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How work culture in India differs from rest of the world

Last updated on: October 10, 2011 14:16 IST

How work culture in India differs from rest of the world

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Sayantani Kar and Preeti Khicha in Mumbai

In an increasingly global business world, where teams work across borders, understanding different work cultures is the key to success.

Three leaders and their experiences.

"In India, it is an accepted habit to work for 10 hours; in the US, it is an exception to the rule," says Dr Pawan Goenka, who shares his experiences here.

My exposure to the US work culture has become a bit dated, being 18 years old, but my travels have kept me abreast of the current situation there.

When talking about the work cultures in India and the US, the first thing that comes to mind are the myths that prevail about the so-called differences.

One of them is the relationship between the boss and subordinates. The general belief is that in India the relationship is very formal and hierarchical and it is not so in the US.

What I think is it varies from company to company. My work experience in India has been in only one company - M&M - and for us, there is a level of informality and an open culture that I had not seen even in the US.

There have been instances when in meetings with the US companies, we have found only the CEO speaking on their behalf while those of us from Mahindra had participated uniformly.

India has had a late start in succession planning and talent management. However, it is fast catching up. There is a fair amount of time that all of the good companies here are spending on these two activities.

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Image: India has had a late start in succession planning and talent management.

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For an Indian CEO, the time spent on human resource issues is as much as, if not more than, the time spent on market shares and revenues.

Earlier in India it was not so. The gap between the two countries in prioritising these issues is narrowing.

The US is going through some difficult economic times, which will affect the HR culture. In India, there is a high demand for good talent and hence a lot of attention is being given to retaining and engaging that talent.

Though, it will never be unimportant to do so in the US, the stress on it may not be as high, in light of the times. In India, by contrast, the top priority remains retaining the key talent pool.

Retaining talent for Indian companies has become a key factor in their growth strategies.

Progressive Indian companies are comparable in their work cultures with progressive companies in the US. US companies have long-standing legacies.

For example, in General Motors, every process and responsibility was well-defined. Who has the authority over what is clearly stated.

Indian companies, even old ones, did not have such processes five to 10 years ago. Now they have been put into place.

Earlier, one had to invent as one went along.

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Image: Retaining talent for Indian companies has become a key factor.

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Another example is the flexibility in deployment of policies - related to people. An example is healthcare. In most US companies, it would be strictly by the process; there would be a clear definition of what your employer will pay for and what it won't.

Beyond that requests won't be entertained. It is different with Indian companies, where flexibility and compassion find a place in such instances.

A major difference remains the work-life balance. In my 14 years of working in the US, I would not have received more than 20 official calls when at home. There is a clear value attached to one's family time.

One left office not with a sense of guilt but to spend time with the family. Though, if there is work, they would stay back and finish it.

Even today when I go to the US, there are colleagues who put in extra hours.

But, in India, it is an accepted habit to work for 10 hours. In the US it is an exception to the rule.

However, the flipside of this is, there may be a greater sense of ownership of work in Indians. In terms of what does one's work mean in one's life, we are at one extreme while some Western countries are on the other.

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Image: A major difference remains the work-life balance.

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One thing that I don't like about the Indian work culture, which refuses to change, is that we don't take our commitments seriously.

If we say we will finish something by 2 o'clock tomorrow, it might not be binding, but for someone in the US it will be delivered by that time. If not, then the person expecting it would at least be apprised of the delay.

In mentoring, I find Indians a bit soft in critical assessments. Seniors tend to lean more on positive feedback during an appraisal, leaving the criticism unsaid. In the US, there is a better balance in practice.

Here, either due to the appraisal process or the lack of skill of the appraiser, the much-needed critical assessment is often held back.

Of course, my views would also be coloured by the fact that I worked as a middle manager in the US while in India I have been in senior management.

The author is president, automotive and farm equipment sectors, Mahindra and Mahindra

As told to Sayantani Kar

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Image: Indians don't take commitments seriously.

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"Europe's business success was the result of innovation and compliance," says Ravi Uppal, who shares his experiences here.

Europe's ascent to economic leadership can be attributed to its culture shaped by its unwavering faith in the value of innovation and in the excellence of execution, backed by compliance to systems and processes.

I experienced the business ethos of Europe in two stints, in the eighties and in the early part of this century.

Overall what struck me as being unique about the continent that time was the extraordinary belief of its people in moving forward methodically, in line with well laid out processes.

To me, Europe's business success and its years of economic dominance were the result of innovation and compliance working together, hand in hand.

Sure, within that overall context of homogeneity there were subtle shades of difference.

So, while the Germans tended to be hierarchical, the Swedes and the Finns believed in flat structures and a democratic style of decision-making.

However, though the flavours may have been different, the results were the same: All these economies were hugely successful, proving that while there could be no single and identical belief or value system that worked equally well for all societies the basics were not very different and had to be adhered to.

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Image: Europe's success is the result of innovation and working together.

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How work culture in India differs from rest of the world

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Business behaviour, at the end of the day, is largely conditioned by cultural underpinnings and these may be different and distinct for every nation.

Having said that, across the developed world, work- forces tended to behave in a uniformly ordered manner, believing in the power of team effort - of different people pulling in the same direction, regardless of whether an organisational structure was flat or pyramidical, democratic or hierarchical.

The Europeans and the Japanese preferred to pool their strengths, following standard practices and moving together as opposed to grand solo runs.

Such a culture had evolved in these nations over decades of experience in industrialisation with all its ups and downs and periods of growth and recession.

While individual brilliance continued to be recognised and rewarded, the advanced world had understood that for sustained growth and leadership, it was important for organisations to adhere to processes and turn follower-ship into a high value ethic.

Moving together and to a plan was key to the ability of the advanced nations to execute their projects with a high degree of efficiency - it was their mantra for performance.

There may be still no single definitive cultural chemistry guaranteeing the success of a business, regardless of its geographic or social context.

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But there are some fundamental rules like innovation, transparency, plurality of decision-making and serious adherence to commitment without which no enterprise can hope to achieve excellence.

European companies went to great lengths to ensure compliance with such principles and were, therefore, not only able to achieve leadership but sustain it over long periods of time.

More recently, however, with markets becoming increasingly complex and multinational and the balance of economic power shifting eastwards, the developed nations too are having to re-think their way of life.

What worked for a singularly dominant Europe up until the 90s - strong adherence to its local mores and traditions - is no longer working as well and these countries are, therefore, borrowing from the beliefs of an increasingly multicultural universe and creating new versions of old styles, more suited to the dynamics of the modern world.

The fact that every society has its own cultures and values that have a profound bearing on the culture and values of their organisations is beyond dispute.


Image: Developed nations are having to re-think their way of life.

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There is no single set of values that will do equally well in every business across cultural landscapes. However, what is beyond doubt is that every organisation must adopt a culture that enables high performance and consequently paves the way for leadership.

Europe did that for years and stayed at the top.

Its more recent slide can be attributed to a dilution of those values as the continent grapples with the new realities of globalisationwhere the leading economic signals are increasingly coming from culturally distant China and Asia.

Since such an extraordinary overlay of new values on the traditional values could not have been without conflict, European societies are struggling to find new identities even as they retain their traditional values, the ones which gave them competitive strength and will eventually help them recover from the doldrums.

The author is director on Larsen & Toubro Board and president, L and T Power

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How work culture in India differs from rest of the world

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"In India, people do not like to be led; they want a participative system," says Shashank Sinha, who shares his experiences here.

I think the first big difference between the Western work culture and Indian work culture is work-life balance. In developed economies, people take their work-life balance more seriously and companies seem to be more sensitive to that.

A typical work week in a Western country is very well-defined.

There are clear start and end times and it is not unnatural to start winding up after work on Friday. There is a lot of activity around weekends, whether with family or related to sport. So in England, it is about soccer and in France, going to the beach.

In developing economies, and particularly India, culturally we are more obsessed with work. People work long hours and they work hard.

But that does not necessarily mean the quality of work is any different.

Given people in developed markets are conscious of their work week, their productivity and effectiveness, even in lesser number of hours is commendable.

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Image: A typical work week in a Western country is very well-defined.

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The quality of output is probably the same, so it's not that we work more but spend more hours doing the same work.

Another key difference at the workplace is that in India, we are still very hierarchical. There is a lot of value for seniority and respect for age in corporate India.

In the Western world, it is more egalitarian and common to have subordinates that are significantly older. In India, people often find it difficult to speak in the presence of very senior people.

Even if they have a valid point, they whisper and will not raise their hand and contest it, while in the West you are encouraged to express your views.

Also, the truth is that people who are closer to the ground have more intimate knowledge of what is going on, and hence enrich the discussion with their point of view.

Compare this to China, where they have a command and control culture, so hierarchy works in a different way.

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Image: Indians are still very hierarchical.

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People in China look at leaders to provide direction and leadership.

In India, democracy is a big part of our culture and everyone has an opinion. People do not like to be led, and want a participative system. When I was in Sara Lee in Shanghai, I was heading 800 people.

Since I was new I started off making the environment participative. After a few weeks, the CFO (a Chinese lady) mentioned that people were questioning the leadership style.

That's when I realised that you have to do all the pre-work and be very clear on what direction you want to take. Chinese people are great at execution if you give them direction.

Here are a few things I like about the Indian work culture. In India, employees are constantly striving to be better than what we are and set much bigger goals.

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They want to grow faster and seek new roles. They are hungry to do more. Professionally, we are unified to the world because we have English as our primary language of communication compared to China or Latin America.

I also admire the jugaad approach to problems, rather than being process-driven, which leads us to find innovative solutions.

Of course, there are things I don't like. The average work day in India starts very late and works against having a good work-life balance. Then the way Indians approach punctuality...

The author is president, international business, Godrej Consumer Products

As told to Preeti Khicha


Image: I also admire the jugaad approach to problems, says Sinha.

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