Prosperity and social cohesion

We have moved forward in building trust in Central Europe

Olga Grygier-Siddons
2 June 2017

The prosperity index is higher in countries where the GDP growth matches a more cohesive society. How can we encourage social trust in Central European countries in order to meet the demands of economic growth and build-up their prosperity further?

The low level of social trust is an issue that impacts negatively on all of us and on businesses every day in Central Europe. In the UK, where I was brought up professionally, everybody trusts you unless there is a reason not to, and when there is a reason not to, you know why. Generally speaking, in normal day-to-day dealings you’re given a lot of trust. This approach is incredibly important, for instance, when you have new businesses starting up. We see it as one of the main reasons that attracts start-up companies to the UK, not necessarily the availability of more capital. It’s not that the hard infrastructure is that much better, but what they find is that it is a lot easier for small businesses to operate and to be taken seriously, to be trusted – despite their lacking of both a recognisable brand name and a big balance sheet. Public trust has a large impact on every single area of life, including how business is conducted, the interaction between a business person and say a public servant, or even a taxpayer and a tax collector.

I believe we have moved forward in building trust in Central Europe. Yet, in my view, the movement has not been continuous – not only because of local factors, but also because of global challenges. For example, there are still questions surrounding our trust in technology. In fact, trust in technology is higher here than in countries such as Germany and Sweden. I think businesses need to explore how they can leverage that digital trust to create more of the face-to-face kind. It’s really important that all stakeholders – and by all stakeholders I mean governments, politicians, academics and business people – that everybody realizes how important trust is to building prosperity and that unless we work together, our labour is in vain. We all have the responsibility to build and to nurture trust. Trust is fragile and once it’s broken, it is very difficult to re-establish. We are in a very tenuous moment in terms of society trusting business, and business leaders are reacting to this challenge. I’m seeing a move from Corporate Social Responsibility understood more as PR to genuine interest in changing corporate culture, and awareness that business is responsible not only for the wealth of its shareholders, but also for societal outcomes.

Despite good economic indicators, Visegrad societies have voiced dissatisfaction with their economic standing. What can we do about it?

Companies are often concerned with storytelling, but what is needed is dialogue and the understanding of varying worldviews. In our society, do we view the world as incredibly divided and in a permanent state of disagreement, or do we view our society as one that has a common purpose and values, despite some disagreements around the edges? I think it is important to have a sense of identity as to what type of society we live in. No matter how good the economic indicators are, if we’re not feeling that social cohesion, if we don’t feel we can trust one another, people will not want to stay as part of that community. They will go to a place where maybe they’re not going to be as well off economically, but where they will get those other aspects that are more available.

How to build social cohesion? Th problem, I think, is that in our part of the world people have a tendency to stick to what they can achieve by themselves rather than by working together. That comes through very clearly when we do our surveys. Business people want to focus on the issues that they can solve. Politicians want to solve the things they can solve. Academics want to stay in their world and focus on the challenges that they have. But actually, to make a really big impact, what we need is these three groups and many others to work together to improve the environment.

In this increasingly divided world, we need to meet, connect with people and solve problems together. When it comes to the Visegrad countries, I think we can gain so much more by working together in business, politics, and academia, to work to the benefit of our societies.

Central Europe has built up its prosperity by moving from low-skilled jobs to more complex services. But today, it is facing the problem of brain drain. How can we address this issue?

There are two aspects to brain drain. I see young people genuinely wanting to move around and experience things, to get the best experience that they can in order to build the foundation for their career. I believe this willingness to study or gain work experience abroad is a positive thing, which makes young people from Central Europe incredibly valuable and will make them incredibly successful in the future. Young people here are gifted and determined.

This openness of our young people to work hard and learn is building our social capital. We then need to ensure that we are providing great opportunities for those people to return and to work for businesses that are based here in our Central European markets and not necessarily just national businesses; a lot of young people enjoy being part of the global community and envision a global career. It is about the jobs we create for people in our markets that will either enable them to work locally if they want to, or to work globally if they so choose.

Our focus needs to be on creating more opportunities here in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It’s impossible to stop the most talented people from leaving if they cannot develop and grow in line with their ambitions. Long gone are the days when they can take your passport away. It is our responsibility to improve the environment here, both in terms of hard infrastructure – the technology backbone – and also the right soft infrastructure, that is trust and social capital. We need to be thinking what can we do to attract that talent back.

Given the rise of technology, business leaders are looking for people with good problem-solving skills, with high levels of leadership ability to make sense of all the data that computers are generating. You can automate a lot of the standard and routine tasks, which generates an even greater need to be able to interact with a human being. This is why emotional intelligence is so highly valued by employers. We have an impressive number of IT graduates in our region who speak several languages, have strong communication skills and the ability to get along with people. These are our strengths, and we should play to them.

Olga Grygier-Siddons – CEO, PwC Central and Eastern Europe

Photo © PwC

Read more in Visegrad Insight 1 (10) 2017 ‘From golden hands to golden heads’.