Russians Negotiate!? Surprising Lessons in Culture Clash

“Get off the bloody train, you filthy animals!”, the subway cop screamed at us. Except I couldn’t understand her. It was Russian and I was on the Moscow subway. 

Komsomolskaya Subway Station

The train had just glided to a stop at Komsomolskaya station, the lights had flashed a couple times and then the doors remained open. Most of the passengers got off right away, but a number of us remained, unsure if the train was going to continue. 

That’s when she burst into the door… 

The matron of subterranean order, barely contained in her straining uniform and with a scowl on her face that meant business. Her job, apparently, was to clear the train of all the loitering scumbags that were preventing it from going to the maintenance shop. And she took it seriously.

I expected the tattooed, shaven skinhead across from us to tear into her, but he, like us and the businessman a few seats down, simply got up and meekly shuffled off the train.

By this point, I had been in Russia for a week, working with my colleague Elena, so I was already somewhat inured to the cultural grenades regularly being tossed my way. Once off the train, she translated the whole encounter for me. I asked, “Would what just happened be considered more normal or more abnormal?” She thought for a moment and replied, “More on the normal side.”

Having already experienced Russian officialdom a couple times, I was not too surprised by this. What truly shocked me was the acquiescent way in which everyone reacted; obediently getting off the train with nothing more than small protests murmured under their breath. What was considered normal here would have, back home, resulted in the cop being suspended or reprimanded and possibly sent for psychological evaluation. There would have been a lot more push back from the passengers, and it might have even made the evening news. 

Being a consultant that helps clients leverage the diversity in their workforces, I like to consider myself to be pretty up to speed on the issues people face when cultures clash. But this served to bring it back from the theoretical to the visceral. There’s nothing like being on the receiving end to engender empathy for those facing the challenges of adapting to a new culture.

I was here on Elena’s invitation so we could share expertise and evaluate the possibilities for expanding our business in Russia. In what amounted to a crash course in Russian interaction, she introduced me to her friends, colleagues and clients and invited me to observe two of her workshops. She is best known for her consulting and training in negotiation and I was not disappointed.

While I was observing one of her negotiation workshops, I updated my Facebook status as “In Russia observing a colleague conduct a negotiation workshop.” One of my Canadian colleagues quickly commented, “Russians negotiate…who knew?” This quickly became a joke in the workshop and they got a good laugh at the stereotypes that the world has of Russia. If I learned one thing in Russia, it’s that depending on the moment, the stereotypes can be spot-on or wildly inaccurate.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I learned:

  • To us westerners, Russians can seem a bit gruff. But once you get beyond the gruffness, they are warm and helpful. One evening when trying to get the last train home after visiting a friend, we were standing at a crosswalk next to a black-clad, tattooed and tough-looking yet beautiful woman. We asked her the quickest way to the train station. She took it upon herself to walk us for 15 minutes through neighbourhood shortcuts, apartment blocks and alleys directly to the train station. Then when we bought our tickets, the elderly ticket seller scolded us “irresponsible youngsters” for being out so late and almost missing the last train.
  • Bolshoi guys hamming it up

    Russians who don’t know each other generally do not smile, nod, or make eye contact in public areas. Doing so could be misinterpreted as a threat. But then again, as we were wandering past the Bolshoi Ballet rehearsal hall, I spotted two performers standing by one of the windows and when I pointed my camera in their direction, they quickly hammed it up.

  • If you do meet someone and get past the initial aloofness, friendships are fast and firm. In no time, you may find yourself being invited to go sailing on a lake just north of the city, or in a new friend’s apartment drinking fine scotch and cradling his assault rifle.

    Sailing Near Moscow                          Kalashnikov Love
  • It’s a dog-eat-dog world in Russia and faced with adversity, Russians depend on their “in group” of family, friends and even neighbours. Relationships are vital in negotiations, making contacts and getting ahead. This is reflected by their low individualism (IDV) score on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. Western business people would do well to put relatively more effort into creating good relationships and less into honing the “pitch”.
  • Russians have a strong deference to authority. In Hofstede’s dimensions, at 93/100 they have one of the highest “power distance” (PDI) scores in the world. Business and society are very hierarchical and social mobility is restricted. People obey orders. This may go a long way towards explaining the reactions people had to the subway cop.
  • People are uncomfortable with change and create structures in their lives to mitigate the effects of change. In Hofstede’s analysis, at 95/100 they have one of the highest resistances to change (UAI). Stability, predictability, and continuity is valued. A client of mine experienced this when he was managing the rebuilding of an oil platform on the Pacific coast of Russia. The Russians refused to start until they had all the materials stockpiled. They wanted no surprises or changes and were very uncomfortable with the concepts of just-in-time materials delivery and engineering drawings being created and delivered to them just as the construction progressed.
  • The maelstrom of change that has continued since the collapse of communism has created winners and losers. Many who have been able to turn the wreckage of the Soviet Union to their advantage have become fabulously wealthy. Others (mainly the elderly) who worked hard their whole lives looking forward to state-supported retirement have been left destitute. And between them lies the middle class, working poor, the illegal foreign workers, the professionals and everyone else just trying to make a go of it in this fluid environment.
  • Russia is the new Wild West. Rules are loose, retribution is swift and power is tenuous. In my short time there I met two business people that had brushed up against the turf of their competitors. One had been beaten up more than once, the other had lost his business partner to the competition. Not “lost” in the head-hunted kind of way. Lost in “the competitors killed his business partner” kind of way. Different rules apply…
  • Local neighbourhood war memorial

    Dostoyevsky characterized it well when he said, “The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.” And suffer they have. In WWII, known as the “Great Patriotic War” in Russia, their war-related deaths of 25,000,000 people casts a shadow over the losses of the rest of the allies combined. More than once, a Russian reminded me of my German heritage and related it to the Great Patriotic War. And it didn’t end there. After the war, Stalin’s brutal regime killed millions more. Suffice to say, Russians are no strangers to suffering. The final scene in the 1965 movie adaptation of Dr. Zhivago sums it up nicely. After terrible trials and tribulations, the doctor sees the love of his life on the street and, in his attempt to catch up to her and talk to her, dies of a heart attack. This doesn’t sit well with our North American need for a happy ending, but it suits Russians just fine. In fact, they would likely scoff at a typical Hollywood ending.

  • The Russian sense of humour can sometimes seem a bit dark. Thankfully my German heritage prepared me somewhat for this. They will try to push your buttons to see how you react. If you roll with the punches, you’re golden. If not, they may lose respect for you. For instance, a Russian may jokingly say, “Once the deal is signed, we’ll need to figure out how to get rid of you.” The wrong response would be to look worried and confused. The right response might be something like, “But then you’d have to deal with my mother.”
  • Police officer gently deals with elderly panhandler.

    Russia will constantly surprise you. Just when you’ve formed an opinion about something, you’ll encounter something that contradicts it. After witnessing a couple of encounters, I had already formed an opinion on the intransigence and impoliteness of the Russian police. This was deftly countered by a Russian police officer who was politely and gently getting a poor elderly woman who was selling her wares to move from in front of a tourist attraction. And if that isn’t enough to break your Russian Police stereotype, check out this YouTube video of the Russian Police Choir doing a cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”.

  • Bling in front of Soviet era monument

    People like to dress well and appear affluent. “Bling” is seen regularly. Brand names and designer labels are popular. The pendulum has swung from communist austerity to capitalist aspiration. On one occasion, we were visiting the All Russian Exhibition Center, the monumental Soviet-era park celebrating all things communist. In the middle of the park, in front of the grand pavilion dedicated to the heroic exploits of the Soviet aerospace industry, there was a fellow squatting beside a Ferrari selling the opportunity to have yourself photographed next to this, one of the prime symbols of capitalist excess, for 100 rubles. Hear that sound? That’s the sound of Lenin turning over in his grave.

  • Moscow city

    Moscow is Russia’s center of gravity and is, by far, the largest city, with an urban area population around 17 million. Most of the money, power and influence resides in Moscow. Most corporations want their head offices in Moscow so they can be close to where the decisions are being made. People from all over Russia and the former Soviet republics are migrating to Moscow for jobs and opportunities. It is bursting at the seams. Second only to Seoul, Moscow’s amazing metro system carries 9 million passengers on the average weekday. Public transit is outstanding. And because extensive roadways were not developed during the relatively car-less communist era, the ballooning automobile ownership rates are creating traffic chaos. In Russia, Moscow is where things are happening.

Russia, and Moscow in particular, is a place in the midst of sweeping change. As a result, traditions, cultural norms, the business landscape and the economy are in flux. For those who are swift and open to taking some risk, it is a place of great opportunity. It is an exciting, confounding and challenging place to do business. And I can’t wait to go back!    

As the world’s workforce becomes more internationally integrated, especially at the professional level, it is becoming ever more critical to make the most of the cultural diversity in your team. Spending some time in an unfamiliar culture is a great way to gain some cultural humility as well as empathy for the diverse viewpoints stemming from the cultural mix within your own organization. 

The talents in typical work teams are woefully underutilized and within multi-cultural teams even more so. Anything you can do to tap into this rich vein of results is effort well spent.

If you’d like some insights and guidance in this pursuit, I’d be happy to help. Please contact me.

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 And, of course, if you’d like to know more about how I can help you achieve amazing results through team and leadership development, facilitation and coaching, don’t be shy. Just contact me and we can see if there’s a fit. 

Trent Schumann is a sought-after organizational success facilitator, trainer, and coach. Since 1992 he’s helped 100s of leaders and teams create outstanding results and avoid the risks of team dysfunction. He specializes in helping technical, multi-stakeholder project teams working on critical timelines to avoid delays, cost overruns and conflicts arising from poor team alignment and collaboration.

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