Eastern Europe: Voices from the Past

Article excerpt

Each nation has its own language, history and ways of working

SINCE the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern Europe has been overrun by Western businessmen eager to initiate entrepreneurs in the former communist countries into their methods so as to establish dialogue, if not partnership, with there. Well armed with advice and management techniques, they are sometimes welcomed with open arms and sometimes eyed with suspicion, but their message, a simple one, is always the same: for more than forty years you have been running your businesses without having to face competition or reckon with market forces, and we're here to let you into the secrets of competitivity. Whether they are German, French, British or Italian, they set up more and more joint ventures, consultancies and business schools. There are a few surprises in store for them along the way.

More differences than meet the eye

There are surprises on both sides. Western businessmen realize that, contrary to the stereotyped image they have of the command economy--laggardly decision-making processes, inefficiency in the workplace, buck-passing and the rest--there are marked differences from country to country. It was convenient, between 1945 and 1990, to lump the whole of eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea together as a monolithic bloc, all ruled over in the same way by socialist regimes. Nobody took much notice of the fact that the peoples of the Iron Curtain countries were quite different one from another, and had their own cultural identifies that inevitably influenced management styles.

Meanwhile, east European entrepreneurs were surprised to find, in their dealings with Westerners, that the efficiency, consistency and speed of decision-making that were the proud hallmarks of Western business were sometimes conspicuous for their absence, and that those dealings could be more or less easy, depending on where their partners came from.

The rapprochement that has followed the breakup of the eastern bloc has, if nothing else, taught those on either side that each nation has its own language, history and traditions but also its own way of working. There is, however, a danger that these differing characteristics will again be smothered, in the countries of eastern Europe, under management methods copied from the West. They should be studied systematically so that they can be integrated into the local business context.

Between 1985 and 1992, we were able to carry out research in this field in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This research brought to light some widely differing behaviour patterns and value systems linked with the history of each of these countries.

Idealism and pragmatism

"To work in peace, I have to know that the manager likes me," an overseer in a Polish factory told us. We were at first surprised at such an emotionally loaded attitude to relationships in the workplace, but found it fully understandable once it was set against the general background of the enterprise.

Our interviewee expressed a strong need for trust and for constant reassurance as to his superior's feelings towards him. From other clues we came to the conclusion that the bonds of solidarity between the workers in the factory were similar to the bonds of comradeship so much in evidence between the soldiers on the many battlefields of Poland's stormy past.

Because of this solidarity, patriotic feelings far removed from everyday realities are involved in attitudes to work. Those we interviewed laid little emphasis on the job in hand or the factory's performance but placed great emphasis on the importance they attached to Poland's prosperity and glory. "Poles are stirred by anything to do with the homeland," as A. Podgorecki confirms in Une theorie de la societe polonaise (1991).

The motivations of Hungarian workers, on the other hand, are simpler and more pragmatic. In the factory we investigated, individual ambitions are subordinated to the cohesion of the group. …