While some observers say Russian organisational structure still carries the weight of the Soviet era, evidence of a more liberal and inclusive style has emerged in recent years, particularly among new businesses. The country’s post-Soviet move towards capitalism means that Russia now has many more entrepreneurs, with a vast number of new and progressive business ventures sprouting up at a terrific rate. However, on the whole, businesses in Russia remain strictly hierarchical. Expats used to a more consensual style will find that the majority of economic and political power is in the hands of a few individuals, with a central powerful figure and a small group of trusted advisors. When engaging in negotiations with Russian businesses, it is important to approach the most senior person if you wish to move a deal along quickly.
Management styles in Russia are generally dependent on the seniority and age of managers. Those brought up in the Soviet era tend to have a more autocratic style, issuing direct orders to subordinates with very little debate. Younger, post-Soviet managers have adopted a more westernised style, allowing for more consensus and networking within a team. However, in general, Russian managers take on an authoritarian role, with major decisions being made by the most powerful people in the company. Managers are expected to manage in Russia, giving precise and detailed instructions to subordinates. Inclusive or ‘caring’ management styles are often viewed as weak within Russian workplace culture.
Russian business culture is highly structured and formal. Titles are always used between associates who don’t know each other well so it’s a good idea to introduce yourself with your title (in your own language is fine) and surname. Russians rarely use humour or informal chitchat in a business setting. Cracking jokes with new colleagues may make you seem untrustworthy, especially if you are discussing important matters.
Harmonious relationships between workers are highly prized in Russian companies. Teams are expected to work closely together under the authority of the manager. There remains a suspicion of outsiders in Russian society, so coworkers will often have known each other and worked together for many years. Moving from role to role within different teams would be unusual - once a group of people have worked successfully on a project, they tend to stick together on future projects.
Getting to know your Russian counterparts as best you can is key to forging new business and working relationships. Russians prefer to do business face-to-face and communication is expected to be calm and respectful. Listening intently and taking time to silently mull things over is a prominent feature of Russian culture, so don’t be put off if you are met with a wall of silence once you have finished speaking – it is most likely that people are just processing the information.
Dressing smartly is a sign of wealth and power in Russia. Men will usually wear a smart suit, shirt and tie and women a business suit (either trousers or skirt) with a blouse or shirt. Dressing expensively will give you more credibility in a Russian business setting. Sloppy or casual clothing would be frowned upon and mark you out as a person of little influence. Also bear in mind that Russian winters can be exceptionally cold, so make sure you have a warm overcoat, hat and gloves.
A firm handshake is the accepted business greeting in Russia, for both men and women, along with a greeting for the appropriate time of day dobraye utra (good morning), dobryy den (good afternoon) or dobryy vecher (good evening). A man and a woman may give three kisses on the cheek, alternating sides, if they know each other well.
Russians are very punctual and expect their foreign counterparts to be on time to meetings - turning up late is reserved for the very high powered. Meetings will always start on time, regardless if key figures have arrived or not. If you are going to be late, it is best to phone ahead to let your new colleagues know.
Meetings in Russia tend to be focused on the dissemination of information, rather than being forums for discussion. Meetings are highly structured and serious, with the most senior person setting the agenda. Overt disagreement or informal behavior would be construed as showing a lack of respect. Russians are skilled negotiators and equate compromise with weakness. So expect lengthy (sometimes theatrical) meetings where your propositions will be analysed and sufficiently ground down before coming to an agreement.
Although Russians have a reputation for being formal and serious, they are also very welcoming and hospitable, so it would be considered exceedingly rude to turn down the offer of a drink or meal during business meetings. Any attempt to discuss or criticise past and present political issues in Russia would also be frowned upon - Russians are fiercely loyal to their country so it’s a good idea to bear this in mind, especially in social situations.
Most business is conducted in Russian. Levels of English vary greatly, with younger Russians in the cosmopolitan centres of Moscow and Saint Petersburg being more proficient. Russians are used to having interpreters present at international business meetings so if your Russian language skills are limited, it’s a good idea to call ahead and arrange for an interpreter to attend.