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Argumentative & too emotional – are Indians tough to work with?

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Transforming a culture is far more about emotional growth than technical maturity.

The Kaizen, Lean, Six Sigma, etc methodologies promotes the sustainable continual improvement as a daily way of life for every member within the organization. Same thing has been described & asked by the corporate dossier to expatriate CEOs. They were asked to describe the most incorrigible traits of Indian work culture.

The list we’ve compiled might upset you, but feel free to argue — which you will anyway:

we Indians are

We’re always late

Seasoned expats have given up complaining about this quirk, except for a few German and Japanese CEOs, who still feel the pain every time they see an Indian colleague sauntering into a meeting 15 minutes late.

Makoto Kitai, MD, Mitsubishi Electric India, remembers fondly his days in Japan, when everyone would actually arrive five minutes early. “In India, being late by 15 minutes for a meeting is not considered to be late,” he sighs. “Schedules go haywire in India but people don’t complain.”

If only our lack of punctuality was confined only to meetings! “Whether it a dinner or a larger function, I now assume that guests will arrive at least one hour late,” says Philipp von Sahr, President of  ..

We’re very argumentative

Indians, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen tells us, are argumentative by nature and given the opportunity, we will debate and discuss till the cows at home. Jean-Christophe Lettelier got a taste of this as soon as he took charge at L’Oreal India last year. The meetings he conducted would go on interminably with everyone going in circles.

“Maybe it’s because of an inductive approach to understanding things, but Indians make things more complex than they really are,” he says. “I value the depth of thinking, but sometimes I have to just close the topic. Else there is complete chaos.”

Mitsubishi’s Makoto Kitai is another expat CEO who has had a hard time conducting meetings. “Japanese are very good listeners. We as a culture never speak out of turn which ensures that our suggestion would be asked every time. My Indian colleagues, on the other hand, are very ardent speakers and are always impatient when it comes to an opportunity to articulate their views,” he says. We also have a propensity to get into time consuming discussions just about anywhere.

As Tetsuya Takano, MD of Ricoh India points out: “In India it’s easy to form a discussion group. You only have to ask someone something and suddenly five people are around you and you can discuss anything. The preferable subject is politics.”

We’re confusingly diverse

After a year at the Hyatt Goa, Glen Peat thought he had Indian work culture figured out — then he was transferred to Mumbai. Now the chief of the Hyatt Ludhiana, the New Zealander says, “Punjabis are so very different from South Indians and the people of Delhi are so different from the people in Mumbai.

At first, I thought everyone in India speaks Hindi. It takes a lot of adjusting for an expat used to a uniform national culture.” Expat CEOs invariably see India’s diversity as one of its strengths, but truth be told, it takes getting used to. “The diversity poses quite a challenge in terms of unanimity of operations, tweaking the offerings to different needs,” says Volvo Auto India MD Tomas Ernberg.

Besides managing your own work force, the diversity factor also plays an important role in market success. “It’s both a challenge and an opportunity, as there is no one way of doing business or dealing with people. Something that works in Mumbai may not work in Chennai or Kochi. So, India allows the expatriate to use his creative side,” says Ricoh India’s Takano.

It takes 3 of us to fix a light bulb

the first time are usually struck by how establishments there manage with so few people. It’s the other way round for expats in India. Dmitry Shukov, CEO of MTS India was amazed to see eight people pushing the boarding ladder at the airport the first time he arrived in Delhi.

“In Russia there is just one person doing that job. In sec tors like retail, there is always excess staff in India,” he says. It’s also very common in the hospitality industry, where guests are pampered with a level of service unheard of in the West. But splitting one person’s job among three not only reduces wages, but also the challenge. Or, as Rex Nijhof, the Dutch chief of the Renaissance Mumbai Hotel puts it: “If you have something heavy and only two people available to move it, you have to find a way to build wheels on it. In India, you just get six more people.”

We’re too emotional

Indians are highly engaged with their work, which makes us more emotional about it. This can be disconcerting for expats used to a less engaged workforce, going about with stoic expressions.

“People here wear their heart on their sleeve, which is something I love,” says Ben Salmon, a former diplomat with the Australian High commission, who is now CE0 and Co-founder of Bangalore’s Assetz Property Group. “The flip side of it is that you can’t criticise someone’s work without visibly upsetting them. If there’s bad news, it has to be carefully packaged.”

This makes simple performance appraisals a herculean task in Indian workplaces. Bosses are wary about giving negative feedback, however constructive it may be, since the receiver is quite likely to fly into a rage or burst into tears. “During performance reviews, Indian managers tend to give only positive feedback and leave the criticism unsaid,” says L’Oreal’s Jean-Christophe Lettelier.

We don’t trust easily

”There seems to be a trust deficit in Indian business and society in general which makes business par ties wary of each other until a relationship develops,” says John Kilmartin, Director of IDA Ireland, the Irish government ‘s foreign investment agency.

The lack of trust extends to international brands and often translates into behaviour that expat CEOs find surprising. “For some reason, customers in India tend to escalate issues very quickly. May be this is due to lack of trust? Regardless of why this happens, we need to convince customers that we will always be fair and do the right thing for them,” says Nigel Harris, president and managing director, Ford India.

But once the trust is earned, it tends to be strong. “The culture in India is such that if you earn a person’s trust, you’ll be treated like family. People in India are extremely cautious….but once on-board, their loyalty’s commendable,” says Michael Mayer, Director, Volkswagen Passenger Cars.

We escalate decisions to the boss

When it comes to big issues, where the stakes are high, we would rather let the boss decide. At L’Oreal India, Jean-Christophe Lettelier has been trying to push decision making down to the front line and make the organisation entrepreneurial, but his observation is: “People avoid taking full responsibility for anything because they don’t want to take any blame if things go wrong. Then if things do go wrong, they blame something else instead of taking responsibility.”

Ben Salmon, CEO and Co- founder of Assetz Property Group was a diplomat at the Australian High Commission before he became an entrepreneur. He says: “There’s a tendency to push decisions up to promoter level. For someone who believes that midmanagement should be taking decisions everyday within a strong corporate framework, this part of the Indian business environment is challenging.”

We’re very hierarchical

It’s hard to get Indians to call the boss by his first name. Expats squirm when emails begin with the phrase “My respected sir.” Tom Albanese, CEO of Vedanta says “Indians can be too eager to please sometimes. The only time I get flowers is when I am in India. I find awkward garlanding moments all the time. ” The bowing low and garlanding is occasional and symbolic, but a practical day-to-day problem is addressing the CEO by his first name.

“Despite my best attempts, many of my colleagues still do not use my first name in discussions. The focus on hierarchy makes people take titles very seriously,” says Ford’s Nigel Harris. If you can’t beat them, join ’em.

At Volvo Auto India, MD Tomas Ernberg has started adding the suffix jee after the names of his colleagues to show them an equal measure of respect. “People in India give too much importance to hierarchy. Even unconsciously it does reflect in their style of working and interaction,” he says.

Michael Thiemann, CEO, ThyssenKrupp India tried to demolish hierarchies in his company and distribute responsibilities according to capabilities, like they do in Germany. The result, he says, was chaos. Thiemann then called in his senior colleagues to rework things. “We developed the concept of team work with an Indian flavour, taking care of the hidden rules of the Indian working culture,” he says.

We’re lousy at work-life balance

Indian CEOs pooh-pooh the issue saying we have to work 18 hours and build the nation, but expats find the lack of work-life balance in India quite appalling. “When I started working at BMW India, I was amazed to see e-mails coming from colleagues well after mid-night. I personally went to them and told them they need to maintain a good work-life balance,” says Philipp von Sahr, President, BMW Group.

Some expat CEOs attribute this impatience with due process and the desire for shortcuts to age. “India has a much younger workforce and I like to give enough space to employees. I don’t want to take away the freedom from employees,” says Guillaume Sicard, President, Nissan India.

Still, systems and processes are the life blood of an MNC and many expat CEOs fret over this issue. As Volkswagen’s Michael Mayer says: “It may take people take some time to get used to it, but it’s important to understand the rationale behind these systems since each one of us has to adapt to the entity we represent.”

We’re all stuntmen

Where the West has adventure sports, Indian have daily life. As managing director of Chyso India, a French manufact urer of chemicals used in the construction industry, Giles Everitt has seen labourers atop skyscrapers, painting the walls without a proper harness or life-line. “If there is one thing I would like to change in Indian work culture, it is the attitude towards health and safety,” he says.

Why do we take so much risk? It is mostly lack of awareness says Ben S almon of Assetz Property, who believes real estate developers are now creating that. “Earlier, the cost of safety wasn’t built in and construction labour didn’t see their job as a trade. That’s changing, though we’re still nowhere near global standards.”

We say what you want to hear

If someone says “I’m 99% sure I will be there,” most of us know he doesn’t plan to be there at all. But for an expat CEO, such lines create big misunderstandings. New Zealander Glen Peat of Hyatt Hotels used to take a statement like “I’ll be with you in five minutes” at face value — and find himself waiting a long time. “It’s ingrained in Indian culture. It’s not very honest, but I’ve realised it’s a way of being courteous,” adds Peat.

We do everything at the last minute

The Indian attitude towards deadlines has been known to send many expat CEO blood pressures through the roof. “It took time for me to adjust with the time management of people in India,” says Ricoh’s Takano. “But if a deadline is not being met, they would stretch and make sure things fall in place.”

Guillaume Sicard of Nissan Motor India, used to be incredulous at the confidence his Indian colleagues displayed as deadlines approached. “Time management is quite fluid in India. They will work late hours into the night, even on weekends, to meet the deadline. Americans or Europeans would never do that. There they believe in a strict 8 to 5 pm working day.”

Be that as it may, doing things at the last minute can lead to shoddy quality. ThyssenKrupp’s Michael Thiemann never takes that chance. “In India, up to 95% progress, everything is done very well. However, the boring 5% remains and that is where I get involved to make sure that the work is really done,” he says.

Acknowledgement: The Economic Times Corporate Dossier – 26-December-2014

P.S. If your leaders and colleagues are also interested in this subject, do them a favor and share this link. They may thank you for your concern and initiative.

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Author: Kaizen Institute - India!

Kaizen Institute – India is part of the Global Kaizen Institute operations. Kaizen Institute was established by Sensei Masaaki Imai, the GURU of Kaizen. He wrote the 1st book 28 yrs ago and that is when it all started . We operate in 30+ countries today and have over 400+ coaches helping more then 600 organizations Learn, Apply, Sustain – Kaizen/ Operational Excellence. In India we have two physical offices – Pune & Ahmedabad and 27 coaches in all.

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