Understanding what ‘not possible’ really means

Manager's Handbook, Prague Business Journal, October 2003

October 20th, 2003

After working in the Czech Republic for over a year, Mike was still amazed at how people who have come to Prague from different countries and cultures manage to work with and understand Czechs so well. From his own personal and professional experience, Mike had found the Czech character to be full of confusing contradictions that sometimes make effective communication very difficult. For example, while Czechs are often quite reserved or even cold upon first meeting someone in public, they make particularly warm and caring friends once the ice has been broken. Additionally, the complexities of the Czech language don’t always allow for clear and mutual understanding. In short, Mike found it a daily challenge to communicate effectively with Czechs in ways that they could understand.

When listing the various areas that caused him problems, Mike mentioned a common complaint of expatriate managers. That is when an employee obstinately declares, “That is not possible.” Understandably, as an American, Mike has difficulties accepting such an attitude. For him, as well as for the vast majority of Western managers, the most common approach to a new challenge is usually, “How do I solve this problem?”

Obviously frustrated by this attitude, Mike asked me, “Why is it that when a Czech can’t find the solution to a problem his first reaction is to say, ‘That’s not possible?'” Understanding his irritation, I suggested that Mike begin with a thorough evaluation of the situation. One possible reason for such an attitude – and the one that expatriate managers most often point to – could just be plain laziness, which is not specific to any culture. It is worth remembering that communist-era organizations were not geared toward productivity, which created a work force without motivation or initiative.

Though laziness may be one possible cause, a lack of self-confidence can also lead to reluctance to take up a new challenge. Czechs generally view themselves as perfectionists and sometimes prefer to avoid something new rather than risk their reputation by doing it incorrectly. In this part of the world, saving face is very important and the fear of looking foolish or inadequate may cause a Czech to say that a new task is impossible instead of admitting that he does not know how to do it.

After having determined possible reasons why an employee may be reluctant or unwilling to carry out a task, it was up to Mike, as manager, to remedy the situation. If a lack of knowledge or skill is at the root of an employee’s reluctance to take on a new challenge, it may be necessary to create a learning environment that is secure, comfortable and above all non-threatening. As with all training, the time Mike invests now is certain to pay off later. If simple laziness is to blame, then Mike’s task is to find ways to increase an employee’s motivation to tackle new challenges.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Czechs are used to a high degree of structure in their work and may not always feel comfortable when faced with more than one way of doing something. Therefore, it may be necessary for Mike to clearly spell out his demands and expectations when assigning new responsibilities.

After some consideration, Mike then asked me about the most effective way of teaching Czechs. In order to successfully train someone, it is important to first establish a solid rapport, which can be centered on either an individual’s personal or professional qualities. For example, Americans and Northern Europeans generally gain respect for someone through his professional credentials, skills and competence. On the other hand, the French value the personal touch over the professional and are more inclined to trust someone professionally after first establishing a personal relationship. In fact, this inclination toward the personal over the professional is much closer to the way Czechs think and work together. Czechs are reluctant to trust anyone if their professionalism is not backed up by honesty and credibility. Accordingly, the Czech must feel that he is being acknowledged first as a person, and only then as a professional.

Even though Mike thought he knew the Czech character quite well, our conversation was an eye-opener for him. Toward the end of our conversation, Mike asked me to define the typical Czech employee.

Generally speaking, Czechs, especially the younger generation, are eager to learn and very creative. However, to keep them on-task, they need to feel that they are contributing to something and that their work is appreciated, meaningful, and provides them with an opportunity for development.

Finally, the importance Czechs place on personal relationships can often lead to stronger ties than are normally found in Western European or American organizations. Here close relations and even friendship among colleagues is often the accepted norm.

Karin is a business coach and a specialist in cross-cultural understanding, communication and team-building.