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Working With Indians

Cross-cultural communication is tough. The solution? Learn about the customs of your global colleagues.

July 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Global Business Issues, Expatriate Management
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Even before the world learned of the nuclear testing a few weeks ago, India has been at center stage in the consciousness of Corporate America. The largest democracy in existence and home of one-sixth of the world’s population, India is an emerging market. Foreign direct investment by U.S. firms is growing, and the Indian labor pool has become a well-regarded source of technical talent in a time when a shortage of skilled labor has dampened recruiting efforts here in the States.

In fact, record low unemployment rates in the United States have inspired American companies to recruit Indian nationals to fill open positions. And many U.S. firms have relocated technical jobs to India. This may be your experience. Or you may simply be interested in learning what to look for when encountering people from another country. Either way, the Indian culture holds some key lessons.

Wide-ranging diversity.
An unrivaled level of diversity exists in India. As Americans we’re fairly sensitive to this issue. But in India it’s more complicated than here in the States.

First there’s the caste system. With four main groups and thousands of subgroups, the caste system still today dictates whether two people may marry and whom a person should socialize with. Although outlawed by the Indian Constitution, the caste system unofficially may lead to uncooperative behavior in the workplace if you’ve asked two people to work together who don’t view themselves as equals. This factor contributes to the trouble some Indian businesses run into with the American management concept of teamwork. Carolyn Ryffel, trainer with Chicago-based Cendant Intercultural, The Bennett Group, says: “I have been told that in the workplace caste issues can be forgotten, but I’m not sure.”

Geographically, religiously and economically, Indians are subdivided into many social groups. The country has 14 official languages and hundreds of unofficial ones. There’s a sense of association among Indians from either the northern part or southern part of the country. Although the majority of the population practices Hinduism, there are also significant numbers of Muslims and Christians. And add to the list the fact that education is highly valued: A person with more education ranks higher than one with less.

So what can you do knowing this? The important thing is to be aware these differences exist. Then learn as much as possible about your Indian partners and employees. Their place in the social hierarchy will color their approach to foreign people and their customs and habits. And if you and your international assignees know what to expect, it will lessen the chance of miscommunication.

Valuing the family and social relationships.
Ann Ferrante, formerly an international HR professional with New York City-based AT&T, has written her Ph.D. dissertation to answer the question: “Are American management practices transferable and can they be implemented in the Indian work context?” In the process of conducting her research, Ferrante found that Indians have two core social values: 1) a close connection to their families and 2) a high regard for their social relationships and status in society. Ferrante says, “Those are absolutely paramount -- above and beyond work and the meaning of work.” She explains this is important to keep in mind because it has an impact on what motivates your Indian colleagues.

The result? Indians work to support their families and to improve their status economically and socially. They don’t tend to work to fulfill career goals, to meet corporate objectives or for personal recognition. This can render pay-for-performance management strategies ineffective.

Whatever will be, will be.
Perhaps one of the fundamental differences between the Indian and American cultures is our two perspectives on the issue of control. As Americans we have a tendency to believe that we can make anything happen -- including the American dream -- if we work hard enough. We install air conditioners to control temperature. We build dams to control water. We design our own career tracks and manage our progress. We believe we can fix things, solve problems and beat impossible odds.

But Indians have a different outlook. The influence of the Hindu and Muslim religions gives them what some might consider a fatalistic perspective. Ryffel gives an example. If you’re an Indian, “you can commit to a social event -- you can commit to a deadline -- but always in the back of your mind is the thought that it’ll be nice if it happens, but I can’t totally control this.”

The result may be what Americans would see as a lack of initiative when it comes to wrapping up the final details of a project. Ferrante says you may see that your Indian colleagues are eager to dive in and pull together the first 80 percent of a job. But then when it comes to handling the straggling details, they may view them as unpredictable variables not worth worrying about. This outlook can make cultures that tend to drive to closure a bit crazy.

A high-context culture.
Differences in communication styles can be tricky, even when you recognize them. Consider critical feedback. You’ve heard of the sandwich approach? This is the Western way of delivering bad news: first a compliment, then the critical feedback, then another positive statement. Compared to some cultures this is a fairly indirect strategy.

But Indians prefer a far more indirect approach. This means your Indian colleagues are likely to deliver criticism in a form too subtle for Americans to notice. And in the case of a serious matter, they may involve a third party in order to protect the relationship between the giver and receiver. Not surprisingly, delivering criticism is likely to be a more lengthy process than your expats are used to.

Overall these differences may sound exaggerated if you have experience working with Indians who have been educated in one of India’s business schools where Western management practices are part of the curriculum. But it’s likely that even then you’ll observe signs of cultural variances.

And remember: Americans derive a good deal of their self-identity from their jobs. So the last thing you want to do is send a team of American assignees planning to be successful with the same programs that won them praise in the States. It could demotivate everyone involved. Setting expectations through cross-cultural training -- on both sides of the ocean -- will ensure positive results.

Global Workforce, July 1998, Vol. 3, No. 4, pp.10-11.

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