Five things I learned about managing Indian staff when working in India

I moved to Bangalore to manage a website development outsourcing company. Our point of difference was that we had New Zealanders on site in India, managing the Indian team. Along with other outsourcing companies, of course we were offering low cost work and utilising the cheap labour available here.

I arrived to a start-up company with eight staff. Here are the painful lessons I learned:

Indians will do exactly as you tell them

Even if the manager doesn’t have any idea what they’re doing, the staff will blindly follow their instructions.

How to resolve this issue: There needs to be a culture developed where staff are comfortable talking to their manager, communicating issues and gaining clarification. Also, the manager needs to resist the urge to express their opinion. Rather than suggesting what they think, wait. Ask the staff what they think. Discuss their ideas and flesh them out more. It’s a painful process initially but Indians are intelligent, they learn quickly.

Indians will never admit they don’t know how to do something

This is not an un-common conversation:

Me: ‘So a client has asked if we can do this project. However, it uses X specific software. Have you used it? If you have, we’ll take on the project.’

Indian developer: ‘Yes, I know X’

Me: ‘Great! How well do you know it?’

Indian developer: ‘Well, not well…’

Me (suspicious now): ‘What type of project did you complete using X?’

Indian developer: ‘Well… I’ve never actually used it, but I’ve HEARD of it…’

Similarly they don’t ever give you accurate time estimates when things will be ready. I’ve had conversations where the developer has insisted the project is complete. Even when specifically questioned if testing, bug fixes, customer changes have been made, the answer was still yes. It is only when I check the website with them and point out the things that aren’t done that the truth comes out.

How to resolve this issue: It’s part of the culture that is developed, as above. Staff have to be comfortable knowing they can tell you the truth with no recriminations. In the interim, managers must learn to ask a lot of questions. A good manager will be able to adapt their communication style to suit their staff. In my case, it was just having the infuriating conversations as above, again, and again.

The men have a sense of entitlement over women staff (even if they are lovely)

Men will talk over women, interrupt, and denigrate their ideas. It takes a strong woman to survive in an Indian workplace. So you end up with men interrupting and speaking over the woman, who responds by talking louder. Women’s suggestions are ignored and then taken up when a man suggests it. In India, even the most enlightened men are brought up as little kings, with their sisters and mothers acquiescing to their every need. This is somewhat regional- in the South, it’s not as prevalent.

How to resolve this: Give women space to reply; specifically ask them questions and let them finish their answers. Give credit when credit is due. The men are human after all, they often just need to step back from their cultural norms.

Due dates will pass by with a swift whooshing sound but not a completed product

I’m not entirely sure why this happens. Certainly, Indians work hard, and there is a culture of a lot of hours being worked. Often tasks will be attempted, failed, and then the staff member will just continue trying the same ineffective thing again and again. It’s not in their culture to use their initiative and that can slow projects down considerably.

How to resolve this: Have contingencies; build in a few extra weeks of project time. Have a very active project manager who ensures milestones are met and results are reported back clearly.

Indians love hierarchies and titles

In India, it’s possible to have five staff in a business, and five titles, each one a rung up from the next. Rather than the flatter organisation system that Western cultures have, in India, it’s stacked high. The titles mean nothing to Westerners; the Acting Associate Deputy Vice President of Procurement buys coffee with as much flair as the Associate Vice President. But you have to follow their rules. In the West, we like minimal labour business structures, but in India, it’s seen as best to employ as many people as possible (which is why I sometimes eat meals with six wait-staff at my elbows, watching every forkful of food enter my mouth).

How to resolve this: In your business, have an organisation structure similar to theirs, and give staff titles. Know who to talk to and always CC someone’s manager in when you email them. It creates long email chains but if you don’t do it, they will anyway. It’s also good to be aware that Indians operate more like a factory, with one person completing one task, another person the next. Communication is important here to understand the subtleties.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that in a population of 1.6 BILLION people, you can’t change their culture. You have to assimilate to their culture. Within your own office, you can empower your staff to think for themselves, but they will always fall back on their way of doing things. I think this is why outsourcing often doesn’t work; we see how little they pay their staff and think those savings will extrapolate through to cost savings. We don’t take into account the problems mentioned above, which erode any cost savings you may have made otherwise.

There are ways to make outsourcing work for you, but it takes a motivated individual on site and the home office must manage their expectations.

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