While on a consulting assignment in Moscow, I found a commonality between large Russian corporations and large bureaucracies. It is a sense of disempowerment and low self-esteem. People do not think they can make change happen. There is a certain attitude of “tell us what to do and then leave us alone.” There is little effort among the employees and even top managers for taking their destiny in their own hands. They expect their bosses to make the decisions.

I have had a series of experiences that exemplify this “complacent attitude” in Russian culture.

I reported the first experience in an earlier blog, in a different context. Let me repeat it here:

Lecturing in Kiev to top executives a few years ago, I accidentally turned the overhead transparency sideways, which meant that everyone in the audience had to hold their heads ninety degrees sideways to read what I was writing.

No one said a word. No one pointed out to me that it was difficult to read at that angle.

Some time later, I deliberately repeated this “mistake” with an audience in Moscow. And two weeks ago, I staged the same experiment at a lecture to 200 Chinese executives in Shanghai. In Shanghai, it took only a few seconds for someone to point out to me that my transparency was positioned awkwardly. In Russia there was silence.

Second experience:

Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow. I waited for more than an hour to pass through immigration on my way into the country. Silence. Nobody in line looked even mildly irritated. They suffered quietly.

Same airport going out: The line for security was at least a hundred yards long. That is not unusual; I’ve seen longer lines in the United States. What was different was that people were cutting into the line, totally oblivious of those they were cutting in front of. And it was not just one or two who were doing it. Many, many people were cutting into the line. But no one called them out on it. There was silence.

Third experience:

Sheremetyevo Airport again. Moscow was having the worst heat wave in recent history. There was no air conditioning, or if there was I could not detect it. I was looking for the business class lounge. I had been walking all over the airport, climbing and descending stairs. There was no sign of the lounge anywhere. I kept asking airport employees, who kept giving me vague directions. Finally I found it.

I complained about the lack of signage to the woman at the customer service desk and now here is the crux of the Russian problem: She was surprised, even somewhat annoyed, that I complained.

I attribute this behavior to the fact that for generations, during the Communist era and even before that, Russia had been run dictatorially. People had little control over their lives. They became complacent and used to being told what to do. In a working environment their behavior can be attributed to fear. I was told that employees, including high-level managers, have few, if any rights and can be dismissed in a heartbeat. People need their jobs, and they have no faith that they have any power over their lives, so they bow their heads and surrender. They make no waves.

There are some manifestations, especially on the 31st of each month, by people congregating on one of the main squares in Moscow, requesting the right to assemble. The police are always in full force to break the rally. The government does not permit the people to show any signs of having rights to challenge authority.

This brings me to President Dmitri Medvedev’s priority of modernizing Russia.

He has appointed a Presidential Commission on Modernization and Technological Development to promote efforts to reduce corruption; decrease government involvement in the economy; and increase competition. In light of the previous observations, I believe these initiatives are interesting, but insufficient in creating a competitive environment.

Medvedev will not have a competitive market economy until the market, the consumers, and the clients believe they have rights and are assertive about that fact.

The above description of surrendering to being badly treated as a client is not conducive for a competitive economy. An economy does not become competitive just because the government stops meddling in the market or starts to pour money into new business investments. There must also be a culture in which customers expect to be treated well and will move on to another supplier if they are not. Businesses must develop an attitude of paying attention to their customers and trying to please them.

This culture does not exist in Russia. There is no market orientation.

The clients do not demand it. The suppliers don’t provide it.

It appears that one cannot have a politically dictatorial system with a competitive economy. Not easily, anyway. Assertive people are assertive in all spheres of their life.

In some cultures it might work. Singapore has a very centralized political power structure and nevertheless a competitive economy. China has it too. It seems that they can do it because the Chinese culture is different from Russian culture. The Russian culture emphasizes yielding and not challenging authority that makes the combination of centralized political power with market economy more difficult.


Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes