Polish people are hardworking, often look angry and drink a lot. These are stereotypes. But is there some truth in this? Is this something that can be explained? What’s it like to work with Polish people?
As you know, I’m not a fan of stereotyping or drawing conclusions on the basis of generalisations. I am however a fan of frameworks and structures that help us understand the world around us. I also believe that where and how and with whom we grow up has a massive impact on who we become in the future. Today I’d like to give a couple of thoughts on what you might be experiencing when working with Polish people and where certain behaviours might come from.
A quick disclaimer: The below reflects on the commonly heard opinions about Polish people, common behaviours and mindsets. This does not mean that you can’t find people with opposite characteristics to those described in Poland. You can!
If you’re not so much after understanding the background and just want condensed tips for working with Polish people then scroll all the way down. 🙂
So what do we often hear about Polish people?
“Polish people are great employees, they work really hard and are reliable”
Background: Polish history has been rather turbulent most of the time. Poland experienced a lot of wars, occupation and fighting for identity and independence. There are thoughts passed from generation to generation that you need to work hard to make a living, that if you don’t work you don’t have food to put on the table, that it’s important to get educated as people treat you better then. This might not necessarily always be true, but is a general tendency of messaging that a young Pole gets while growing up.
What you might expect when working with Poles: There’s a high chance that (whatever profession) your Polish employee will try to do their best and show that they are capable. They might sometimes obviously complain about their boss, but they will generally do as they are told.
Tip for bosses/managers working with Poles: The status and recognition are important and so as a boss you should ensure that the hard work is being noticed. Whether it will be a public or just personal recognition would need to depend on a personal preference of a person, but definitely don’t forget to appreciate the commitment.
“Polish people always look so indifferent”
That’s a remark I very often hear, especially from American and Latin American colleagues. The adjectives to describe it vary from indifferent to sad to angry. What’s wrong with us then?!
Background: It’s hard to explain, I guess we are just in general less emotionally expressive, but when we are, we go all the way 😀 It is true that when you walk on the street in Poland it is not very common to smile at strangers or greet random people that are passing by. When someone approaches you on a bus stop and starts chatting there’s a high chance we’d start wondering what they want from us and probably hold on to our handbag more carefully. Because there was so much uncertainty over many years in Poland, it is relatively hard to gain person’s trust here. In the uncertain times, if someone was overly nice to you that meant they definitely want something from you. Or is a weirdo. Or a drug dealer. Or a rapist. Well, you get my point – just Don’t talk to strangers.
What you might expect when working with Poles: In terms of building trust the case is a bit tricky within Polish society. Building trust at work is often the case of reliability, so trusting someone to do their job well. However, you will hear from many people that it is not the most important type of trust. To actually trust a person they need to build a relationship, have some deeper honest conversations, spend some time together.
Tip for bosses/managers working with Poles: Especially if you’re coming from a more individualistic culture remember that the surface “How are you, what’s the weather like” will not be enough to build real connection with a person. It will create a nice atmosphere for sure, but don’t stop at this and use it as an opportunity for a really nice and personal conversation. Share some things about yourself to encourage the other person to share their story. Show them that you are really interested and not just treating it as a small talk that you will forget when you leave the room. You’d be surprised how much people are willing to open up!
“All Polish are Christians”
Well, that’s not entirely true. Although Poland is perceived as a Catholic country and there are a lot of people who go to church every Sunday, there’s thousands who identify as Christians, but don’t practice religious activities. There are also many who are non-believers or of different faith.
Background: This generalisation has a very fair origin. And although nowadays religion is not something that is forced on to people to an extent as it was before, it is true that majority of public holidays are due to religious celebrations (7 out of 11 days). In England we have a May Bank Holiday or Summer Bank Holiday, for example – no such thing in Poland. All holidays are either religious or patriotic. Given that, a lot of these celebrations are just a big part of the culture, even if you don’t particularly celebrate Christmas or Easter on a spiritual level, you will probably still treat it as a family time you don’t want to miss.
What you might expect when working with Poles: Depending on the financial and spiritual situation, but you might expect people to be very firm about not working on Christmas Eve or Easter, wanting to go home and spend this time with family.
Tip for bosses/managers working with Poles: As much as your local culture and laws permit, be supportive of these requests and allow your employees to celebrate their home culture’s holidays. You can be sure that it will be very much appreciated.
“Polish people do not confront the boss”
Background: Poland is a rather hierarchical culture. Elderly people are perceived as more experienced and wiser, you have to treat them with due respect. Again, given the unstable country situation in the past, there was a need for leaders, for people who understand what is happening and what consequences are awaiting and who would share the wisdom with others. There were many famous soldiers, presidents, leaders who are iconic figures recognised also in many places outside of Poland, eg. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II.
This type of thinking and approach is also very much present in Polish sayings and proverbs. The ones below are very often used by parents or grandparents and therefore very strongly rooted in young Polish minds:
Co wolno wojewodzie to nie tobie smrodzie – I couldn’t find a relevant English translation, to be honest. Literally, it says: What’s allowed for a governor, is not allowed for you, child; It indicates that to be able to do certain things, have a say and for people to listen to your opinions you need to be in a higher and more experienced position.
Nie ucz ojca dzieci robić – English equivalent: Don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs; Literal translation: Don’t teach a father how to make babies; When someone is a specialist or an authority in a given subject (eg. boss, senior colleague, elderly person, professor), it is not right to confront them and suggest different ways – they know what they’re doing.
Dzieci i ryby głosu nie mają – English equivalent: Children should be seen not heard; Literally it translates to: Kids and fish don’t have a voice. In practice, in Poland this saying is used even when you are in your teens or sometimes even older. Essentially, it can be used in any setting where you are younger than the person using this proverb (usually grandparents, sharing their wisdom and inputting their worldview), and someone wants to diminish the value of your opinion because you are younger/less experienced.
There are many more that I could quote, but the general idea is that these proverbs and attitudes are really still alive in Polish upbringing and remain influential for one’s formative years.
What you might expect when working with Poles: In a team meeting with people of similar tenures/age/experience you might expect Polish people to actively participate, bring their ideas to the table, but also confront the ideas openly and rather directly. It’s important to know that it’s usually confronting the ideas, not the person! However, when a more senior person or a boss joins the conversation, or even a more experienced vocal colleague really good at pushing their ideas, you can expect many Polish colleagues to back away. It is to give way to the more experienced and more senior colleagues to make decisions.
Tip for bosses/managers working with Poles: Whatever cultures you’re working with, you need to be reflective of how their backgrounds and culture might influence their working style. Talk to your employees openly about your expectations, come up with a mutually acceptable working and communication styles. If you’re in a less hierarchical setting, make sure their natural approach does not stop them from participating in a conversation, keep including them. If on the other hand you are in an even more hierarchical culture currently, you might need to tame their confrontational style a little bit.
Whoo! That was a lot of information! Hope you find it helpful. Below is a summary of tips you can have in mind when working with Polish people. Keep in mind that people have different backgrounds and characters and the characteristics described above might not 100% apply to them! I like to think of cultural dimensions and research as a source of sophisticated stereotypes – allowing us to hope for the best and be prepared for the worst 🙂
Top tips for effective work with Polish people
Tip 1. The status and recognition are important. As a boss you should ensure that the hard work is being noticed and appreciated.
Tip 2. To build trust go beyond the small talk. Use a one-on-one conversation to take it to the next level. Show that you are truly interested in another person’s story and try to remember the facts. Don’t just treat it as a small talk that you will forget when you leave the room. Building trust takes time, so stay patient. Remember the famous saying these days – people join a company, but leave the bosses! So it’s important to have a wide range of ways and techniques of communication to be able to build rapport with all your employees.
Tip 3. As much as your local culture and laws permit, be supportive of religious holidays requests and allow your employees to celebrate their home culture’s holidays with their families. It will be very much appreciated.
Tip 4. Talk to your employees openly about your expectations, come up with a mutually acceptable working and communication styles. Depending on the local culture you both work in, you might either need to tame the directness and confrontational style, or be willing to encourage expressing own opinions with a more senior person present in the room.
Hope you found this overview helpful! Let me know what are your experiences of working with Polish people and where have you had the chance to meet them!
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