Working Successfully With Czech Employees

Manager's Handbook, The Prague Post, January 2005

January 6, 2005

After working in the Czech Republic for more than a year, Mike was amazed at how people who had come to Prague from different countries and cultures managed to work with and understand Czechs so well. From both personal and professional experience, Mike came to the conclusion that the Czech character was full of some confusing contradictions that sometimes made effective communication difficult.

For example, he found that while Czechs make warm and caring friends, they are often quite reserved or even cold upon first meeting someone in public. The complexities of the Czech language don’t always allow for clear mutual understanding either. In short, Mike found it a daily challenge to communicate effectively with Czechs in ways they could understand.

When listing the various areas that caused him problems, Mike mentioned a situation commonly cited by expatriate managers hearing employees obstinately declare, “That is not possible.” As an American, Mike had difficulty 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, “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 in particular. It’s worth remembering that communist-era organizations were not geared toward productivity, and helped create a work force without motivation or initiative.

While laziness may be one possible cause, a lack of self-confidence can also lead to reluctance in taking up new challenges. 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 hesitation in taking 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.

It’s 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 asked me about the most effective way of teaching Czechs.

In order to successfully train someone, it’s 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 whose professionalism is not backed up by honesty and credibility. Accordingly, a 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 West 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.