Western Organizations and Russian Staff:
What Are the Cultural Implications?
Donna J. Duss
Based on a briefing convened by the Christian Resource Center, Moscow, 9 June 1993. For the full paper, contact: Christian Resource Center, Box 115, 117311 Moscow, Russia; tel/fax: 7095-939-0641; fax: 7095-437-6296 or 7503-956-5022.
It is critical that we regularly articulate the mission of our business to our staff. Lack of cooperation after the honeymoon stage is often traced to lack of clear understanding of the mission or inability of the staff to "buy into" it. Having discussed your organization's mission at the initial interview does not mean it is fully understood. Having a written mission statement as part of the personnel policies and procedures manual provides an objective point of departure.
Job Description/Performance Evaluation
Where appropriate, job descriptions and evaluations should have built-in time frames. That things rarely happen here on schedule is no reason to neglect setting realistic performance schedules. The Russian employee will require support in learning to anticipate. Who here hasn't experienced a head-on crash with a deadline only to find that an important detail delegated to a staff member is missing? My experience with Russian staff is that initially many are offended by having to commit instructions to writing.
Some of you who are with small organizations may be thinking, "Yes, but we're more like a family. Our work responsibilities are more fluid. We don't need job descriptions." To that I say, don't make a commonly made mistake! Unless job descriptions are in place early on, you might soon find yourself dealing with rumblings from national staff, such as: "That was never my job." This kind of subsurface dissatisfaction can ruin staff morale.
The Strong Hand
In the West we generally value participatory management and the outcome and process. Don't be surprised when Russian staff prefer to simply be told what to do. Some don't understand why we waste so much time in meetings. In our setting we have tried a management team approach to operating the clinic with such marginal results that several Westerners are more convinced than ever that we will move more effectively when our new director arrives with a strong hand.
Lines of Authority
Even if you have only three or four persons, it must be clear who answers to whom. If the lines of authority run to two, this must be clear. Some businesses err in not stipulating who supervises the driver. Someone better have this responsibility or he'll never be available when you need him.
Time is Money
One Westerner I know had an experience early on of teaching a staff this concept when they had to decide between taking a taxi and the metro back to the office. A taxi would take about 15 minutes; the metro, an hour and 15 minutes. Much work remained at the office. Of course, the taxi was much more expensive, the equivalent of about 50 U.S. cents, and the metro was less than a penny. Time was better spent at the office than saving money--and losing one hour--riding the metro.
Accountability to owners/supporters is one face of this concept. When the sponsors or owners of an organization are not present, it is more difficult to instill this sense of accountability. Each assignment must designate personal responsibility and have a deadline attached. Be specific!
A comprehensive understanding of motivation has to include a clear understanding of consequences if the employee cannot be motivated to perform as expected in spite of numerous attempts to motivate. Experience shows that employees must know from the start that where mission and capacity are an absolute mismatch and no amount of remediation can bring them into line, termination is a logical outcome. This is a manifestation of accountability.
Compensation and Confidentiality
If you pay your national staff based on competence and merit, it can be expected that in a year or two some will be paid more than others. Because Russians discuss salaries freely among themselves, sooner or later, jealousy, envy, and resentment will develop against co-workers and against you, the Westerners, who are responsible for deciding salary levels.
This problem can be avoided in two ways:
Donna J. Duss has worked for the American Medical Center, Moscow, since September 1991, most recently as director of nursing. The Center employs a staff of about 60, more than 40 of whom are Russian nationals.
My opinion is that "Western Organizations and Russian Staff" is a rather simplistic look at complicated issues and does not reflect the complexities of intercultural relationships. To say that a person should practice salary confidentiality and be fired immediately for comparing salaries is too harsh. Everybody in Russia is accustomed to receiving predictable salaries. I understand that you have a different system in the West, but before imposing such a system, you must prove your way is better. As a people, we have no background in Western management, no sense of property. Low standards of pay actually served to unite us. If you take the tone of "do this or else you will be fired immediately," your Russian workers--even the good ones--will be offended. You must explain why. This approach is very difficult for Russians to understand.
When it comes to implementing Western business standards, it is important to realize that how to do this depends on which company we are talking about. If this is clearly a Western profit-making organization, such recommendations are workable in Russian offices or Western offices. But so-called Western organizations established officially within the country as Russian organizations, or Russian-American offices, are perceived differently. Their salary structures are more like Russian standards of pay. If an organization is Russian, people are accustomed to receiving low salaries. In such a situation, low levels of performance are not only accepted, they are expected. This is a basic economic truth and it is the reason for a low level of performance in the Russian economy.
Western standards should only be applied absolutely to Western organizations. In Western, and in blended Russian-American organizations, Westerners pay at Russian salary levels, but they ask for a much greater level of performance. To the Russian this is not fair and the worker feels it. This may create negative attitudes toward Western demands.
This issue is of particular importance in new Christian organizations. Unfortunately, in some cases, national Christians in my country are spoiled by Westerners who see them as heroes and very good people. They, in turn, view Westerners as sources of support and not as strict managers. This is a big problem, especially with new converts who hear so much talk of Christian love and humanity. They imagine relations in the workplace that allow them certain customary freedoms. When they are faced with confrontation, this could destroy relations during this transitional period in our culture.
Too often hiring decisions are made based on whether or not a person is a Christian. Perhaps a worker is a Christian, but does not have the professional skills required for a job. In such a situation, it may be better to hire an unbeliever with the necessary skills.
I think the idea of a job description is good. But in Russian organizations, at this time when social, urban, and economic infrastructures are in chaos, it is very difficult to ensure performance. Currently in the former Soviet Union, it is difficult for work to be predictable enough to make a job description practical. Managers and employees may agree on job descriptions, but if things change and responsibilities shift, the worker may go to the job description and express a willingness to do only those tasks listed in the formal description, thus limiting the flexibility of the organization.
I believe a better approach would be to develop a team spirit among Russian staff. Western people have told me that such an approach will not work in Russia, but I have seen it work very well. It is important to involve Russians in the work so that they feel a part of the team. For Christian organizations a team approach is very important. For example, every Monday morning in our Association of Christians in Business, we have a prayer meeting and a brief Bible study. We review plans and overall accomplishments. However, individual performance usually is reviewed in private, face to face, not in front of other workers. These are only a few, tentative suggestions for blending Russian and Western work ethics.
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© 1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies