Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Russia is a vast country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your Russian language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, Russians have a very different interpretation of proper business culture.
With the wide spread practices in the Russian business world that has people relying more on relationships and unwritten rules, the Russian business world is quite a bit different than what you are used to seeing in the United States. Because trust has become such a big part of the Russian business practices, people need to forge personal relationships with those they are going to work with.
This is an interesting juxtaposition for people who deal with Russians. There is an inherent lack of trust between people from outside Russia because there are rules that can be broken that other people would never know about. There are also rules other people don’t understand to stick to that Russians are going to hold up as sacrosanct. And then, of course, there is the fact that even Russians tend to look for compromising information about the people they are doing business with in order to get themselves a better deal.
At the same time, the Russians want to make sure they know as much as possible about the people they are doing business with. This isn’t even because they want to dig up dirt. They really do feel as though they should know the person they are working with personally. They want to know who they are married to, or that they are not married at all. They also want to know who their friends are and want to befriend those people.
The decision-making process and overall business culture can vary widely depending on the region and the sector. Most Russian businesses are run by a single strong figure and their closest advisors. Big corporations and public-sector institutions tend to make decisions slowly, simply because there are more layers of bureaucracy to contend with.
Russians, especially older Russians, fear punishment if something goes wrong. During Stalin’s purges of the mid-20th century, shifting responsibility onto someone else became a survival tactic. The Soviet system stated, “Инициативанаказуема” (“Initiative is there to be punished.”) Consequently, older managers who worked during the Soviet regime tend to be a lot more cautious and wary than younger ones. They generally take longer to make decisions or take risks than their younger compatriots. By contrast, smaller private companies run by young entrepreneurs tend to make decisions quickly.
Regardless of size, a company’s decision-making power will rest with the man at the top – and it nearly always is a man. You should therefore not waste time demanding explanations or decisions from junior or middle managers; they really can’t help you. Get as close to the top as possible; at least talk to someone who can arrange a meeting with the company director.
Getting the desired results from a Russian manager will often depend on your ability to forge a connection with him. Expect to attend a number of lunches and dinners while he gets to know you.
When it comes to the management level of the business world, you will find that the Russians have carried over their personalities from the Cold War. The Communist Party leadership would rarely delegate to their subordinates. This was because they didn’t want to run the risk of losing any of their collected power.
While power isn’t the same as it was back then, Russian managers still tend to not want to let the people that work under them know their plans all that often. Instead of having a team of employees work through issues to help a company succeed, there is still a very strict hierarchy where the leader at the top is the only one who can really make the decisions.
Some companies are very strict about this to the point where even small decisions that should be made by lower level employees have to be run up the chain. This feeling of guarding one’s job to the bitter end isn’t just in the larger firms. There are plenty of Russians in smaller firms that will not pass on information as a kind of way of making sure that the information they have will help them keep their jobs. At times, this can lead to a firm being vapor locked and unable to move forward on anything until the boss is present and weighing in on decisions one situation at a time.