I recently arrived in Tallinn to spend here a considerable amount of time. 2021 has been a fantastic year so far (albeit a quite stressful one). The company has grown considerably, and so my team, distributed around the world.
The heart of the company, however, is in Tallinn, as couldn’t be otherwise. The Estonian team works at our offices in Technopolis Ülemiste. As a location independence entrepreneur, I’ve usually been traveling, never spending too much time there. Because of that, while I was aware of the cultural divergences present in the Estonian society, I underestimated how they could affect my organization.
At some point, these divergences started to create internal power structures within my business, and I had to intervene to make sure they didn’t thrive to the point of becoming a threat. In this post, I talk about how to prevent internal power structures within your company, in my case, due to the special nuances of the Estonian society.
The Startup Scene In Latvia, And The Situation In The Baltics
Latvia was one of the first countries where I lived when I started my digital nomad journey. I joined Techhub, a well-known startup community that had a very interesting co-working space in a formerly abandoned chocolate factory. There, I met many interesting entrepreneurs. I used to talk a lot to one of them, a Latvian guy called Vas, because honestly he was one of the few Latvians who was openly talkative and extroverted.
One day, we were invited to kayak down the Daugava with some of the guys from the co-working space. After a couple of hours, we finally arrived to a rest area where we spent the rest of the afternoon. There, I suddenly realized Vas was talking to the others in English, not in Latvian. We were not part of the conversation, so it was not because of us.
Later, when I asked him about it, he told me that he didn’t speak Latvian. His mother tongue was Russian.
That struck me as quite bizarre. There was this guy who had been born in Latvia and had lived his entire life there, and couldn’t communicate with his peers in their official language.
Two completely separate societies
One of our best friends was staying in Latvia during that same period. He was born in Russia, but his family migrated to Germany, where he was raised. As he had family ties with Latvia (his ancestors where Latvians) and a good knowledge of the Russian community and culture, I asked him about it.
He told me that there are indeed two completely separated societies in the country. They speak different languages. They don’t hang out together. They dress differently. They go to different bars and restaurants. They listen to different music, and read information from completely separated sources.
The situation in Latvia is not unique. It’s common in all the Baltic countries, including Estonia. According to the official sources, there are approximately 330,000 ethnic Russians living in Estonia today. That’s around one quarter of the population.
In my opinion, that number may be greatly underestimated. It may be because I use public transport here, or because I move mainly on the Kesklinna and Lasnamäe neighborhoods, but I hear more Russian than Estonian on a daily basis. You can’t obviously generalize from my own experience, though.
The Situation In Estonia
Of those 330,000 ethnic Russians that I mentioned, only 120,000 are Estonian citizens. What about the rest? Around 100,000 are Russian nationals, and the rest (roughly 100,000 more) are non-citizens. This is another shocking concept if you come from Western Europe. They have a special “grey” passport. Even if they have been born in Estonia, they, their children, and the children of their children, will never be Estonian citizens. They have many of the rights of proper citizens, but not others (such as voting in national elections).
Apart from the cultural differences, there are other important pragmatical aspects to take into account. As an example, even though things are improving, unemployment rates, access to high-level jobs, and average salaries, are still different between both communities.
This situation may seem hard to understand for the rest of us, but that’s because we haven’t gone through the difficult (and sometimes delicate) independence process of the Baltic states after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Many ethnic Russians (retired military personnel and their families, but also civilians) departed back to Russia, but many others stayed. This community speaks Russian and identify culturally as Russians, even when they “are Estonians”. So what do you do with them?
The Estonian government tries to encourage and promote integration through the Estonian language and European values, and it is easy to see why. After the Crimea annexation by Russia, the Baltic countries took good note of the power of the media influence from Moscow. The incident was quite recent when we visited Latvia for the first time, and many Latvians we spoke with confessed they were afraid that something similar could happen there. In my opinion, it’s very difficult today that something like that may happen in any Baltic country. Even “non-citizen” Estonians prefer to live as pariah in a Baltic country that as proper Russians in Russia.
Still, the strategy of disregarding the Russian language has a worrisome consequence. The Russian-speaking community in Estonia is at the mercy of Moscow’s propaganda. They watch Russian-influenced TV and read Russian-influenced media. Much like the echo chamber effect on social media, these two communities are exposed to different versions of the same reality. They live in completely different countries, and experience completely different worlds.
Why That Matters
This cultural and social divergence may affect your team if you are not careful. As the CEO of your business, it gets to a point where you no longer can get involved in the HR processes. Ideally, there is an HR employee or department in charge of that or, if your company is not that big yet, the Chief of the department will do it for you. You have to delegate and trust them to make the right choices.
In the case of Estonia, which is the one I have personally experienced, due to this social separation, “Russians” prefer to work with “Russians”, and “Estonians” prefer to work with “Estonians”. Their hiring decisions will be biased towards “their kind”.
Apart from the cultural closeness, there are other practical considerations, like the fact that they can communicate directly in their language (Estonian speakers don’t usually speak Russian and Russian speakers rarely speak Estonian beyond what’s needed to do the groceries).
That bias may be even unintentional but, if left unattended, it can end up in an scenario where the people in charge of hiring new staff create a cultural island, choosing only candidates akin to them.
Internal Power Structures Within The Team
Now that scenario is quite detrimental for your business.
Firstly, because your team will become less diverse. As a global company, I know how important diversity is for building a rich, creative, and open working environment. People from the same society, culture, and background tend to think alike. You need people who can bring different points of view, different ideas, and different life experiences to the table.
Secondly, because this cultural monogamy can easily create a company within the company. An isolated island whose members interact between them a lot more than with the rest of the team. The leader of that department may build a small kingdom, which can create a power imbalance with the rest of the business. That can be catastrophic in the long run.
How to prevent this
There are some things that can be done to prevent this undesirable scenario. Most of them involve being transparent and up-front with your employees about the kind of company that you want to build.
First, it is important to have some rules in place to create an inclusive, global environment in your business. A corporate cultural guide of sorts. A good starting point is setting English as the official communication language of the company and asking people not to talk to others in other languages (Russian, Estonian, etc), especially when the rest of the team is there (that’s also quite impolite). But there’s a lot more, including the values of your organization, its points of view towards diversity, gender equality, salaries, etc.
Also, it is important to have an open, honest conversation with your employees about the corporate culture, and how you want to build a global, inclusive, and embracing working setup that does not discriminate against any social or cultural background, race, religion, sexual orientation or identity, etc. The CxOs of the company should actively participate in sharing and encouraging this culture within the organization.
Finally, you should also talk to the people in the HR department, or those responsible for hiring new employees in their respective departments. Share with them your vision of what a global company must be, and ask them to have an open mindset. Their participation and collaboration is essential to build this culture in your business and avoid this isolated islands.
If having a HR department is a possibility for you, make sure to choose people from different countries and cultures to create a diverse gang. If it’s just one person, choose someone who’s completely disconnected from these biases and has a global mindset. Someone who understands the benefits of diversity for your company.
As a libertarian, location independent entrepreneur, I think flags, borders, nationalities, and languages are anachronisms from the past. They only serve to create barriers between individuals and groups that should not exist. I believe in an open world, the more global, diverse, and respectful, the better. It’s ok to be proud of your heritage and to speak the language of your ancestors, but when that prevents you from integrating into the reality of your current culture, or the global world, or serves as a differentiating factor to create dissociated social groups, that’s when your culture becomes a liability, not an asset.
Obviously, that’s not a very popular point of view. At the macro level, governments weaponize languages and cultures to segregate or influence societies for their own interests. That happens from Russia to Catalonia, and everywhere in-between. At the micro level, individuals still fell prey of this nation-estate narrative, identifying themselves with a specific group, and developing feelings and reactions to other groups dictated by the social or governmental dogmas of their respective nationalities.
In the context of a company, especially a global one, you have to be careful to prevent that these cultural attachments create power structures within your organization (or a business inside your business). That’s specially dangerous in societies where there are two clearly distinct cultural groups, separated perhaps by historic, religious, or nationalistic reasons.
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