical role of language, particularly English, as a key to multicultural communications in Poland.”

For multinational businesses operating in this country, “this environment seems ripe for businesses to develop their own diverse corporate cultures, ones that recognise the differences of the local community, while at the same time integrating some of those elements into existing cultural frameworks.”

Intercultural communication refers to communication between people from different cultures. It’s a symbolic, interpretive, transactional, contextual process, in which people from different cultures create shared meanings. This type of communication requires an understanding that different cultures have different customs, social norms and being able to accept these differences and adapting to them is necessary to communicate effectively.

According to Heinze, different languages can also offer a potentially productive tool in the business world, before companies even arrive in the boardroom. He is the academic leader of Businessculture.org, a site which has prepared intercultural awareness guides for 31 countries. The Polish guide offers specific instructions on how international business leaders can adjust to the “strict adherence to protocol” in Poland. And Kolodziejczak’s work is similar.

In his intercultural training sessions, he often uses a simple card game to explain the unique behavioural patterns held by separate nationalities. Attendees are separated into groups of card players, with each allotted a different card to be of the highest-value. The winner of the group then rotates into a different group of players, with a different highest-value card. The immediate upshot, of course, is confusion, rather than success. “In international business, it’s exactly the same,” he explains. “You may come across people that have a completely different set of rules.” What is important, therefore, is to be able to recognise when these rule changes occur, and act accordingly.

Cross-cultural cooperation

Playing cards aside, intercultural trainer Dr. Malwina Bakalarska says cross-cultural understanding allows for even the strictest of cultural boundaries and values to be navigated with ease. she says, “values are something which we are ready to fight for …That is why intercultural training is so helpful. They provide knowledge about these sensitive cultural zones and at the same time they give the participant the opportunity to practice overcoming potential conflicts.”

Poland may be porous at the business level, welcoming international business ballast with open arms – although since its accession to the EU many, the younger generation especially, like Kolodziejczak, have also chosen to seek careers in other nations. At the job level, the situation is also decidedly diverse, with corporate firms boasting international staff and, at a governmental level, almost every current policymaker in Poland has studied in the West.

Poland is open for business, but business must be open for Poland too. Intercultural understanding works both ways. As an immigrant himself, Kolodziejczak says, “You’re more open to different things. Once you’ve been in one country for a while, when you go back to your original country – your native place – you are different.”

But this comes with endeavour, and business acumen is required to avoid the stillprevalent stumbling blocks between borders. It is an attitude that multinational businesses should seek to emulate, particularly when communicating with Polish companies. “When people know you, like you, and trust you,” he explained, “then you will have opportunities in your life.”

December 11, 2019
How would Marie Curie fare in Poland’s current academic and business environment?
With new research centres and governmental initiatives, female participation in traditionally male careers like academia and tech is on the up in Poland. But traditional attitudes are difficult to shake – and they could have consequences for the country’s economy and prospects. The grand opening of the Łukasiewicz Research Network this year should have been [...]
December 18, 2019
From gelding to stallion
Prof. Grzegorz W. Kołodko was the gala guest speaker at Poland Today’s first 'Poland & CEE: Co-building the Belt & Road' conference in Warsaw. Economists usually refrain from using words like ‘miracles’, yet it is hard to deny that something special happened in Poland when it transformed from a failed communist experiment in 1989 to [...]
Written by: Juliette Bretan

Juliette Bretan is a freelance journalist covering Polish and Eastern European current affairs and culture. She has been featured on the BBC World Service, and in The New Statesman’s CityMetric, The Independent, Hromadske, New Eastern Europe and CultureTrip, among others. She is currently a postgraduate student at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at UCL, and has a degree from Cambridge.