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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cultural Adaptability — Recommendations for International Companies Working in Russia

Valentin Timakov
Country HR Leader Russia/CIS

“For a German and a Finn, the truth is the truth. In Japan and in Britain, it is all right if it does not rock the boat. In China, there is no absolute truth. In Italy, it is negotiable.”

— Richard D. Lewis (1999),

“When Cultures Collide — Managing Successfully Across Cultures,”

Nicholas Brealey Publishing

A lot has been said about how Russia is culturally different from any other country, and it seems to be a well-known fact. All international companies who come to do business in Russia seem to be aware of this. However, when they start their day-to-day operations they often experience a real culture shock.

In most cases, foreigners traditionally complain about a certain “Russian approach,” which, under close scrutiny, could be described as follows:

1. authoritarian style predominates, you always have to deal with hierarchy

2. short-term focus — people are reluctant to plan long term, pension planning does not exist at all

3. lack of leadership — people avoid taking responsibility or making decisions

4. bureaucracy is overwhelming — strong adherence to procedures without thinking of rationale or value

5. labor legislation does not provide enough flexibility in executing organizational changes

6. information is treated as leverage; problems with information sharing

7. lack of trust toward foreigners.

This list could easily be much longer and more detailed.

Fons Trompenaars and Geert Hofstede, as well as other culture diversity researchers, have successfully convinced the world that existing cultural differences are more of a norm and should be taken seriously.

Cultural awareness is challenging because any culture is complex as is. It runs much deeper than what we can readily observe.

Cultural differences such as communication style, customs, standards of dress, and food can be easily observed. However, many of these are indicators of more fundamental differences in attitudes and beliefs, which are not as obvious.

Most international companies with a proven success record in doing business in Russia train international teams in cultural awareness to make them culturally fluent before they start working in Russia. People coming to work in Russia should be aware of the specific business culture and typical cultural behavior well in advance.

Knowledge of the Russian language, or at least a couple of traditional words like spasibo, or thank you, will definitely be a great plus.

Some companies experiment with “culture buddies” as first hand help, local managers who introduce their foreign colleagues to cultural nuances.

Another good way to build trust within international companies is to set up, for example, a Russian-German or Russian-English club in your company to let both expats and Russians learn and discuss cultural differences and languages.

It should be accepted that labor legislation is very straightforward and directive. It is employee-oriented, and this may be upsetting to find out suddenly. In most cases, the Labor Inspectorate takes the employee’s side. The ideal solution is to find a trusted and experienced lawyer who can logically explain the legal differences. Strategic alignment with global policies and due account of local legislation provides a good basis for one’s response plan and for labor risk mitigation.

Another tip for success is to invest in developing local talent. The primary objective of assignees arriving in Russia should be to identify and develop the local successors who possess a high level of cultural adaptability. Working with foreign mentors and with international teams in a structured way should be embedded into your Russian colleagues’ development plans.

Investments should not go only to develop specific skills of individuals but to develop teamwork competencies and to build a team-performing culture.

One example of cultural differences is that local Russian companies have kept investing significant amounts in team building as well as parties to celebrate national holidays, even during the crisis when international companies cut their social budgets.

Build trust with customers and local authorities, and approach customers in the way that is accepted in the country you are in. In most cases, local authorities would prefer to deal with a CEO of Russian nationality.

It often happens that international companies working in Russia underestimate the value and impact of cross-cultural differences. Development of a corporate cultural strategy and developing local teams should be considered the keys to success in building a sustainable business in Russia.