Posted on June 16, 2012 · Posted in Team Management

I was looking for something witty to start an article about the culture of teamwork in Russia the other day. Search was becoming a near disappointment when I landed on this:”Americans do one thing at a time. They value short-term relationships and take deadlines seriously. Russians do a variety of things at one time, they value long term relationships, and they are flexible about appointments.”

I agree with this wholeheartedly. In a nutshell, it expresses the distinction very precisely. It is easy to understand that success of a project depends on the people who work on it. Without doubt, an effective, well organized and motivated team can produce outstanding results. Often it is not the case, though. Working as a team is not so easy as one can imagine. Team is a collection of ‘people’ with diverse and conflicting interests bound only by a common objective of achieving project goals. There are a lot of different factors that influence project outcome due to team dynamics. Creating the right team and managing the team until the project sees the daybreak are extremely challenging to even the most experienced of the project managers.

Culture determines many things in our lives. It is not just the way we eat, dress, speak, think or behave, I feel culture influences the way we are born and die and what happens after death too … ! Project management is no exception. There is always some distinctive trait of the kind and nature of relationship in a team which can only be explained in terms of the culture of the team members. Culture also shapes the attitude to work. Business as a whole reflects the cultural identity of a nation.
Let’s try to understand what role enigmatic Russian mentality plays in teamwork and managing projects in Russia.

Are Russians good team workers ?
If the Russian family too is considered as teamwork, the answer is a definite yes. But, how do they do in a more formal business setting? The opinion is divided widely about the ability of Russian people to work as a team. One could persist that Russians are the most hardworking, resourceful and enthusiastic team players. However, others might as well describe them as badly organized, poorly disciplined passive workers in teams. It sounds strange but both point of views are not without some truth.

“ Don’ t have 100 Roubles but have 100 friends.”
Russians like to interpret the saying as, ‘if you have 100 friends you will have 100 Roubles’. In general, in Russian business culture and teamwork, personal relations play a major role. If it is possible to create a friendly and warm atmosphere in a project team, the efficiency of work will greatly be enhanced. We can put all hands on deck and get excellent results or with strength, overcome difficult situations.

These difficult situations are well worth a separate discussion.
Russians are great warriors and this spirit lives in us. History taught us to be strong enough to survive difficult and harsh circumstances. Paradoxically, these harsh and difficult circumstances are our own creations. Funnily, we try to create problems on our own and try to solve them.

Saying goes that “before thunder strikes, a Russian will never cross”. We are used to living in a reactive way. Most people never plan long term because it is useless in a country where everything can change overnight. This style of life affects teamwork greatly. If it seems that there is enough time before deadline people don’t hurry. Bismarck used to say “Russians harness slowly but drive fast”. In some extreme cases, we harness slowly and never drive..

One more weak side of Russian teams is their preference for informal communication in smoking (or tea) rooms. Russian people read a lot, have very wide interests regardless of their ranks or positions. Easily you can find a situation when housekeeper has a better knowledge in literature and art than the top manager of a big company or a university professor. People like to share their knowledge and interests with others. This tradition negatively affects project work, still it is very difficult to avoid totally.

Russians have a very high intellectual potential. Russians made many discoveries and inventions. But, unfortunately, the most of them are not huge commercial successes. I remember one university professor who spent his time and energy to invent a bicycle for horses. His invention was based on the fact that a horse sleeps standing and marching in the place in a dream. If it is made to press the pedals of special bicycle in that march, it will generate electricity.

So fortunately, Russians team workers will give a lot of good ideas for a project. Managing them wisely to produce effective results is the challenge.

The manager of a project is a critical factor in any team effort. Usually team workers have high expectation from the manager. You can hear a lot of stories about below average bosses, bad government creating project anarchy in which there is no effective leader. It is not uncommon in our tradition to overthrow the Tsar and then to lament that he was good. So, the role of project manager is very difficult. He needs to prove that he is right for leadership. But, he needs to be an effective team player at the same time (be very close to the team without being part of it).

Most Russians think that foreigners know about Russians only two things – bears walking on the roads and Russian vodka. Even it is true, I am sure, if foreigner came here they would prefer bears to Russian road policemen.

Nevertheless, a lot of foreign people work in Russian projects in positions of managers and technicians. Every time it is better to know a little about “aboriginal” features of the place where you are going to work and live. The most important thing to keep in mind is that Russia is a country with a very special way for everything. Who do not believe it, welcome to Russia’s roads ……. !

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