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September - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
Yes means No!
Venkat Pulella
Monday, September 3, 2007
I spent first two decades of my life in India as a student and another decade and a half in the U.S. working as an engineer. The cultural differences were not daunting when I first went to the U.S. It could be because I was prepared for a culture shock. It was challenging when I came back though. After all I know India, I thought. However I soon learnt that living as a student in a campus with parent’s support is one thing and living with a family in the society is another. For example, on a Friday I asked my driver if he can work during the weekend so that I can search for a house. To my surprise I found that by ‘Yes’ he meant ‘No’. At first these are annoying little things. One may even think people are being rude or inconsiderate. But this is just the beginning of the cultural nuances one needs to be aware of even when returning to his own motherland from fatherland. Working in a third country may be even more challenging.

I will cover some cultural aspects of leading a team with examples from India as well as the US. Understanding and awareness of various aspects of a culture will enable you to succeed with your global teams.

Business communication
You may have heard of the anecdote of the Indian engineer who thought his manager is going to take care of an issue since the manager said “I Would do …” Though Indians are characterized as expressive instead of passive in general, in business communications they are cryptic and short. On the other hand Americans are known to be elaborate. Every communication has a start, a body, and an end. Even in verbal communications you often hear at the end the phrase “in summary,…” that summarizes the theme. Asking open ended questions will help in opening up the engineers.

Even in personal communication, one has to watch out for the jokes that do not stick. In India, baseball and football analogies do not work, try cricket instead! Saying ‘Thank you’ and ‘Sorry’ too often is seen as not warranted and is viewed with amusement.

What makes one a motivational speaker in one culture can make the same person best suited for a joker in a circus in another. Motivation is very cultural. To motivate, it is important to set a compelling vision and mission that the team and individuals can relate to and act on.

In India the work force tends to be younger, instructor led and class room based trainings are sought after. Prospective candidates often enquire about how many hours of training they receive after joining. In general, group learning works best while setting up new teams. They also seek mentors and one to one coaching. Independent learning is the least preferred method here.

Hierarchy is the most evident of all other aspects of culture. Titles matter more than the ability of an individual or the difference they make to the business. Especially, ‘manager’ is a very important title that automatically commands a lot of social respect. I even heard that some one wanted to be a ‘manager’ as it was the only way he could find a prospective bride. Every one claims that the ‘manager’ title is required to get respect from their mother-in-law, but there is also a bigger social pressure. For example, the title gets emphasized when introducing a person to others, while the name is ignored very often. Technical careers are looked at less favorably vs. people management as from the title it is not very clear how higher up that person is in the hierarchy.

Style of work
These are the days of empowering employees. How, when, and where the work gets done is changing. Even taking breaks from work like water cooler conversations, tea breaks, corridor talk and checking cricket score in cafeteria, were all unimaginable just one generation ago. The breaks tend to be longer in India and often contribute to business relationships and cross team relationships. This is the equivalent of Americans catching up with old friends over beer or dinner.

This flexibility of work extends to the homes too. With remote working and telecommuting, companies are empowering employees to balance their work and life every where.

Delegating work is also different. In India you will see that people are eager to commit and even over commit. Whereas, their American counterparts commit only to minimum requirements and are even non-committal on issues that are not required at the moment.

Leadership style
A well publicized survey in the early 1990s claimed that Indians preferred a dictator. My American manager at the time, who was leading a group of Indian engineers, was horrified by the thought that he was expected to become one. We were equally scared by the thought and convinced him that it was just the frustration of the people with the ineffective leadership that led them to give their opinion in favor of a dictatorship. For the benefit of readers who are also scared, things have changed now. The same survey would produce totally different results in India now.

Employees seek certain style of leadership. I heard from one of my employees that she preferred an American manager. Apart from the benefit of being away from the manager in day-to-day activities, it was also a reflection of her wanting a certain style of leadership. Americans tend to be empowering compared to direct, and at times authoritative “do it”, style she was used to. These generalizations may be unfair as things are changing.

Technology is the one unifying factor in global teams. Usually there is no technology religion. Technical issues are easy to agree on though the solutions may vary. Pursuit of new technologies works as a unifying factor that brings teams together.

In summary, awareness and understanding of various aspects of the culture enables successful global teams. Leveraging the local culture to unify and motivate helps in building strong organizations.

He can be reached at vpullela@cisco.com

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