Askhat Urazbaev, Agile Coach, ScrumTrek
|I often meet different Russian and foreign teams in my work. Frequently I am asked if there are any differences in the Russian way of work and the influences on the development.
There is a book about peculiarities of the Russian way of work itself called “The Russian Management Model”, written by A. Prokhorov. The main idea is that Russians by nature can work only in two modes. In a high pressure environment they can move mountains and their motivation is very high. In the stable relaxed mode, when no one pushes, Russians work kind of bad and don’t give themselves over to their work.
The book is great, it really explains many moments in Russian history. Its conclusions are rather one-sided, and they are not quite flattering for the country itself. However, in fact not everything is that bad. Russian specifics are not counterproductive, they give advantages and disadvantages.
One more disclaimer: the real behavior of people is influenced by their established culture in this order: a) team b) organization c) country. There are westernized companies where the influence of Russian cultural codes is not high. In the pure Russian companies, the cultural influence is significant. However, one can really see the difference by simply watching meetings of different cultures. The higher the cultural influence, the more difficult it is to change behaviors.
Escalation of Conflicts
Imagine a colleague on your team made a mistake and you don’t like it, would you go to your manager and report the incident? For those born in the former USSR, the answer is definitely NO! Even if later you are to blame, you have not betrayed a co-worker. This would not occur in Russian culture, yet it is normal in Europe and the USA.
Years ago when I was a Junior Developer, my Russian manager Nicolay asked, “Do you know, that Don (our American Project Manager) is complaining about you?”
I don’t quite remember what I did wrong, but I can’t forget the feeling of being offended by Don. Five minutes prior, we had a normal conversation and there was no indication of any dissatisfaction. I thought we had a friendly relationship and I was seriously offended by Don at the time.
Cultural influences start at an early age. When my eldest son went to kindergarten, I heard the teacher tell one child, who was complaining about being pushed by his mate, “It is not good to tell tales.”
When I told this story to my American colleagues, they stared wide-eyed. In America, teachers clearly forbid children from resolving a conflict directly and insist on kids solving problems with the help of grown-ups.
Russians do not snitch. It is nearly impossible to change it, no western culture can influence it. Even if Russians spend many years in the USA, they maintain their cultural value not to snitch.
What does it lead to? Russians prefer to not disclose their inner problems with an employer and customers. Managers are on their own – Russians are on their own. The less you know, the better you sleep. A kind of Russian «Don’t ask don’t tell».
Russian management is quite often not aware of inner problems. As a result, risks are not spoken. Managers often find out about problems only after it has reached a point when it is too late to influence them.
In 2007 we organized our first open training towards the SCRUM (CSM) in Russia. The training was held by Mike Wisdoz. The exercises were quite interesting.
For example in one exercise, we needed to give feedback to each other. Cases were as such: “A colleague turns on the radio at his workplace and it disturbs you. Ask him to turn it off.”
Mike gave them about 15 minutes and left the room. People managed to do the task in 2-3 minutes and were left twiddling their thumbs. Really, how long can the phrase “turn the radio off, please” take?
I, as an organizer, was asked about what exactly was needed to be done. I answered, “You speak to the colleague directly”. The group replied, “Aha!” This was an exercise to check politeness.
When Mike returned, I asked a question about what the exercise in fact was about.
Mike stated, “People are hesitant to give their feedback and we need it for the success of SCRUM! In this situation, we had a limited amount of time, so they have to say it directly!”
Our Russian team members were definitely not shy, they were straightforward.
Also a part of a Russian culture, is the unwillingness to escalate problems. Russians are used to giving feedback to a colleague a lot more directly and openly. Russians don’t try to engage in conflict as much as their western colleagues.
What does it lead to?
Teammates get to know quickly what others think of their work. In fact, it is quite advantageous and usually leads to better results by “weaker” colleagues.
In the early phase of team building, before everyone makes friends, it is common for Russians to have conflict and buzz, for example, should the AC be on or off. In this phase they freely speak their mind expressing their opinions and in the long run, this type of communication makes the team stronger. Foreign colleagues are generally quieter and friendlier.
Loyalty and Authorities
Once I took a part in an important international gathering of one multinational company. A high ranking manager spoke and described a reasonably bright picture of the future. At the end of his speech, he opened up the floor to a question and answer session. It was interesting to observe the difference of how questions were asked, Europeans basically tried to clarify unclear topics. Even if they disagreed, at first they complimented the speech and only later in a form of some question did they offer a suggestion. Russians were either quiet or started trolling at once. Almost all questions had an underlying tone in order to make a point.
Russians have a suspicious attitude towards authorities. An average Russian engineer will treat authorities with distrust. However, here we can say that Russians take everything with distrust in the world in general. Life has taught Russians to be skeptical.
By the way, I think this is the reason Russians are good engineers. They have a habit of finding out the answer with own brains and not trusting something at face value.
What can be done here? As usual, there are two sides of the coins.
I was approached one time by a gentleman at a conference who introduced himself and started asking questions. His name sounded quite familiar to me. After awhile I remembered we had met before. A CTO I knew fired him as unsuitable for the position. This CTO tried to bring some order into the rotten organization. Out of curiosity, I asked his opinion about the CTO who fired him. I was astonished with the reply. He said that never in his life had he met such an intelligent and competent manager.
How do you earn the respect of a Russian team? The only way is deeds. Russians can draw further conclusions by only one deed. They will look attentively on your deeds and evaluate your character. They will troll and attentively observe your reactions. If you are firm, your deeds are logical, your principles are hard-and-fast, you have a strong belief in success, loyalty of Russians will be high. They will never leave you.
Russian’s juvenile rejection of authority and not a juvenile paranoia lead to one more conclusion: Russians are less loyal to their company.
However, a western colleague is loyal by default. Conversely, many negative actions need to occur before loyalty decrease.
Please, understand me correctly. I do not mean that in other countries people don’t care about deeds of managers. They are very important for all. Just Russians understand only the deeds, thus a motivational speech will not work.
Russians trust people who have proved their superiority. Real leaders are used to make decisions on their own and never meet confrontation.
It can be cool. Yeah, if you lead children for a walk or try to control prisoners in jail.
However, if you develop a difficult project, this way you underuse the potential of your team. The blind trust leads to the brains turn off. There is, let’s say, Peter, who can be asked – so why should I think?
That is why in SCRUM decisions are made by team all together. One needs to gather necessary people and talk it over.
It is quite simple in Scandinavia. For, let’s say Swedish people, consensus is a high cultural code. It is simple and natural.
Russian leaders need to be taught this. I am not saying that it is not possible. It is just a little bit not natural and doesn’t come at once.
That is all.
There are other peculiarities, but they are not important if we talk about management specifics. Sure, one need to keep them in mind, however, based on my experience, I can say they can’t cause any harm. You can easily find them in literature, however I will point on them in the article, just for a full picture.
In one exercise during training someone on the team was given a “difficult and uninteresting” task. There was a young lady in one of the sessions. The men quickly decided that the female could take a break and they would solve everything themselves.
I was translating for the Americans in the training course. They were really shocked. Most of all they were surprised that the female was comfortable with the decision to exclude her from the task. I tried to explain that this is a part of a Russian culture, but it was clear that such a practice is not common in the American culture.
The equality of gender is important in American culture. If you open a door for an American woman, you will offend her. This is not a joke, they really don’t like it.
High Context Culture
There is a common joke:
— What 15?
— And what devices?
This kind of communication is an example of high context. Russians assume that the person they are talking to already has an understanding of the subject. For example, a letter was sent to me from a system administrator with the only word “yes”. What does that mean, yes? I happened to ask him something in the corridor and he promised to have a look.
Americans and some Europeans use a low context, the opposite of Russians. They describe everything in detail and accurately. They expect the same when dealing with Russians.
There are a lot of difficulties. By that, I mean certain usage of words, phrases, and questions.
As an example, your American colleague asks, “Do you know the deadline is Friday?” You reply, “Yes”. And you mean exactly what you said, you know about the deadline.
The American understands the response as an acceptance that the deadline will be met on Friday. I have no idea how do they manage to understand it this way (not obvious for me), but it has happened several times in my career.
What if an American heard this dialogue:
— Do you know the deadline is Friday?
— Will you meet it?
… it would make his head explode!
Non work related topics
It is quite normal for Russians to talk during working hours on non work-related topics. Some Europeans and Americans are shocked.
Once I had a mixed training for Russians and Americans in one company that included American managers and Russian engineers. At 10 a.m. only Americans were in attendance and not a single Russian had arrived. All Russians arrived 15-20 minutes later.
It is common for Russians to arrive a few minutes past the meeting time. In comparison with Italians, it is acceptable, whereas Americans get mad about it.
As you may see there are Russian specifics. Personally I don’t consider it destructive. Yes, it is more difficult to have meetings with trolling. However, you more or less get an idea what people really think of you. And this is a really nice quality. It makes communication more open and effective.
If someone smiles at you it means he is really glad to see you!