Insights and tips to work effectively with Indians

Economy November 23, 2011 00:00

By Jean-Francois Cousin

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"Could you write about how we [Thais] can work effectively with Indians?" asked a reader.


A timely request, as more and more Indian expats join multinational companies in Thailand and integrate their Asia-Pacific head offices, and as India is a great country with so much to bring to the world.
Many Thais and Indians will admit that working with each other can be challenging at times, without going as far as Indian stand-up comedian Russel Peters, who jokes that “Indian people and Chinese people cannot do business together, because Indians cannot live without a bargain and Chinese cannot give you a bargain.” More seriously, an Indian CEO newly posted in Bangkok recently shared with me: “I did not expect such a cultural shock in a neighbouring country!”
In 10 workshops I just conducted to help Thai and foreign managers become “highly effective international team-players”, I requested participants to describe positive and negative behaviours of colleagues from several nationalities. About Indians, Thais recurringly wrote (I quote):
Positive behaviours:
_ Direct and self-confident
_ Good presenters 
_ Work smart
_ Detail-oriented
_ Always available
Negative behaviour:
_ Don’t listen (except to their boss)
_ Speak too fast and too long
_ Self-centred survivors
_ Better thinkers than doers
_ Sometimes non-transparent
Then I invited participants who had visited India – and Indians themselves when they attended – to relate those behaviours to what they experience in India. Similar insights emerged at each workshop: 
“Almost everyone – rich and poor – in India has to struggle with a challenging daily-life environment, partly due to wide-spread poverty and relatively inefficient government.”
“Society is highly hierarchical, and ‘the boss’ is granted even more respect than in Thailand”
Subodh Gupta, author of the book “Understanding Indian Culture and Bridging Communication Gap”, comments: “The boss-subordinate relationship in Indian companies is more formal than in the West […] Senior officials demand respect from junior officials […] The boss is called ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. Whereas in the West, the boss delegates and expects the subordinates to make their own decisions, generally in India the boss tells the junior officers what to do and how to do it”.]
“Interpersonal communication in India follows different rules than in Thailand.” For example, Gupta ex-plains, “[whereas] in the UK, people often use words such as ‘thank you, ‘sorry’, ‘please’, in India – often valued for hospitality around the world – you will not hear those words quite often, so please don’t be offended; [if] you are in the middle of your speech and your Indian partner in-terrupts, this is considered normal in India, unless done repeatedly.”
“Competition to enter the best Indian universities is extreme, and the academic performance of their graduates can be quite prodigious.”
“Love of debate is intense in India”; if you think debates in the Thai Parliament are sometimes heated, watch debates in the Indian parliament, and then think again!
Once those explanations were laid out, I questioned non-Indians participants: “Imagine, you would have grown up and been educated in India, how different from Indians would you be?” Everyone agreed in unison “We would be just the same.” Why? Because those behaviours are perfectly adjusted to their context! 
Taking further distance, participants recognised differences amongst their Indian colleagues: “First-time Indian expatriates are more ‘difficult’ to deal with than those who have a longer experience of working abroad. Also working relationships are easier with the younger Indian generation.”
To wrap-up, I candidly asked those who have Indian friends “How are they?” And the answers invariably included “great”, “generous”, “warm-hearted”… As an Indian saying goes: “You can often find in rivers what you cannot find in oceans…”
Where do we sail from here? Based on my 15 years experience doing business with Indians, I’d like to suggest to the Thai reader who prompted this column: go flex yourself and: 
Build personal relationships with your Indian colleagues, sharing your values and whatever else is important for you at work;
Understand their values and beliefs, their fears and interests; 
Level-up in discussions with them, interrupt when you have value to add in the conversation and challenge appropriately;
Invite your Indian friends to teach you how to best negotiate with them, and
Enjoy and leverage the singular strengths of your Indian colleagues.
Let’s conclude with a famous Indian proverb: “What does a monkey know of the taste of ginger?” meaning: someone who can’t understand can’t appreciate.
Jean-Francois Cousin is an accredited executive coach and a former managing director for a “Fortune500” company in Thailand. He may be contacted at Follow his articles in Hi! Managers every fourth Wednesday of the month.