May 14, 2000

Cross-Cultural Variances in Team Effectiveness: The Eastern European Experience

Former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, in their emerging development of free-market economies, have frequently turned to change agents from the West especially the United States for technical assistance; often because so few of the host nationals have experience with the latest North American management initiatives such as work teams (Kirkman & Shapiro, 1997).

Working in foreign lands involves interpersonal communication challenges across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Especially daunting for American managers and consultants working in the transforming economies of post-Soviet states are communications across ideological barriers, where fundamental operational concepts such as property rights, class distinctions, motivations and incentives may be diametrically opposed. This paper looks to identify some of the transcultural issues especially those related to team development and the contextual environment within which these issues play in post-Soviet countries, the barriers that might be reconciled and those that may never be bridged.

This paper is based on current topical literature and news reports, providing a survey of some of the diverse issues and solutions that relate to successful management and communications within the existing social, political, and economic context of American individuals and organizations working in post-Soviet countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The paper also incorporates some of my own practical experience, currently as a manager for the Ukraine Market Reform Education Program (UMREP) since April 1997 on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). UMREP has a Kiev-based staff of 50, including two full-time American managers. I have held other management positions in Eastern Europe since 1989, and have traveled throughout the region.

Kelly (1996) provides a warning to American companies considering sizable capital and intellectual outlays for foreign operations: Easily lost in all of the logistical work and strategizing that precede a foreign assignment is the fact that American expatriates often rely on a managerial mindset that, while tried and tested at home, will not work abroad.

Hofstede (1980) classifies dimensions of work-related value differences in 40 subject countries. The classifications may well be applied to cultural dimensions of the post-Soviet workplace, including: power distance (or the extent to which individuals at lower levels accept their lack of autonomy and authority); individualism (or the relative importance of self and immediate family versus the collective workplace); masculinity (or the extent to which traditionally male goals of wealth and recognition are acknowledged); and uncertainty avoidance (or the extent to which risk and ambiguity are acceptable business conditions). Hofstede later added a fifth dimension: long-term orientation (fostering virtues oriented towards future rewards, e.g., thrift), which interjected a growing understanding of Asian culture, specifically Confucian influence.

While Hofstedes examined countries did not include republics of the USSR, survey participants in Yugoslavia sharing a common Slavic heritage with other Eastern Europeans ranked high in dimensions of uncertainty avoidance and power distance. (It may be useful to note the word slave is derived from the word Slav, as robot is from the Russian word rabota or work.)

Of the five cultural dimensions, Hofstede (1991) cited two as the most problematic for effective cross-cultural work relations: uncertainty avoidance (what is different, is dangerous); and power distance (successful cooperation depending too highly on the whims of powerful players).

A more recent study (Fernandez,D.R., Carlson, D.S., Stepina, L.P & Nicholson, J.D., 1997) relying on Hofstedes formulas and methods ranked Russia as topping the large power distance scale (just above China) in the survey sample of countries, and also rated Russia as the country with the strongest uncertainty avoidance in the study (above Chile, China and the United States).

Following are some of Hofstedes indicators in the two selected cultural dimensions:


         Inequalities among people are both expected and desired

         Less powerful people should be more dependent on powerful

         Teachers are gurus who transfer personal wisdom

         Students treat teachers with respect

         Centralization is popular

         Wide salary range between top and bottom of organization

         Subordinates expect to be told what to do

         Privileges and status symbols for managers are both expected and popular


         The uncertainty inherent in life is felt as a continuous threat which must be fought

         High stress; subjective feeling of anxiety

         Aggression and emotions may at proper times and places be ventilated

         Tight rules for children on what is dirty and taboo

         What is different, is dangerous

         Emotional need for rules, even if these never will work

         Suppression of deviant ideas and behavior; resistance to innovation

         Motivation by security and esteem or belongingness

Kirkman & Shapiro (1997) echo Hofstedes observation that these cultural dimensional characteristics may well impact team effectiveness: Employees from high power distance cultures expect managers to lead, and they become uncomfortable with both the delegation of discretionary decisions and the role ambiguity that may result from taking on new tasks management approaches granting employees more autonomy and responsibility (e.g., Self-Managed Work Teams) may not be suitable for employees from high power distance cultures.

Many post-Soviets in general, and Ukrainians in particular, ranking high in both categories of uncertainty avoidance and power distance, may pose difficulties in implementing work teams. If team members are prone to avoid exertions of individual initiative or contribution to the group effort (an effect of high power distance), or if group members are inclined to avoid the introduction of new ideas (strong uncertainty avoidance), the purpose of team assembly may well be thwarted from the start. American managers working in post-Soviet states should consider that tactics useful at home might well prove unproductive abroad.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the ultimate disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, American organizations and individuals have had near a decade now to discover the challenges of working in the post-Soviet world of Eastern and Central Europe. Some have succeeded, many have failed (Banerjee 1999), but most have discovered the fundamental fact that realized opportunities in foreign lands require that more attention needs to be given to social, cultural, and political factors that affect factors of organizational productivity and communication success (Mueller & Clarke, 1998; Wedel, 1998; Rao & Swaminathan, 1995).

American-bred managers are finding that the post-Soviet nations are packed with the baggage of, in most cases, more than 70 years of communist influences on several generations of indigenous workers and managers. It may take several generations more before these fledgling free societies synthesize their past histories and current realities with their future possibilities (The Ragged March, 1999). Americans expecting a warm reception to the communication and management methods so successful in established Western market economies are likely to be surprised by how skeptical even antagonistic the post-Soviet environment can be (Samary, 1999; Huntington, 1995).

Apart from the subtler ideological differences, most American managers such as myself are struck from the first day on the ground of just how contrary many of our minor social customs are to those in post-Soviet states. A sampling:

         The written equivalent of “I” (as in “I am”) in Slavic languages is used in lower case (“i”), while “You” is frequently capitalized where we would not.

         Birthday celebrants are required to throw their own parties, rather than have parties thrown for them.

         When asked, “How are you?” we Americans will typically answer, “Fine, thank you.” The Slavic contrasting response is, “Thank you, fine.” (Or, “Thank you, not bad,” or “Thank you, I'm awful.”) The point is, first they acknowledge the asker before talking about themselves. It’s a rather revealing contrast.

         Slavic languages typically use double, triple, even quadruple negatives without changing the meaning of the sentence (e.g., “I do not never nowhere work no how”). The fundamental differences in language structure can provide significant insights into mental processes.

American and Soviet adages also contrast the different mindsets between the respective assertive and more passive operational modes. Americans are wont to advise such aggressive aphorisms as, The squeaky wheel gets the grease, or The early bird gets the worm. Post-Soviets, instead, continue to opine about the benefits of more passive tacks or the dangers of standing out: The quiet calf gets milk from two mothers, and The nail that stands up highest gets whacked first.

These indicator trivialities hint of even more profound differences in mindsets and ideological inclinations to come, as the surprise of first impressions gives way to seasoned befuddlement on behalf of both American guests and post-Soviet hosts.

In former socialist organizations, there existed well-defined subcultures based along political and ideological lines (Michailova 1999). Such subculture divisions naturally transitioned to a post-Soviet environment, evident in American-managed organizations where the American and local staff are frequently divided along lines of ours (nashi in Russian), and them. American managers often fortify these divisions with didactic exultations that our way is the right way to do things.

Wedel (1997) examines how effective the post-Soviet mindset has been in exploiting the frequently nave expectations of American organizations in imposing standards of behavior, while further demonstrating the level of power distance: An entire language was developed under communism to describe the practice of creating fictions to please authorities. Russians speak of ochkovtiratelstvo (literally, to kick dust into someones eyes), meaning to pull the wool over someones eyes or to fool the observer, boss, or do-gooder. Living in a totalitarian state where questioning ideological precepts imposed by distant powers could result in imprisonment or execution, the citizenry understandably developed strong self-preserving uncertainty avoidance defenses (what is different is dangerous indeed).

Given the distinct characteristics of post-Soviet mindsets and the earlier described levels of Hofstedes cultural dimensions of power distance and uncertainty avoidance, what should be done when considering the implementation of work teams?

First, organization managers may well conclude that the current cultural climate in post-Soviet organizations in not conducive to effective work team efforts. Kirkman and Shapiro (1997) observe that individuals from high power distance cultures will resist a high level of self-management more than individuals from low power distance cultures. They cite that resistance behaviors such as sabotage, vocal protest, withdrawal, and negligence, may negatively influence team effectiveness.

Such self-management resistance behaviors lowering employee productivity have certainly been evidenced over my three-year tenure managing a Ukrainian team: coming late to work, returning late from lunch or coffee breaks, spending excessive time discussing personal matters, neglecting work assignments, wasting time, making little effort to improve work-related knowledge and skill, and generally doing as little as possible.

However, if an organization should attempt to implement a team structure in a high power distance, strong uncertainty avoidance climate, Kirman and Shapiro offer suggestions that may help improve team performance, including:

         Larger team size should moderate the relationship between resistance to team development and team effectiveness. Individuals who might negatively influence others have less opportunity to do so as team size increases (e.g., a larger team of 20-25 members as opposed to a team of 5-8 members).

         Decreasing the level of task interdependence between team members will mitigate the resistance of an individual member to the overall team’s effectiveness.

         Increasing the diversity of team members (e.g., age, experience, etc.) will help counter resistant team members from forming into antagonistic cliques.

Hackman (1991) suggests to effect team work team success especially appropriate in cultural settings that have an initial bias against work team structure there should be a direct linkage between group (non) performance, and the group rewards (or penalties) that may be applicable: There must be a reward system within the organization that motivates strong task performance.

Western managers in an Eastern European setting may find better success with modifications on a team structure if they consider the cross-cultural variations of values, communications styles and interaction modes which may influence team effectiveness. The fact that some 40 percent of American managers return home in frustration before completing their assignment demonstrates more effort is needed in this area (Jehn & Weldon, 1996).

Funakawa (1997) provides that as transnational companies advance through stage development, they will have a larger pool of cross-culturally experienced workers and managers to contribute stronger transcultural skills sets and leadership. These bridge persons help to construct a conveyance across a cultural chasm.

While American managers working abroad may have a significant influence on the organizational work culture, they must also accommodate and respect the external culture of the community that surrounds it if they expect to have a smoothly functioning organization (Stewart 1996).

In his comprehensive analysis of clashing civilizations, Huntington (1995) underscores that the successful global business must adopt a global perspective and philosophy, especially given that the collapse of Soviet ideology does not necessarily mean that post-Soviet societies will import other Western ideologies: Westerners who assume that it does are likely to be surprised by the creativity, resilience, and individuality of non-Western cultures. Non-Western societies can modernize and have modernized without abandoning their own cultures and adopting wholesale Western values, institutions, and practices.

Communication and management methods of Americans and other Westerners will not necessarily be immediately if ever adopted by the former socialists. The post-Soviet social, political, and economic environment should be taken into account, especially in ways that personal and professional strategies, goals, and philosophies are expressed. Rather than fixate on ideological differences, differing nationals should focus instead on universal commonalities: meeting needs of families and communities, transcultural ideals of truth and justice, while ensuring the mutually rewarding fiscal and social health of the organization.



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