Managing in India

Achieving Success in a New Culture

Find out about managing a team in India

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Your organization has reassigned you to the new Mumbai office.

You'll be in charge of a large team, and after your previous success managing in the U.S. and U.K., your manager expects to see positive results within the first six months.

At the first meeting with your new team, you describe your plan for the coming months. You want everyone working independently and innovating on their own, and you've promised bonuses to your team if they perform well.

However, within the first month, you see that you're not going to get the results you expected. Your team doesn't seem very motivated, and, instead of taking the initiative and innovating, they continue to depend on you for instructions. They also spend a great deal of time discussing the smaller details of each stage of your plan, instead of getting on with tasks like your previous team did.

What went wrong? Your strategy was a proven success previously – but here, it's not working. You and your team are frustrated. And you're not sure how to fix things...

In today's global market, managers often work with culturally diverse teams. Without any prior understanding of other cultures, this can be challenging. Managers can quickly fail when they try to apply Western management practices in an Eastern team, and vice-versa.

In this article, we'll look at what you need to know when managing in India. We'll examine culture and religion, and we'll share ideas on motivating and inspiring your new team. Whether you're moving to the country, returning to manage there after a break, or simply managing an Indian team from your home office, this article will help you get the best results from your people in India.

Note:

Bear in mind that India has a diverse workforce, and the approach you use will depend on where your team are based, and the type of industry they work in – for example, rural workers may think and behave in very different ways from those working for multinational companies in major cities. So you'll need to treat every situation on a case by case basis.

So, be flexible in your approach, and don't assume that the ideas we’ve highlighted will work in every situation.

Religion

Although religion is unlikely to affect a person's work, it is a major part of Indian life. To avoid any misunderstanding, it's best to learn a little about the major religions, holy days, and holidays.

According to India's 2001 census, over 80% of the country's people practice Hinduism. Islam accounts for 13%, while the rest of the population practice Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions.

India is a country that's tolerant of its many religions. However, holidays, dress codes, and customs differ widely between the states and regions so it's best to learn a bit about your region's specific religious requirements and practices as soon as you can.

India is a diverse country.

Religious Holidays

It's important to understand the significance of India's religious holidays. This will help you avoid planning mistakes (like setting a project deadline on a day when no one will be in the office), and help with your understanding the culture.

One of the biggest Hindu festivals is Diwali. The dates change slightly each year, but in 2013 the celebration begins on November 3 for five days. There are five smaller festivals during this time, so make sure you include these holidays in your planning.

Most organizations are also closed on three nonreligious national holidays. These are:

  • Republic Day – January 26.
  • Independence Day – August 15.
  • Mahatma Gandhi's birthday – October 2.

Some holidays are celebrated regionally. India has 29 states, and some states observe different holidays and festivals in addition to the national holidays. Make sure you're aware of these holidays before scheduling projects and deadlines.

It's also common for Indian organizations to take a more flexible approach to holidays if they work closely with departments or organizations in other countries. For example, an organization that provides the bulk of its services to customers in the UK may observe the same holidays as the UK to provide the most effective service.

Tip:

You can get an up-to-date list of all holidays in India on the Indian Government web site’s Government Holiday Calendar.

Caste System

India has a social system, known as the caste system. It was originally based in Hinduism, but it has developed into a more complicated, multilayered classing system.

The caste system, in ranked order, is as follows:

  • Brahmans – priests.
  • Kshatriya – rulers, warriors, landowners.
  • Vaishya – merchants.
  • Shudra – artisans, agriculturalists.
  • Harijan – untouchables.

The caste system is unlikely to affect working relationships, especially in the larger cities (where people may not even be aware which caste their co-workers come from). However, it's possible that it could directly influence how your team members relate to, and work with, one another. Therefore, it's important to be aware of it.

Managing People

Managing a team in India sometimes requires a different approach from managing a Western team. In "The India Way" – written by Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh, and Michael Useem – the authors state that motivation is key to managing a successful team.

In many Western Organizations, managers often motivate their teams with pay incentives or flexible working hours. But in India, these methods may not be as effective. Instead, many Indian people are inspired by their task significance – in other words, by how their efforts contribute to a larger goal. Understanding their task significance empowers them, and gives them a sense of purpose.

Also, in many Western organizations, customers come first, profits second, and employees third. But in India, organizations may put employees first, customers second, and profits third, so their employees are their top priority.

"The India Way" also states that human resources are a major part of many Indian organizations' business strategies. People are often much less concerned about labor costs such as recruitment, training and development, and benefits, than Western organizations. This is partly due to the "employees first" idea.

With this in mind, you should spend time ensuring that everyone knows what they should be doing, and that they're properly trained to do it. The more you educate and train your team, especially on skills that may help them with career advancement, the more effective they will be.

It's also important to remember that some Indian people are sometimes reluctant to say "no," especially to their manager. This is because organizational hierarchy is often very strong in India. People respect their managers, and they don't want to offend or cause disappointment by refusing to do something or by offering a negative opinion.

As a manager, you should look for signs of "no." For instance, if people say "we'll see," "I'll try," or "possibly," this might be their way of saying "no" politely.

You can sometimes avoid this issue by creating an open environment that's emotionally safe and comfortable for your team members. Explain that you want their honest opinions, no matter what those opinions are. This can encourage them to open up. One tip from "The India Way" is that you should not go to your team with fixed views on a solution. Instead, present the issue to them. Then let them think about it and offer solutions. This empowers the team and gives them ownership, while also solving the problem.

Further Tips for Managing in India

  • Recognize family commitments – Understand the deep commitment that Indian people have with their families. If you want to get to know your new team members, ask about their families. And be flexible whenever there's a family emergency.
  • Learn about Indian values and cultural norms – This will further help you understand your new team. You can learn more about how to identify and rate these values and norms with our article on Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions  .
  • Ask for feedback – Many effective managers in India go out of their way to get feedback from team members. Create a survey for your team to use on a monthly basis so they can let you know how you're doing. Make sure it's anonymous, so that everyone feels comfortable giving their honest opinions. This allows you to address issues as they occur. It also lets your team know that you truly care what they think.

Key Points

Different cultures have different values and motivators. This is why, as a manager, you should spend time learning about your new team members, their culture, and what will motivate them to perform effectively.

People in India are more likely to be motivated by knowing that what they are doing is contributing to your organization's overall goals. Also, empower them to share their opinions and feedback with you, and remember that religion and family can play an important role in Indian culture.

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Comments (6)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jag,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and views ... it's great to hear them from someone who is living and working in India. Your comments add to the article and make it come more alive!

    Midgie
  • colours wrote Over a month ago
    I think Jag's comments are spot on and reflect my own experiences over the last 2 years that I have been in India. There is a huge gap between the older workers and the new youngsters entering the workforce. The key challenge is how to bridge the gap and more importantly how to ensure that the younger managers do not adopt the attitudes of the older and often senior staff as they look for promotion.
  • Jag wrote Over a month ago
    Hello everybody

    I do think that the article reflects a very common experience in india - I've worked here in New Delhi for the whole of my career so far. But I do also agree with Nandlal that the experiences colours has can be true.

    Personally I think that work culture in India can be broadly classified in accordance with the location i.e. Metropolitan cities and suburban area / townships.

    In Metropolitan cities we come across three distinct work-forces:

    1. Government Organisations
    2. Private Organisations having a workforce of people mostly 45+ years old
    3. New generation employed in MNCs (multinational corporations) and big corporates.

    In Government Organisations the team members largely depend upon the instructions received and are not innovative. They do not feel any work responsibility but try to accomplish what is demanded of them. Again the article is right in mentioning that employees come first ....

    Unions/representative bodies are common in these organisations to represent employee rights and demands to employers.

    The older workforces in many privately held organisations work in the same way as above.

    However one come across a clearly distint work culture in the new generation company offices. The young employees, constituting the major workforce in the MNCs and big corporates, follow an entirely different approach. Here customer satisfaction reigns supreme in the to-do list and employees' interests are pushed behind. In return these highly paid employees also focus on achieving goals and targets and getting work related bonuses.

    Now these MNCs or big corporates may be having their manufacturing units in small townships. Work culture here draws parallel with what is mentioned in the article.

    I have tried to give a true picture of the work atmosphere here in India as per my understanding and experience.

    regards
    -Jag
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Here's another interesting, different perspective on the article:

    That was an interesting article. Let me however say here that much of what you have stated will be relevant only if you are manging human resources in an NGO like environment in semi-urban or rural India. Mumbai is one of the most diverse and versatile of communities of people. Holidays, casteism, and other vagaries that you have highlighted would never play a critical role in motivating HR to perform. The working culture is likely to be as assertive as any prevailing in London or even NY (although I have never worked there). The focus is on performance, achievement, recognition, rewards and professional freedom. You will certainly not find your subordinates coming to you for directions as frequently as you have mentioned.

    Nandlal N.

    If you're working in India, what's your experience? I'd love to hear!

    James
  • colours wrote Over a month ago
    I think this gives a very false image of managing in India. I have over 30 years work experience in Europe and have returned to India 2 years ago to set up and run my own business in training and development. My experience would say that India is approx 30 to 40 years behind the west in terms of its attitudes to work and employees.
  • yann wrote Over a month ago
    Cultural awareness articles are always fascinating. Differences in approaching life are a great opportunity to regularly re-assess our priorities and beliefs.

    At the same time, one must guard against falling into the trap of cultural cliché, assuming that people willl definitely behave or have preferences as the model "predicts". I work with people all over the world, and I find the word "awareness" to be key. It is about being aware of what the possible differences might be. It is about being ready to challenge our own assumptions, not placate a new series of assumptions on other people. It is about enquiring, not making statements.

    Not a criticism on the article, just a word of caution - and I hope common sense - on how to use it.

    Cheers.

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