Cultural Differences in Multinational Teams – An Indian perspective

Difference without discrimination

Much has been written about cultural difference in multinational teams and how it tends to become a source of strife rather than synergy. Geert Hofstede’s seminal work ‘Cultures Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values’, is a good source of basic information, though it is more a documentation of his observations rather than an analysis into the why’s and what-to-do-about-it’s and also does not really deal with eastern cultures. Edward Said’s book, ‘Orientalism’ is another viewpoint.

One can hardly argue with the fact that the tendency always seems to be to see cultural difference from the perspective of the West with the implicit message that the change needs to be done at the other end.   The Western way is seen as ‘good’, even ‘the best’ and the ‘other’ by inference, as ‘bad’ and so must change. Much less effort is made to understand why people from other cultures behave differently and what we can do to help them behave in ways that are functional in this (Western/American) culture. Even less about what may be the good things about that culture that we can incorporate into our own value system.

Though this is also a reflection of the tendency of a dominant culture to enforce its rules on others, and therefore something that all cultures have done historically, if one is to learn from the mistakes of the past, it would be well to see what could perhaps be a different approach from merely being dominant. In today’s world of fast shrinking boundaries and interdependence (albeit sometimes unwilling) for technical expertise, it is a very shortsighted approach to expect everyone to fall in line. At best it wastes a lot of useful energy in coping behavior and at worst can result in a breakdown of relationships and lawsuits to boot. The IT industry in particular, is a case in point, where the differences between Indian (sub-continent) European and American cultures have often resulted in problems between the offshore ESP’s and the principal client based in Europe or America.

In a recent article titled “Offshore Programming: What Cultural Differences Exist? R. Terdiman” states many of the commonly held beliefs in America about the Indian culture. Using his observations, I have tried to look behind what the observer sees to what the underlying causes may be. My hope is that this will initiate both a desire to reflect and a desire to know more on the part of both the expat and the Indian and lead to better cross-cultural communication and friendship.

This article is addressed to managers and team members working on cross cultural project teams based in both America and India. The purpose of this article is to present an ‘insider’s’ viewpoint, from my own position of having first-hand knowledge of both sides of the picture. I hope that it will result in better understanding and appreciation of both cultures and a resultant dealing with the issues that arise on account of the differences in perception and values. For this to make a difference to the reader one needs to read it with a willingness to examine one’s own beliefs and values and to be prepared to look at and recognize stereotypes in one’s perception and be willing to change them. I teach many of these things in my course, “Leading Multinational Teams” and this article conceptualizes the experiences with many different participants and clients in this work.

It is important to remember that behavior reflects beliefs and values and can’t be changed without first changing what we have been conditioned to believe. It is often this unwillingness to spend the time and effort and to undergo the ‘pain’ of reflection and facing oneself, that results in superficial ‘training’ programs aimed at changing behavior by providing quick-fix solutions. The enormous investment (6 billion in 1998 in the USA alone) in all kinds of training with an average retention of 20%, is a case in point for the need to look rather more deeply at the real issues that training is expected to address and ensure that the required time and methodology is not sacrificed in the need to meet the numbers.

Some of the commonly held views in the west about areas of misunderstanding:

Deference to authority

“Indian culture tends to instill deference to authority (e.g., personnel often will not disagree or contradict superiors, particularly in front of others, and will say what they think their superior wants to hear, not necessarily what is happening). Indian culture may indicate that deference is polite and respectful, especially for junior and younger employees. The culture tends to instill a desire for closer supervision and explicit instructions; it is often considered better to wait and do nothing, rather than do the wrong thing”.

If one were to treat the above as a random snapshot, this may well be what the ‘stranger’ to the Indian culture and business environment may see. The “Reality” from an Indian perspective is somewhat different.

In the Indian business culture three factors operate:

  1. ‘Management’ is often by the actual ‘owners’ of the business and so decisions are often based on ‘internal’ reasons, that employees (who are not ‘Family’ members) are often not privy to. This leads to a situation where employees often don’t take the initiative in decision-making, not because they don’t want to or are not capable of doing so, but because they have learnt from experience that the final decision has to necessarily come from the top and so don’t want to waste their time. To read more about this, please read my book, “The Business of Family Business.”
  2. Social factors tend to play a much bigger part in the careers of individuals and so most people develop a very acute political sense of what is the ‘right’ thing to do or say. This political ability is necessary for survival in Indian organizations and most successful Indian managers will have developed it at an early stage in their careers. This does not mean that they are insincere or hypocritical. It just means that they are not stupid and will wait to see that it is safe before they take the risk of disagreeing with the source of power. Wise American managers do the same.
  3. In India, the job and the company play a much wider role in society than in the West and are a very big part of a person’s personal prestige and sense of well-being. This also restricts the number of choices for a person who loses a job and added to the smaller economy and the fact that the society is not a welfare state, makes seeking safety a very sensible course of action.

Western companies with their ‘hire & fire’ cultures and quarterly financial results focus, tend to increase the sense of anxiety rather than decreasing it. So, whereas people like the new companies and the higher salaries, they are very wary about their own longevity in the job. The novelty of calling your boss by first name wears out pretty soon and the greater politeness (and smiling) of the Western boss is often seen as insincere and himself as ‘someone who does not really understand (or is even interested in) my problem’.

The fact that American companies operating in India tend to have their policies set in the US or in regional offices in Singapore, makes them very similar from the point of view of the Indian manager and subordinate to the family-owned Indian company, in that he has very little say in policy making, even where it directly affects him, as in the case of compensation or perquisites. Political savvy is as important in Western organizations as in Indian ones, where networking can play a greater part in career development than any other factor, including technical competence.

To add to this, most Westerners keep a strict boundary between work-life and home-life, which adds to the ‘unknown’ (anxiety) of the Indian subordinate. For example, Americans working in Indian cities have their own expatriate clubs and a social life (very reminiscent of good old British colonialism), to which their subordinates are not invited.

In the Indian culture however, to be invited home is a mark of respect and friendship. It also helps each to understand the problems of the other and thus build a base of trust. Especially important in a society where there is no unemployment insurance and so forth.

Where trust has been built or where the employment is based on special skills which are in high demand, as in the IT industry, we are seeing the opposite of this safety seeking behavior. People have no difficulty in disagreeing with managers often to the point of being unreasonable about some things. Once again, a case in point for building trust and a longer term picture. However, if the organization is itself running from project to project, (and this happens more often than we like to admit) this is very difficult to do. Many organizations try to throw money at the problem to make it go away and are surprised when it only increases the sense of anxiety as the stakes are higher.

“Often in American enterprises, too much deference to authority is seen as insincere behavior and less formality is preferred. American employees tend to work with minimal supervision and they generally do not like micro-management. The European style of working is somewhere between these two patterns, but closer to the American mode of behavior”.

American informality, as I mentioned earlier, is a novelty that wears off pretty soon when the Indian subordinate realizes that the authority is as rigid as the Indian one. Often more so, as the American country manager has his hands tied by company policy, rather more, than the ‘Family’ member who can make changes. Also, the American employee apparently seems to work without close supervision because the way most American companies are run, the policy and practice is all laid-out clearly and final results and not effort, are what really count. Supervision is therefore minimally required. Work is more ‘System dependent’ and the system works. This is not the case in the Indian context. It is not that systems in India do not work, they are simply different systems, often strange from a western perspective. Consequently, an Indian manager generally, is much more of a generalist that his American counterpart, and needs to be in order to be effective.

In the Indian culture and business environment, results are often affected by factors not in the control of the employee. So traditionally, effort also tends to get rewarded. The employee is therefore anxious that his work should be observed and appreciated by the manager. It is not a desire for supervision per se, but a desire for visibility, that operates. In a culture where competition is extremely severe and visibility often means the difference between career success and failure, the employee seeks supervision if that is the only way he can get visibility.

Where this has been understood and systems of recognition have been put in place, Indians tend to work far better without any supervision, allowed to take initiative and innovate. Indian entrepreneurs are a classic example where, when left to their own devices, where they don’t have to worry about being appreciated by bosses, the best in them emerges. If organizations can tap this entrepreneurial spirit, they will unleash energy that can truly change the course of life. However, most organizations try their best to suppress it and sadly, are successful in doing so.

Desire to preserve dignity

“Dignity and self-respect are extremely important in the Indian culture (e.g., personnel may wish to preserve their own, as well as that of others). In the Indian culture, employees may be reluctant to ask questions or ask for clarification if they do not understand something. Similarly, they may not wish to risk making mistakes, ask for help or be bearers of bad news (e.g., by reporting problems or delays in the project). On occasion, no action may be perceived as better than erroneous action. In American and European cultures, employees generally believe that it is better to ask questions,
risk making mistakes or admit to project delays early on”.

This is absolutely true and the failure to appreciate this results in truly major problems. In my consulting practice, I have seen Western managers put Indian subordinates ‘in the hot seat’ resulting in a breakdown in morale and earning lifelong enmity; neither of which the American intended to do.

Similarly, in one organization, I was asked to counsel an Indian manager who was having major problems with his American boss. When I enquired into the matter, I found that the boss used to sit in his office with his feet on the table and his hands clasped behind his neck in an attempt to create an atmosphere of informality. However, for the Indian to talk to someone in that position from across the table, meant having to face the soles of the other’s feet; a major sign of disrespect in the Indian culture, and something the American did not intend to do.

Where an attempt has been made to clarify, that reporting bad news and admitting to mistakes are signs of learning and are appreciated, I have never seen a problem with them. One highly effective way to ensure this is to show how not admitting the mistake early can result in the manager/company losing face before the client and so the person reporting the mistake is actually doing everyone a favor. The same thing also cures the tendency to wait and watch. Where the management can get a little more proactive and encourage active problem solving and reward it by recognizing it (Eg: GE has a Best Practice sharing system) publicly, synergy happens automatically.

Equally important is the business of creating a safety net of some sort where someone is not sacked for making a ‘new’ mistake that indicates risk taking and results in a learning. Easier said than done!

“Desire to save and protect others’ dignity or self-respect. The Indian culture does not encourage correcting superiors or peers in front of others (or even when alone). Frequently, they may say “yes” when asked a question if they think that is the desired answer. In fact, “yes” often means “yes, I heard you,” not “yes, that is so.” American and European employees generally tend to say “no” when it is the correct answer”.

Saving face is a very big consideration in the Indian culture (as it is most Eastern cultures) and needs to be taken into account. People are intelligent enough to understand when they are in the wrong and are open to being corrected in private. Correcting them in front of peers or (worse still) in front of subordinates, really serves no useful purpose and undermines their authority, which comes back to haunt the Western boss later, when the performance falls even more on this account.

I remember one incident where one manager was fired for ‘incompetence’ and I, as the consultant, had the most difficult time trying to explain to the American CEO why it was both unnecessary and undesirable to say this explicitly, in the next managers meeting, instead of the usual “he left for personal reasons and we are sorry to see him go”. Strictly not the whole truth, but kinder and less stressful for all concerned. The CEO’s point was that he wanted this also to be an indicator for all others of the new results-driven culture. I finally persuaded him by explaining to him that in Indian business, there are no secrets and so people know the real reason. Saying it upfront would only be seen as crass and needlessly cruel and would get the CEO bad publicity. Subsequent changes in the operating culture bore out the sanity of this advice.

It may be useful for us (in the West) to reflect that to treat people with dignity and allow them to preserve their self-respect may be good things for us to learn. Especially when we are rapidly moving to working with teams, it is essential that the action and its consequences be separated from the person. (It is a bad decision, not a bad person.)

Non-native English speakers who are expected to speak English will often stay silent rather than ask about phrases they do not understand. However, the speaker may assume they have been understood. They may also hesitate to ask for the meaning of specific (colloquial) phrases. Basketball, baseball and soccer references (e.g. hitting the ball out of the park) are often Greek to people who have not grown up in America. Advance distribution of the agenda for meetings will allow for a discussion among staff members from outside the culture before the meeting. Prompt distribution of action items with timelines, help to clarify what needs to be done and by when.

Use of indirect communication techniques

“In practice, American and European employees tend to be fairly direct when conducting business communications. Most Asians are not. Using the term “small problem” to indicate a serious problem is not uncommon. Use of qualifiers is also different (e.g., “I think so,” may often mean “no,” while “probably” often means “yes, but.” Answering a question with a question is also common. For example, “Is the code ready?” may elicit the answer, “When would you like it to be ready?” Finally, saying nothing often indicates disapproval, not acceptance. In the Indian culture, one might not volunteer information directly, but instead wait to be asked specifically. American and European enterprises need to listen more to what is not said than to what is said”.

All of the above is very true and it is good strategy to slow down and work very hard at developing your own cultural sensors so that you can sense when something is different from the apparent. This also has to do with saving face where the ‘loss of face’ in a direct refusal is avoided. For the same reason however, people will often not say that they dislike something, even when this is so. They will however show the dislike in many ways that are strange to Westerners, like being silent. Silence in the East means many things, from respect to approval to even disapproval.

One must look at the whole expression of the person and the body language to understand which one it is, often a hard task for the uninitiated. For example, when people are listening to someone for whom they have tremendous respect bordering on the worshipful, like a religious leader, they will remain completely silent through the entire speech and ask no questions, since to do otherwise is seen as disrespectful.

On the other hand, people who dislike what is being said by someone who is higher in rank (like a Manager or Trainer) will also remain silent and not disagree unless he creates an atmosphere of trust where to ask questions is legitimized. ‘Dignity’ has different meanings in different cultures.

For example, in one training course that I attended, the trainer used a role-play to teach negotiation skills. The scenario was that of a daughter trying to persuade her mother to go into a home-for-the-aged. This was greeted with total silence, but the trainer waded on gamely trying to drum-up some enthusiasm until mercifully it was time for a break. During the break I explained to her that the role-play example was culturally highly incorrect because in the Indian culture, it is considered the duty of children to look after old parents and to send them to a home-for-the-aged was considered insulting. If only the trainer had been a little more conscious of the expressions and body language of the participants, she would have realized that something was wrong, even if not what exactly it was and saved herself a lot of embarrassment.

Parents whose children are being praised in their presence will remain silent as a sign of approval.  Employees sometimes react with signs of discomfort when their Western managers’ praise them in public since praising a person to his face is not always approved of.  They may like it, but it makes some people uncomfortable. This is particularly true with the use of words, where Americans tend to use the superlative form much more quickly and with much less ‘real’ reason than their Indian counterparts. For example, an American manager may say, “Hey! That’s a fantastic job!!” for something that may be ‘good’ but not necessarily ‘fantastic’. Indians tend to take this rather literally and it can sound insincere to them.

The important thing to do is to take the time to really look at and question the beliefs that lie behind our own attitudes because they are the key to the whole question of understanding another culture. That is the reason why even after centuries of colonizing and living in the east, Westerners still seem so naïve about the countries they used to own at one time. The lesson is that to truly understand someone you have to be prepared to consider yourself their equal……..not their superior. Developing mutual respect based on an attempt at trying to truly appreciate (without judging by your standards) another culture and to understand its people is the way to build a society where differences will be a source of recognizing and acknowledging one another, not of dominating and manipulating.

In summary here are some Do’s and Don’ts if you want to understand other cultures:

1. Don’t ‘tolerate’ but appreciate, accept, and enjoy others as they are. You tolerate things, people, situations, and conditions which are essentially unpleasant and negative. You don’t tolerate a ride in a private jet, or a Rolls Royce or Triple Sunday Chocolate ice cream. You love it, you appreciate it and you are thankful for it. Treat people different from yourself in the same way. They are your window to another world. Love them, appreciate that you have an opportunity to have them in your life and learn from them. Don’t try to change them into replicas of yourself.

2. Respect others’ right to dress, eat, worship and live their lives according to their beliefs and traditions, just as you want others’ to respect your own. The Golden Rule applies in Cross-cultural communication and understanding more than anywhere else.

3. Don’t judge others’ cultures, traditions, and values by your own standards. Apart from basic human values – kindness, truthfulness, integrity, and justice – everything else makes sense in its context, which may be very different from your own. This is especially true of social customs and traditions. To understand, you must be neutral. Not judgmental.

4. Last and most important, it is not ‘RIGHT’ and ‘WRONG’. It is ‘DIFFERENT’. Once again, universal values apart. Lying and cheating is WRONG always. Hatred is WRONG always. Discrimination, violence, cruelty, selfishness, are WRONG always. But how we meet and greet, what we eat, wear, celebrate and a million other things are neither RIGHT nor WRONG. They are DIFFERENT. I have a right to mine. You have a right to yours.

As in the quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire? François-Marie Arouet? S. G. Tallentyre? Evelyn Beatrice Hall? Ignazio Silone? Douglas Young? Norbert Guterman?

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