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Managing Intercultural Teams in India

By Ranjini Manian

India - Managing Intercultural Teams

Expatriates to India and the managers responsible for overseeing multicultural teams that include Indians will interact and respond to sometimes-unfamiliar behavior. An individual's behavior falls into three classifications: (1) universal (behavior we all do just by being part of the human race), (2) cultural (we are conditioned to act a certain way), and (3) personal (behavior linked to our individual personality). Consider the differences: eating regularly is universal behavior; eating hamburgers when hungry is cultural behavior; and hating to eat hamburgers when hungry is personal behavior.

Cultural behavior is what Professor Geert Hofstede calls the "software of our mind," which we can learn to recognize and adapt for success in another culture, As Hofstede explained, "The bridge to understand other cultures is to understand our own." In the global marketplace, expatriates must adapt to intercultural teams and sometimes work with them virtually. To do so with any amount of success, the first step is to consider one's own background and that of one's colleagues, and then find a way for both to positively intersect.

If that challenge is left unresolved, miscommunication and misunderstandings can wreak havoc on business and delay or hinder achievement of company goals. The following pointers will help HR and line managers address and understand the cultural differences when working with a multi-cultural team in India.

Six Key Differences Between India and Other Cultures

When managing or collaborating with a multi-cultural team that contains Indians, the following six factors are important to understand and remember.

Language. Language differences can certainly lead to misunderstandings, as illustrated in the sidebar, "The Inefficiency of Miscommunication." Especially important for both call center employees (e.g., customer service) and expatriates to be aware are the speed of speech and the differences in the meanings of words and phrases. If ignored, these two factors can lead to confusion and misinterpretation. And when speaking in person, body language is important to watch:

- Indians may not use your first name even when you invite them to do so for a simple reason; elders and superiors are not addressed by name, as a sign of respect. In some traditional homes, the Indian wife does not call her husband by his first name, but calls him "so and so child's father" (e.g., Sheela's father).

- Moving the head from side to side as if in disagreement while listening to you is actually a sign of respect and shows involvement in the conversation. And the South Indian head waggle, which seems to indicate disagreement, actually does not. A sideways shake of the head means yes, not no. (See Sidebar: "Cross-Cultural Confusion.")

- Unused to the small talk and social niceties of western society, Indians are shy in social situations, which does not permit easy interaction. Hierarchy rules are strong, and Indians prefer to avert their eyes, act like they never saw you, and go their way. It is not a sign of being unfriendly. Not making eye contact when talking to an older person or superior is a sign of respect.

Preparation. Preparation is not a part of the Indian culture. Some Indians feel that it is bad luck to prepare for a situation in advance. That mindset works its way into business situations, making Indians look disorganized and inefficient in comparison with, say their American counterparts. An important concept for Indians to learn, when cooperating with other cultures, is "failure to prepare is preparation for failure."

Punctuality. Meeting times are often given in a span of time, for example, "Let us meet at 9 to 9:30." Thus, the meeting can fall anywhere in between those two times. In addition, expatriates should take no offense if their Indian associates desire to reschedule. (See sidebar, "The Concept of Time.")

Written Reminders. Although time management is a relatively new concept for Indians, it is a growing need in today's global economy. Very few Indians use organizers, planners, or diaries. Taking notes is also uncommon, and everything is carried around in one's own head, which could lead to poor service and miscommunication. Making "to-do lists" is something many Indians consider a challenge and waste of time ("After all, who is going to remind us to check our to-do lists?").

Dress Code. India is conservative when it comes to acceptable business dress. Men should wear a suit and tie, although the jacket can be shed during the hot summer months. Women should wear conservative dresses, keeping knees and shoulders covered. When dealing with Indian workers, it is important to understand that "packaging" as an important tool for oneself, one's documents, and one's work environment is a new concept.

Dining. Because of religious beliefs, Hindus do not eat beef, and Muslims do not eat pork. Slurping, sloppiness, and spilling are all part of Indian dining etiquette, and Indians are very tolerant about what expatriates may consider to be bad manners. In most Indian homes, it is difficult to find a fork; finding a spoon is easier. Also note that as many Indians consider the left hand unclean, be sure to eat, as well as hand out and accept business cards, with the right hand.

Awareness of All Perspectives

With the steady growth of the Indian economy, more and more companies will be sending employees to, or interacting with employees in, different parts of India. Being cognizant of the cultural nuances and traditions in the host location - and how they differ from one's own - is a key factor in the success of an international assignment, whether working on site or participating in a multi-cultural team.

The Inefficiency of Miscommunication

Call-center employees often deal with their own culture shock when handling angry customers. In the following situation that occurred in Chennai, an Indian technical professional, well-versed in the software he was supporting, took a call from an irate American about a software backup problem. Unfortunately, the call never made it past the informalities, as the following conversation will show.

Employee: "I want to ask you now, what is your good name?"

Caller: "Which do you mean, I think all my names are good!"

Employee: "No, I mean your name for taking down the details."

Caller: "Why didn't you say so in the first place? Do you need my first name or last name?"

Employee: "You can give first last or last first."

Caller: "What?"

Employee: "Your latest name used please, sir."

Caller: "Just call me Tom."

Employee: "Okay Tom, sir. So your name is Tom?"

Caller: "Yes, Tom McDermott."

Employee: "Can you spell that out?"

Caller: "M-c-D-e-r-m-o-t-t"

Employee: "Thank you. Can I have your mail ID now?"

Caller: "You mean my e-mail address?"

Employee: "Yes, please."

Caller, after hastily providing his e-mail address: "Get on with it, my backup problem is costing me megabucks. We can't wait until the cows come home."

Employee: "Cows come where, Mr. Tom?"

Caller: "Oh never mind." He hung up the phone.

Source: Global Adjustments, Chennai, India

The Concept of Time

Consider a German and Indian perspective on time. A German feels time is of utmost essence, a belief that stems from forefathers who were hunters, forced to fend for themselves in the limited daylight hours available in Germany's forests. Consequently, the Germans view that time is a limited commodity, to be scarcely wasted, and all accounted for stems from this background, which has been deeply ingrained into the psyche.

Now consider time from the point of view of an Indian, originating from and raised by a farming community, as are most Indians. They till the land collectively and share the produce and responsibility. Living in an area with many hours of daylight where the sun does not set early, they feel "there is plenty of time." Consequently, Indians, like their fathers and grandfathers, see time as a stretchable commodity. Time is more or less important, yet they assign much more importance to personal relationships in this community of tilling the land and reaping the harvest.

Were the Indian (with the farmer background) and the German (with the hunter background) to share a common workspace, they would have to confront and cooperate to achieve a common goal. When that goal is a project connected by technology and software, their different approaches to time need resolution for success and happiness on both sides. This resolution is where managing effectively in an intercultural team occurs. It has nothing to do with superiority of one party, but simply the fact that each individual has a different way of looking at things, which requires that a common ground be found.

Cross-Cultural Confusion

In the words of a Canadian HR head of a multinational company: Preparing for my first visit to India, as our company was expanding into Asia, I studied all the "Best Foot Forward in Asia"-type books I could find. As the company's HR representative, I was determined to set an example on cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity. I would try to set the standard for our other functional managers who, at times, appeared rather fixed in their North American approach to our new partners in India.

Following introductions, we had a meeting with all senior factory staff where I was conveying our pleasure with this new business association and outlining some of our company's philosophies and plans. Across the conference table from me, one of the South Indian managers was vigorously wagging his head in what I took to be profound disagreement. I continued my speech while frantically casting about in my mind to see what I had said that had so offended him. After all, I had spent a good deal of effort in making sure that my introductory talk would be positive, upbeat, and contain no inadvertent cultural mistakes.

How could this be happening? How was I to repair an insult when I didn't even know what it was?

And then I was saved again by the subconscious! I remembered reading about the South Indian head waggle. He was agreeing with me! (In fact, he told me later that he thought it was all wonderful.) So now I'm conscious of the head waggle - but I must admit that there are still many times when I don't know if it means agreement or just "yes, I'm still listening." However, at least I know that I don't know!

Source: India-Inside Out by Ranjini Manian, Global Adjustments, Chennai, India.

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About the Author

Ranjini Manian, CEO of Global Adjustments -- an integrated, India focused, cross-cultural services company headquartered in Chennai, India - is a multi-cultural expert. She was a student of Elphinstone College, Mumbai, India and then of University of Sorbonne, Paris, France. Besides English, she speaks French, Japanese, Spanish and several Indian languages.

As member of the Employee Relocation Council, she learns and shares best practices with human resource and relocation professionals. She has run cross-cultural training sessions for thousands of Indian professionals and has managed the relocation of hundreds of expatriates from over 72 countries, moving to or working with India.

Ranjini is currently authoring a book titled "Doing Business in India for Dummies", part of the highly popular "Dummies" series of books that specialize in presenting a diverse range of subjects in an extremely readable and simple format. Under her leadership, Global Adjustments has been chosen as one of the top ten "cool companies" of India by Business Today for 2006. For more information, visit globaladjustments.com.

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First Published: Apr 28, 2007

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