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Working with USA and India

By Vidya Subramanian

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By Vidya Subramanian

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If you are an Indian employee working for a multinational US based company, this article may make you feel validated. And, if you are a US based leader working with a team in India, you may learn something new. With almost two decades of experience working in corporate India for multinational US based companies, I have had several experiences that made me realise how deep rooted our national cultures, values and beliefs are.

I am an Indian, born and raised, and I have witnessed the era of outsourcing boom in India. Overnight, we were talking to Americans in fake accents, fake names and trying hard to belong. The first few years of this culture in India was overwhelming (not to mention the graveyard night shifts) and rewarding at the same time for most youngsters. While this boom provided thousands of employment opportunities for fresh graduates, it also forced us to adapt to the western ways of looking at life.

Over the years, thankfully, the focus has shifted from language and accent. However, there are still areas that Americans struggle with, in working with Indians. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Indians struggle too.

  • “The deliverable didn’t meet the brief. If you were unclear, why didn’t you speak up?”
  • “If you needed help, why didn’t you ask?”
  • “Why are you not delegating this work?”
  • “If you were not going to meet the deadline, why didn’t you just say so?”
  • “If you were not getting what you wanted, why didn’t you escalate?”
  • “Can you get to the point? I don’t understand what you are saying.”

The list goes on….

Have you ever wondered, why this happens in almost every company? What is the reason for this disconnect? How can this be fixed?

Well, if it were easy to fix, it would be already, don’t you think? It is not that leaders haven’t thought about these issues, or they haven’t invested in training, coaching or mentoring.  The issue is that we as humans struggle to accept differences and work around it.

Americans as we know are extremely individualistic and competitive culturally and will focus on personal achievements and success. Indians are also competitive and want to achieve, but the way we do it is different. We value harmony in relationships a lot more than the result itself. We want to work in way that helps us achieve goals and also have long lasting professional and personal relationships with our colleagues.

The Indian value of respect for hierarchy is very deep rooted, dating back to the pre independence era. Hence, most Indians will be uncomfortable to speak up and disagree openly in meetings. Even if they work in a US based company that promotes equality as the company culture, the local leadership may expect otherwise, putting employees at a constant cycle of having to adapt to different expectations. Trust me, this is tiring. Being in meetings with Americans and projecting different behaviours, only to switch back during execution in the local office.

What about performance? Most US based companies have their C-suite in the US. So, the CHRO and team write out a research backed, industry compliant, performance measurement criteria – competencies, values, key priorities etc. Several of those have specific mentions such as:

  • Must be able to perform tasks with minimal supervision
  • Mist be a self-starter. Should proactively look for opportunities to improve the business
  • Must be able to collaborate effectively to overcome challenges and meet deadlines
  • Must take risks and demonstrate organizational awareness and executive maturity
  • Must be able to quickly adapt to changing needs

And this list also goes on……

Now, looking at this list the Indian employees think that if we ask for help it is a sign of incompetence. If we look for opportunities or be proactive, sometimes our local manager might think we overstepped. If we need to collaborate effectively, did anyone consider the different time zones that we may have to work across? We have been told clearly to seek approval before trying something new. We don’t know much about the organization as our local manager only cascades information we need to know to do our job. All of this and much more, leads to overwhelmed employees and this in turn leads to disappointing results. Indians like to reward the efforts too. However, the final result matters to Americans.

Do you think we can truly accept these differences and take a moment to rethink how we work together? Perhaps, we take standardization too far with company policies and practices. We leave no room for local cultural differences. Perhaps if companies were willing to experiment with a more inclusive company culture that celebrates differences, encourages mistakes and the learning thereof, simplifies reporting structures, we may see different results. Unless change happens at a company level, these problems are not going to go away. Indians and Americans must have tools and resources that make them aware of these differences and the strategies to adapt. Acceptance and adaptation cannot be a one sided game, which it often ends up being. If an Indian should be more direct in their communication style, then an American should also be less blunt.

As Albert Einstein said, “doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of Insanity”

Global Business Culture helps numerous organisations with these types of challenges by building greater levels of cultural fluency and resilience whilst also improving internal team effectiveness.


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