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What Do I Need to Know When Working with Russian Counterparts? The Five Most Common Questions Answered

How can I be a good colleague to my Russian counterparts or a good boss to my Russian subordinates?

How should I behave when on a business trip to Russia?

When should I call and when should I write an email?

These are some of the most commonly asked questions from participants at our Russian cultural training sessions in Denmark.

We’ve asked C3's Russia specialist, Helena Drewes, to share her best tips for working in Russia.

Helena is an experienced cultural trainer who has travelled, lived, and worked in Russia for more than 20 years. She has lived in a cottage (dacha) in Veliky Novgorod, was the regional manager for 6 shoe stores in Moscow, and now advises Russian farmers who are converting to organic production.

In her collaborations with C3 Consulting, Helena does trainings for companies of all sizes and all degrees of experience in the Russian market.

1. What are the do's and don’ts of working in Russia?

This is a question everybody asks, but the truth is that there is no all-encompassing checklist. It differs from organization to organization and it depends on the group you are in. The best thing you can do is become culturally intelligent, so you can create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable with you and trust you.

Relationship building is very important when it comes to doing business in Russia, and this can be challenging for Danes. We don’t always know how to build up relationships because we are used to living in a society where trust is the default.

Try to make a good first impression – be nice and be yourself. Talk about the things that you like about Russia and wait until you know people better before you start making jokes or discussing sensitive subjects.

When you get to know people and have built up relationships, you can ask how to act in specific situations. Try to find a go-to person, an informant who knows the culture from the inside.

If you are going somewhere and don't yet have an informant, bring a present – you can decide later if it feels right to give it. It can be a souvenir that shows where you're from, an uneven number of flowers (even numbers are reserved for funerals), chocolate, etc. Be careful not to give too big of a gift, which can send the wrong message.

It’s also worth noting that you can sometimes end up in a situation where people want to take you out drinking.

It’s not as common as it was 20 years ago, and it’s completely okay not to take part. Just be aware that it is a form of bonding, a way to show friendship, and it is important to show that you may be saying no to the vodka, but you are still saying yes to the friendship. Find another way to show that you value the relationship – make a nice speech, for example.

2. How can I best communicate and collaborate with my Russian colleagues or employees?

Just like with the do's and don’ts above, there isn’t a simple checklist you can use to determine the most effective way to communicate. It depends on the situation.

For example, if you are working with the authorities or on a ministerial level, you should always document things in writing. Send an email and make sure that people are CC’ed so they can see that questions have been addressed. You would not call the authorities to get something done, but you can absolutely call your own staff, especially as a follow-up to an email.

You should be aware that in Russia, it’s not typical to work in teams or share information, so create a formalized way of doing this – don’t just assume that people will tell each other things.

You may think it’s obvious that the process would be better if people shared information but getting irritated will not solve anything. Build a framework and show your colleagues how things should be done.

This also goes for timelines and performance management systems like Key Performance Indicators. The fact is, Russian society has experienced so many changes so rapidly, that it can feel pointless to make a 5-year timeline.

So if you’re going to implement this kind of system, you have to show that it is worth the effort and that you are following the milestones yourself. If you are the one who is not delivering on time, they will see it as proof that these things don’t work.

During our trainings in Denmark, I hear from people who feel like they get a lot of “emergency” emails from their Russian counterparts. Many Russians have become accustomed to operating in “the panic zone” because in their experience, this is when things get done! They think that if they don’t put the pressure on, things won’t happen.

See it as a cultural difference, and then find a way to work together. You have to address the issue and not just get frustrated. You can tell your Russian colleagues that they need to give you more turnaround time, but then you also have to show them that you can be counted on to deliver.

3. How can I be an effective manager for my Russian subordinates?

Russia is a hierarchic country, and leaders are expected to lead. A very common question from the Russian side is, "Why is my Danish leader not leading?"

In terms of delegating tasks, in Denmark you would typically give a task to your employee and expect them to complete the task and come back to you if they have any questions. That is not how things work in Russia. You have to be specific about what you need, and you have to follow up.

As the leader, you have to take the responsibility.

Russia is a much higher-risk society than Denmark, which means, among other things, that there are much more serious consequences for someone if they lose their job.

This high-risk atmosphere can be really challenging for Danes working in Russia because when a mistake is made, the immediate instinct is to try to hide it. People are afraid of getting punished, and they have good reason to feel this way. There isn’t the same kind of social safety net like there is in Denmark.

So if you want your employees to come forward, you have to create an environment where they feel safe. Build a workplace culture where it is okay to make mistakes, and treat mistakes as an opportunity to learn and improve.

Lead the way and help people solve problems without causing them to lose face or dignity. Have the attitude that, "Okay, we made a mistake. That's fine, let's solve the problem and move on."

Sometimes it can feel like you are investing a lot of trust and openness into an environment that is not used to it. You may discover that there are people who cannot operate in this kind of environment and who you cannot trust.

You may find yourself in a situation where you need to let people go, and this can be really difficult but you have to walk the talk. People will see that you are taking away the bad apples, they will understand that you mean what you say, and this will help increase trust.

4. What do I need to know about Russian culture and society?

Russians are in general very well educated. They have a common background and many have been through a similar, centralized education.

But Russia is not a monoculture. There is a huge difference between Moscow/St. Petersburg and the rest of the country. The people you will typically meet are the ones who speak English, who actively chose to open towards the West, and who are part of the international environment.

Remember that it hasn’t even been 30 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so there are big generational differences.

People who are over the age of 40 or 50, who were brought up in the Soviet Union, will have a different perspective than the younger generation. During the Soviet era, all the things that we think of as a natural part of capitalistic society, everything that had to do with buying and selling, advertisements, competition – this was all illegal.

Right now is a rather sensitive period of time in Russia. People are still adapting and looking for stability. They are trying to find out what the Russia of today is, and that often means comparing themselves with the West to define what they are not.

In my experience, Russians see their country as a place where there are always breaks in the timeline. They had the Czar, they had the Soviet era – it is a country of revolutions, but also a country of great importance.

One of my favourite things about Russia is that the people have tremendous strength to rise up and do something – when they act, something really happens.

5. What should I be aware of specifically, as a Dane?

Put away the Danish irony – it can very easily be misunderstood. All jokes exist in a cultural framework and when you are out of your own cultural frame, you have to rethink what is appropriate.

I’ve also noticed that Danes have a tendency to talk badly about themselves as a way to signal modesty or humility, and Russians have a really hard time interpreting that. It might have something to do with the fact that Danes want everyone to be equal, so when they find themselves at or near the top of a hierarchy they want to show that they don’t think they are better than anyone else.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you have a whole other code of conduct when it comes to women: men open the door for women, take their suitcase, help with their coat, pay the bill, etc. It can seem very old-fashioned to a Dane.

You should be aware that gender roles may be different depending on what kind of environment you are in. In a more international environment women will shake your hand the way you might expect, whereas in a more conservative environment it might be different. If a woman doesn’t put her hand out, don’t reach for it – she will indicate what is appropriate for the situation.

As for Danish women, I encourage you to take your space and put your hand out. You can and should show that you are to be treated as an equal.

A few more things to keep in mind

This article makes some generalizations about Russian workplace culture, but as we said above there are many different variables that can have an impact.

You may have a different experience depending on whether you are working within the government or in an international company, whether you are a manager or an employee, or where in the country you are based.

There is a lot of diversity within Russia, and you will be working with individual people, each of whom will be unique in their own way. Make sure to stay curious, and keep exploring and asking questions.

Last, but not least: at C3 Consulting we believe that all cultural understanding begins with self-understanding.

So when you work cross-culturally remember to look at your own cultural background and everything you take for granted. That's essential to discovering the key differences between your own and others’ cultures and is the first step towards dealing with those differences constructively.

Need inspiration on how to do that? Check out our article here.

And read more about how we work with culture in C3 Consulting here.

Want to learn more about how to collaborate effectively with your Russian business partners?

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