The Russian business is made up of complete mosaic with its short history of only 20 years. A new generation of promising young Russians are joining an older workforce whose adult working life was marked by the fall of communism. In addition to this, Russia continues to attract foreign investment due to its huge economy, growing consumer markets and highly trained work force. As a result, many foreign executives (expats) are still flocking to the country. Here is a question that many of them struggle with: How can I lead the Russian organizations to peak performance? It is no secret that it is often a challenge for expats to adapt to Russian business and organizational culture, even in multi-national companies. So is it possible to rally a Russian organization to success, despite being an expat? After 8 years of working with Russian people, my answer is a definitive “Yes”. However, to accomplish this, one must understand the values of Russians that were shaped by their unique history.
Many people generalize the challenge of understanding the Russian business culture to the outlasting effects of communism. While this is not untrue, it is an overly simplified explanation and offers no insights to the solution. So let’s study the impact of communism. This system was based on a hyper-centralized decision making, which undermined (and almost killed) proactive behavior for 70 years because it only rewarded or punished people in a narrow responsibility defined with strict boundaries. You can still see the effects of this in both the old or the new generations, of which the latter unsurprisingly learned from their parents. As a result, you might get legendarily long responses to the question “What is the problem?” when in a meeting full of Russians. However, be prepared for a weird silence if you ask what the solution is. Moreover, those who break the silence might even continue to talk about the problem. It is by no means related with the analytical or problem solving skills of Russians who are one of the best educated in the world. On the contrary, the difference between the multitude of problems and the lack of solutions is driven mostly because of the overriding expectation that the solution should come from the top or center which should be one of the qualities of a strong governing body or the leading figure.
In addition to the mindset issue, another Russian feature that challenges the expats, is the negotiation style. Russians’ default way of negotiation is based on uncompromising manner to defend their position, with no refrain on the usage of power. This puts many expats in difficult positions, because the Western way of strategic, pragmatic and compromise based negotiations might not work. It’s mainly due to the underlying Russian value system which overvalues ideals over compromise. For example, it is considered quite respectful to stick to your ideals even if they cause you great loss – another value driven by the history of regime. Secondly, let’s not forget that this country was not ruled or conquered by any foreign power since the 13th century. This is very remarkable because it led to an unbending, uncompromising attitude which reveals itself as default negotiation mode. Of course, there has been strong adaptation to the global mindset and business culture, especially by the young workforce, but as history shows, it takes more than two generations to change cultural mindsets. One has to be careful not to confuse this uncompromising attitude with stubbornness.
So, what is the solution? How can you lead Russian organizations peak performance?
1) Assign personal and stretch goals. This is the best way to tap into the strong personal responsibility value brought about by communism. Even though it may not seem obvious at first, Russians take great pride in accomplishing their goals once they buy into them. Congratulate those who accomplish their goals in front of others because positive admiration is not very common in this society where modesty is an important virtue. Yet, it makes positive public recognition not less effective, given that it’s rarely practiced except birthday speeches in the office. You will see that this makes wonders on the performance of the individuals who achieve goals and create desire for others to get the same.
2) Bring Russian people together and demand a solution. The history is full of miracles which shows what Russians are capable of when they stick together. However, it somehow seems to happen when they are under immense pressure or imminent threat. While these measures don’t apply to business, the best solution is to simulate the collaborative pressure in a constructive way. Simply put, invite all of them to the same meeting room and not allow anyone to leave until a solution is found. You might need strong leadership to moderate the conversation, a positive attitude and little bit of patience to accomplish this.
3) Take on personal responsibility to break barriers. One of the outlasting impacts of years of propaganda is the ultimate skepticism towards speech. People are judged not with their words but their actions. It can not be more true in Russia. Therefore, if you want to gain the respect of your Russian team as their leader, the first thing you have to do is to solve a problem that they can not solve themselves. Moreover, face hardships together to experience the “Camaraderie” feeling, a common term for people facing the same mission. Russians will respond to your sacrifices as a leader with abundant fellowship and loyalty.
4) Lead planning but follow-up. One of the first idioms that you will learn in Russia is: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” Russians may sometimes tend to do things at the last minute. While you might see this as lack of planning, it is partly linked with the over-confidence to pull off miracles in short time. Needless to say, while it might sometimes work, you may not always want to rely on this approach. Therefore, best way to deal with this is to follow up medium term deadlines personally and sometimes demand artificial deadlines. Otherwise be prepared for last minute miracles, yet not for the fainthearted.
5) Give constructive, personal feedback. Russian education system tends to produce respect for authority, drive for unity and a high desire for learning and growth yet, it does not fully reward individuality. Therefore, Russians miss constructive feedback early in their lives but they would happily embrace it at work as it triggers the desire for growth – one of the biggest motivators of the workforce. You might be surprised to see the positive results in employee satisfaction if you invest into training and one-on-one coaching, which might have even better effect than ever increasing salaries. Net, utilize balanced, realistic, specific and individual feedback in this culture, where even the administrative staff have a Ph.D. or Master’s degree. What you should do is to give them the required time and care.
The Russian business culture is shaped by the political history. They have ran the biggest social experiment and achieved some miracles in the past which was followed by one of the most rapid transformations. If you want to motivate your Russian team as an expat, tap into the underlying values, lead by example and show that you care. Then the next Russian miracle might come from your team.
This echoes my experience perfectly. To your second possible solution – “2) Bring Russian people together and demand a solution” – I might add that one approach which worked for me was to float an initial proposed solution, however ridiculous. Be clear you want people to debate this. I’ve found this can act as a lightning rod to channel the energy of the room towards a more optimal solution (and also leverages the habit of focusing on the problem towards a focus on the problems of a solution – which is a step in the right direction…)
I cannot agree more Adam. This is a clever approach and might trigger great solutions. However, one needs to watch-out not to get stuck into the criticism of this idea and move on to a constructive option fast.