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India Cultural Awareness Training – 5 Areas to Focus On

By Keith Warburton

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By Keith Warburton

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I’ve been running cultural awareness programmes for major global corporations now for almost two decades and India has always seemed to loom large in my work schedule. I have noticed clients’ interest change from seeing India as purely a cost-saving outsourcing destination to a keener interest in India as a potential future mega-market. During this period, we have run India cultural awareness training programmes all over the world and client interest mainly stems from the following areas:

  1. A client has outsourced work to India either with its own captive presence or through a third-party partner.
  2. A client has a significant supply chain in India.
  3. A client has a subsidiary operating in India – be that manufacturing or sales.
  4. A client is looking at India as a potentially lucrative future market.
  5. A client has been acquired by an Indian parent company.

Whatever our clients’ relationship with India might be, we know that a better understanding of cultural expectations in India will make any relationships run smoother. When operating in such a totally different type of market, cultural awareness and knowledge are vital.

Keith Warburton

Keith Warburton, Global Business Culture CEO

We have thought a great deal about what a good India cultural awareness training programme should focus on and I’d like to share a few thoughts with you on this topic in this blog post.

However, I’d first like to start by covering what it definitely shouldn’t be focused on – unimportant superficial issues! We are often asked to cover such issues as:

  • Names
  • Dress code
  • Spicy food
  • Traffic
  • Etc

These are the type of areas I would consider to be trivia and they will not have a significant impact (positive or negative) on your business going forward. Indians will look after you and help you with these issues. They know you are not Indian, that a lot of what you experience will be new to you and will, therefore need explanation. By all means include these areas in a training programme but don’t make them the focus.

In our view there are five key areas that a training programme should focus on. There are others, but time is always limited so these are the essential topics:

1. Hierarchy:

Business structures in India mirror Indian society. Both are hierarchical in nature. This is not a good or a bad thing – it is just a fact and it is essential to understand the ways in which this hierarchically-based approach impacts on Indian attitudes to business. In our experience, the failure to take this issue into account is the direct cause of untold cultural misunderstandings when working with India.
Information tends to flow up, down and across organisations with a clearly defined and well-understood structure being seen as the key to efficiency and aligned with this structural approach come a leadership style where the boss is the boss – his instructions are assumed to be correct and it is unlikely that they will be questioned even if it might appear that the instructions are wrong.
We find that many international companies want to introduce a flatter structure in their Indian subsidiary so that it is closely aligned with other offices in the group. This often proves difficult in a country where hierarchy is the norm.

2. Leadership:

As with many hierarchical societies, it is important that the manager acts like a boss. The position of leader demands a certain level of role-playing from the boss and a degree of deferential behaviour from team members. The boss is not expected to perform any minor tasks such as making coffee or moving chairs in a meeting room. Western concepts of egalitarianism where the leader is viewed as the first amongst equals don’t sit easily in a country still impacted on by the historical conventions of the caste system.
The boss is expected to give explicit instructions which will be followed precisely – even, as I said earlier, if people think that the instruction might be wrong. Imprecise instructions are likely to result in inaction because team members will be left confused as to what exactly needs to be done. Managing people in India often requires a level of micro-management which many western business people are uncomfortable with – this approach however is likely to bring the best results.

3. Initiative:

In the India cultural awareness training programmes we run, the most consistent ‘criticism’ we get from people about their India colleagues is that they just don’t show any initiative. They do exactly what is asked of them and no more – and won’t do anything unless explicitly asked to do so.
This is a strongly cultural issue. If you are from a culture in which the boss is expected to give direct, precise and detailed instructions, the expectation is that you do what your boss has asked you to do. To do more could almost be seen as insubordination – the boss had wanted you to do other things, he or she would have given that instruction. Therefore, if things don’t get done it is a failure of leadership for overlooking things.
This single misunderstanding leads to endless cases of missed deadlines, unhappy colleagues and feelings of mistrust amongst the teams. Any good India cultural awareness course should address this issue head on.

4. Relationship-building:

India is a very relationship-oriented country. Family ties are extremely strong and influence the career path of individual employees. A recent global survey showed that Indians are under greater parental pressure to succeed than in any other country in the world. It is important to make your parents proud of you – and this is one reason why job titles are so critical. The better the job title, the more prestige you have amongst family and friends.

Relationship-orientation however extends beyond the family and into the work place where employees are keen to develop close personal relationships with both peers and leaders (in fact the leader can very much be seen as a mother or father figure who is charged with looking after, supporting and guiding their ‘children’.) A great deal of emphasis is placed on promoting the company as a place that you not only work at but also belong to – birthdays and team social events are really important in an Indian working environment.
Western colleagues need to recognise this and develop strategies for building relationships with Indian colleagues, but this is not always easy when those colleagues are thousands of miles away and working in a different time zone.

5. Communication:

It might be assumed that, as most India colleagues speak almost perfect English, there will not be any communication difficulties, but this would be far from the truth. Indian colleagues have a different style of communication which is rooted in non-confrontationalism and wanting to please people. One of the most common questions we get asked on an India cultural awareness training programme is ‘when does yes mean yes and when does yes mean no?’Any good training programme should focus on:

  • India communication styles
  • Using English effectively in India
  • Vocabulary anomalies
  • Body language issues
  • Email communication

Improved communication with India results in improved relationships and efficiencies.

An India cultural awareness training (or a series of interventions aimed at different areas of the business) can have a massively positive impact on your business performance if done well; it can also possibly have a negative impact if delivered in a way which alienates the audience and doesn’t focus on key commercial issues.

The art of delivering a good programme is in being able to relate generic India-based cultural points to the strategic and tactical objectives of the business – if these links are not made, the training might prove pointless.

If you would like to discuss how Global Business Culture could develop and deliver meaningful training programmes for you, please contact us.

About the author

Building an Effective Operation in India