RUSSIA: HOW TO HANDLE THE RUSSIAN BEAR. - Though Russia is a society in transition its approach to business is largely the same. How do you deal with it? Focus on the person, be firm and, if you can, have a drink.

by Richard D Lewis.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Though Russia is a society in transition its approach to business is largely the same. How do you deal with it? Focus on the person, be firm and, if you can, have a drink.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union brought to an end a vast, bewildering cultural kaleidoscope: an amalgam of republics, territories, races, religions and credos that made up the world's largest political union. Its demise, however, draws our attention to a phenomenon more simple yet unquestionably rich per se - the culture of Russia itself.

It's only too easy to lump Soviet ideology and the Russian character together, since through 70 years of strife and evolution one lived with the other. But the two chief factors in the formation of Russian values and beliefs were above any governmental control: the vastness of the land and the harshness of the climate. The boundless, often indefensible, steppes bred a deep sense of remoteness and vulnerability which led groups to band together and develop a hostility to outsiders. The influence of climate was especially severe on the Russian peasant, who was forced virtually to hibernate for long periods and then struggle frantically to till, sow and harvest in the little time left. Today this uneven tempo can still be detected in Russian patterns of working, even in industrialised areas. If the state is held to have had any effect on character, it is through centuries of oppressive, cynical governance; secrecy, suspicion, apparent passivity, an openness to petty corruption and disrespect for edicts might be added to the traditional Russian traits of pessimism and stoicism in adversity.

But how do the Russians see the rest of us and, more importantly, how do they deal? Though theirs is clearly a society in transition, certain of its features reflect the style of the command economy which shaped the approach to business over several decades. Russian negotiating characteristics, therefore, not only exhibit the peasant traits of caution, tenacity and reticence but indicate a depth of experience born of thorough training and shrewd organisation.

Russian negotiating teams are often composed of veterans or experts and are consequently highly experienced. They maintain discipline in a meeting and speak with one voice. When Americans or Italians speak with several voices, the Russians become confused about who has the real authority. The other side is often asked to speak first so that the Russian side may reflect on the stated position. When it is their turn it is common to present a draft outlining their objectives. This, remember, is only their starting position and far from what they expect to achieve. Doubtless it will contain several 'throwaways' - points of little importance which they can concede freely without damaging their own position. When they do give ground it will only be in return for concessions - they often make minor ones and ask for major ones in return.

It's perhaps inevitable that Russians are suspicious of anything that is conceded easily - in the Soviet Union everything was fraught with complexity. When concession is out of the question their preferred tactic is to show patience and 'sit it out'; willingness to compromise is seen as a sign of weakness. Such a stance will only be abandoned if the other side shows great firmness. The general tendency is to push forward vigorously as the other side appears to retreat, and pull back when meeting stiff resistance. They negotiate as they play chess and plan several moves ahead - opponents are advised to consider carefully the consequences of each move.

Delivery style is often theatrical and emotional. Like Americans, they can use 'tough talk' if they think they're in a strong position. When eventually an agreement is reached, the approach tends to be conceptual and all-embracing, unlike the US or German step-by-step settlement. This can lead to difficulties later when working out details and actually implementing the agreement.

Bear in mind at all times that the Russians are primarily people-oriented, rather than deal-oriented. Try to make them like you; focus on the person rather than facts and figures concerning the business. If you succeed they'll conspire with you to beat 'the system'.

Finally, it helps to drink with them between meetings - one of the easiest and surest ways to build bridges, and a skill at which the Finns are particularly adept. The latter, past victims of Russian expansionism, readily acknowledge the essential warmth and friendliness of the individual Russian. It's ironic, given the years of Cold War hostility, that even Americans find a good deal of common ground with them. Rough Russian hospitality can often feel like the Wild West's. Not surprising, perhaps - the Russians, like the Americans, tried to tame a continent.

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