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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Managing Russian Teams

The subservience of the needs of the individual to the needs of society have created a culture whereby collective structures — government, companies, groups, teams — are perceived to be at odds with the interest of the individual, making the individual honor-bound to find every opportunity of gaining personal advantage over the system. Russian literature is full of romanticized examples of the fast-thinking crook, such as Gogol’s Government Inspector Khlestakov, or Ilf & Petrov’s Ostap Bender, who, with charm and humor, fleece all around them and show social institutions up for what they are  — a lie. Pragmatism, gaining short-term advantage (if possible personal), playing the game while at the same time undermining it, a preference for form over substance, and a disregard for rational thought, planning, process, collaboration, are the characteristics of Russian management. Trust and confidence are in short-supply — towards the leaders, towards employees and above all towards oneself. With over-dominant leaders and weak subordinates, Russian hierarchies comprise both master puppeteers and their puppets. To make matters even more complex, each individual, at whatever level of the organization, possesses a healthy mix of both traits which are applied at will depending on circumstances and whom the person is addressing.
Furthermore, there is the simple economic reality of the labor market in Russia, which affects the ability to create and cultivate sustainable teams:  in the current climate of rising inflation, shortage of qualified managers and a swiftly moving labor market, there is little loyalty to employers: with a high turn-over of staff, teams often do not exist long enough to be able to be formed. And as the economy and companies grow, so do teams within them — there is constant pressure on teams from the constant influx of new employees and organizational restructuring.
It is hardly surprising that in this environment, building teams is a challenge. As a team leader, you may assume that your instructions are understood and will be interpreted and implemented in the spirit in which they were agreed with the team, but unless you take the trouble to check at regular intervals, your project may go in completely unexpected directions. As things go progressively off-track, you get pulled into micro-management — every single detail has to be checked and double-checked. Is each team member consulting with the others? Are they working together to find solutions? Do they have a common understanding of the purpose and goal of a particular activity, or is each person just concerned with their own piece of the puzzle? And at what point can you, the leader, withdraw from giving instructions and pull out from the daily “knocking of heads together,” allowing people to take the initiative and move forward together under their own momentum? Can you stop “fire-fighting” and get on with defining broader strategy and longer-term goals? How can you create a self-motivated team which can implement the strategy with precision and confidence, and without constant supervision? Where do you start in trying to overcome this bewildering array of behavioral peculiarities?