Managing Russian Teams

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A flash of red, a spray of ice, a zigzag of perfect passes, the puck plunges into the back of the CSKA net at the Luzhniki ice-hockey stadium. Meanwhile, at the Bolshoi, the corps de ballet executes a graceful series of pirouettes across the stage in perfect unison. Several time zones to the East, in a cloud of flame and smoke, another Russian-made rocket streams away from the Baikonur launch-pad laden with satellite technologies and the latest space tourist.

Judging by their competitiveness in the arts, sports and sciences, with their military discipline, asceticism and dedication to years of training, Russians' team-work would seem to be a model to be emulated. But the qualities that underlie some of Russia's greatest achievements have escaped business management. Here, the fundamental features that would normally be associated with a successful team -- good communications, trust, collective responsibility, leadership, and a conviction that a team is greater than the sum of its parts and that more can be achieved by working together than by not doing so -- is lacking in Russian business culture.

You can see it everywhere: appointments missed, chaotic planning, mistakes, misjudgments, misunderstandings, rows, tantrums, sulking, finger-pointing, blaming others and above all top-down, short-term, decision-making which leaves companies exposed to the vagaries of the market. At the same time, there is a positive side of this spontaneous and often intuitive approach: pragmatic and creative solutions and rapid results (even if not those desired). Yes, things do somehow often come right in the end, but it's usually by accident, luck or fate, and you certainly can't plan it, or predict the outcome. Such is the contained anarchy lurking below the surface of many business operations in Russia that it would be fair to ask: "Can teams really exist in Russia?"

The answer is of course yes, but team dynamics are quite different from those in developed market cultures, and in particular the Anglo-American tradition. If in multinational corporations, team skills are highly valued and the subject of years of continual training, in Russian companies they need to be created from scratch and are not widely considered part of the array of management processes leading to a more effective organization. If in U.S. corporations, modern management structures have created sets of checks and balances which encourage an open exchange of ideas, promote lateral communications and push decision-making down, in Russian companies, communication is largely vertical, with decision-making towards the top of the pyramid. If the ultimate goal of a business unit in a Western company is to balance the needs of the customer with the expectations of the shareholder, in a Russian company, teams exist to implement the will of the General Director, who in turn, is in place to fulfill every whim and fancy of the "oligarch" -- one of the handful of tycoons in whose hands have been bestowed by a former "tsar" billions of dollars of national assets.

As elsewhere, business culture reflects political culture, and it is not surprising that the distinctive features of Russia history are writ loud and clear on today's management practices. Centuries of top down, autocratic power structure, lack of democratic institutions, and a highly bureaucratized and regulated society have taken their toll on the willingness and ability of the individual to take responsibility, and have replaced this with the art of sycophancy and pokazukha, doing things for show.

Eighty years of Soviet power, exercised by a ruthless secret police, have discouraged open speech and debate, and destroyed individuals' trust in public institutions and, outside the immediate close circle of friends and family, in each other. Decades of forced collectivization have put paid to any true belief in the value of teams. In the 1930s for example, the Stakhanov brigades -- "teams" in the mines which encapsulated the aim of the Party to over-fulfill the Five Year Plan -- were believed in by the people until they were proven to be a lie; and in the 1970s and 1980s, team spirit was finally eradicated when students were bussed to the countryside na kartoshku to gather potatoes or forced to participate in the subbotnik, the annual neighborhood clean-up on Lenin's birthday.