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How to Work With Indian Colleagues and Business Partners: 5 Common Questions Answered

Have you outsourced parts of your business to India? Or do you have Indian colleagues or virtual team members? Learn here how to minimize misunderstandings and maximize value when collaborating with your Indian business connections.

How do I delegate tasks and provide feedback to my Indian colleagues or partners?

When does a "yes" mean "yes" in India?

And how do I successfully negotiate in India?

These are some of the questions asked most frequently by the people who attend our Indian cultural training sessions in Denmark.

Sharjeel Moutier, one of our India country specialists, has provided some answers below.

Sharjeel is of Indian origin, and he has lived and worked in more than 10 countries spread across 4 continents. He has extensive experience advising both European and Indian companies on how to work efficiently together across cultures.

1. What role do status and hierarchy play in Indian organizations?

Although things are gradually changing – people under 30 care less about hierarchy, while it's more important for people above 40 – hierarchy matters a lot to your Indian colleagues and partners.

In general, your title at work is a way of gaining social recognition.

At some Indian companies, key employees get a new title around every six months that sounds more prestigious and powerful than the previous one. This is used as a way to retain employees. The Indian economy is booming and the employee turnover rate – especially at Indian IT-companies – is very high.

Keep in mind that the impressive title of an Indian colleague or partner doesn’t necessarily mean the person has a lot of power. Even a vice president in India will often be surpassed by a senior vice president, and then the president, and so on.

So how do you find out who actually has the power?

Often you'll see that people around that person will behave in a way that signals respect. And the people with actual power will likely display a lot of "bling bling" signs of status and wealth, such as a big office, expensive watches, and exclusive cars.

When it comes to status and hierarchy in India, age also matters. Having grey hair adds a lot of credibility.

Educational background is another important factor. In India, there is high prestige attached to having attended, for instance,  the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology, where admission is extremely competitive. Graduates from these institutions are highly respected – and expect to be respected!

In general, having a higher degree gives you more status than many years of hands-on experience. Be sure to keep this in mind if you're used to working in a country where actual skills and practical experience are more important than educational background.

Let's say you're the manager in a Danish-based company and you need to send a representative to discuss some issues with your Indian supplier. Your first instinct is to send a trusted technician who has no formal degree, but who has been in your company for 30 years and knows all the technical details.

But try to see things from your Indian supplier’s point of view. If the supplier's representatives all have academic degrees, they might see your highly skilled technician as "an uneducated blue collar worker" not to be taken seriously.

Another thing to be aware of – especially if you're used to the non-hierarchical societies of Scandinavia – is this rule: When it comes to social relationships in India, "equals with equals" is seen as appropriate.

If you try to make friends with people too much under your own rank, it might be considered very odd. You can go two or three "levels" up or down in rank, but not more. For example, if you're a Danish manager posted in India, of course you can have a polite conversation with your Indian driver. But don't expect to become real friends.

2. How do I communicate in an efficient way with my Indian colleagues or partners? And how do I figure out when "yes" means "yes"?

The essence of efficient communication in India? Be as explicit and precise as possible!

Let's say you want to build a big house. But how big is big? A house that's regarded as big in Denmark might be seen as rather small by your business connections from the USA – and as extremely spacious by your Indian colleagues!

Specify the dimensions and say exactly how many square meters you want the house to be.

Make your communication more precise by using simple English. Make your topic clear and use short sentences. It's also a good idea to use pictures and other visuals to show the things you're talking about.

As for how to figure out when "yes" actually means "yes" in India, this is one of the most common questions at our Indian cultural training sessions!

First and foremost, don't ask yes-or-no questions. Many Indians don't want to let other people down, so in most cases their answer to that type of question will just be "yes".

Instead, use open-ended questions and try to decode the answers for what is being said "between the lines".

For example, if you want to find out when a task can be finished, try asking your Indian colleague or partner about his / her time schedule. It could be something like "What's your schedule next week? Do you have some free time?"

If it turns out that he / she has two days available, you might ask: "Do you mind spending half a day on this assignment? It's very important that we get this job done".

On the other hand, if your Indian colleague or partner answers that next week is very hectic, then don't expect your task to be finished next week. Instead, keep chatting and ask more questions, until you get information enough to estimate when your task can get done.

This way of reading "between the lines" might be challenging, if you're used to a very direct form of communication. But it can be learned – you just need to practice!

3. How do I delegate tasks and provide feedback to my Indian colleagues or partners?

Here goes the same rule as for communication in general: Be as explicit and precise as possible.

When you delegate tasks to your Indian partner, you need to lay out all your expectations from the beginning to avoid misunderstandings. Be especially aware of your own implicit expectations. What is "common sense" from, for instance, a Danish point of view, might not be common sense at all in India.

Let's say you’re working in a Danish organization and you have a supplier in India. Being used to Danish work culture, you might implicitly expect that if your supplier isn’t able to deliver something as agreed upon, they'll contact you as soon as possible to let you know. But that's typically not the way it works in India.

Instead, expect that you will need to follow up frequently. Start by dividing your task into smaller pieces. And after your Indian supplier has completed each part of the task, follow up and check that everything is done correctly.

When it comes to providing feedback, there are several things to keep in mind.

First, it's best to provide feedback to someone of the same rank as yourself. Equals with equals.

Second, be sure not to harm the relationship with your Indian business connection when giving feedback – and this is especially important if the feedback is negative.

For example, you could start pointing out how important the relationship is for you, that you really appreciate this collaboration and want it to be long-term, etc. Then slowly move on to the feedback and explicitly state what you're not satisfied with – and to let your Indian counterpart save face, try to put the blame on somebody else for whatever has gone wrong. Finally, agree on a way to fix the problem.

4. How do I negotiate successfully in India?

Many things in India are negotiable. So before you start negotiations in India, you should be aligned with your team on which issues can be negotiated, and where you can't be flexible at all.

If there’s an issue that isn’t open for discussion, it's always good to put the responsibility on somebody else to keep your relationship intact. For example, you can say that you would really like to discuss this, but you simply can't, because headquarters back in Denmark would never allow you to change it.

Whenever you negotiate, make sure to first pick a team leader who will lead the negotiations – preferably someone with a high rank.

Actually, this goes for any kind of meetings or group discussions in India. If there are things you need to discuss among your team members, then be sure to get that done before you enter the meeting. During the meeting, let your team leader lead the discussion and only contribute when asked to.

The meeting style most common in Denmark –  where everybody participates in the discussions at the same time –  typically won't work in India. While your Danish colleagues may feel comfortable with lack of structure and the opportunity for everybody to chip in, this will appear chaotic to your colleagues in India.

A final thing to be aware of when negotiating in India is your business card.

If you work in a country where the organizational structure is very flat, the title on your business card might not be that important. But it matters in an Indian context. So consider making a new set of business cards with a "high enough" title to match your Indian counterparts. The more pompous your title is, the better!

5. Are there any topics I should avoid discussing with my Indian business partners?

If you're from Denmark, you might not mind discussing some of the less flattering aspects of Danish society with outsiders. This is different from India, where most people are quite sensitive about how their country is perceived by foreigners.

Unless you know your Indian colleague or partner really well, there are a number of topics that you should avoid.

One of them is religion. The dominant religion in India is Hinduism, but India is a country where nearly all religions can be found, like Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. And you'll find both very liberal minded and very conservative believers.

According to the Indian constitution, India is a secular country where all religions are equal, and religious matters are separated from politics. But in reality there are many complicated and sensitive issues, like religious riots and political decisions that interfere with religious matters.

As for politics, India's relationship with Pakistan, Kashmir, and women's rights are all very sensitive topics that it's safer to avoid unless you know somebody really well.

Finally, don't ever ask your Indian connections what caste they belong to.

Formally, the caste system is associated with Hinduism, but it can also be found among non-Hindus in India. When it comes to promotion, caste still matters in some Indian companies, especially the smaller ones. However, it's gradually becoming less important, and in Indian companies that are very international, many people don't care much about it.

A few more things to keep in mind!

Do keep in mind that India is an extremely diverse and complex country. It's actually more like a continent.

There are more than 20 officially recognized languages in India and there is wide religious diversity.

There are many differences in how things are done between North and South India, and between the countryside and the big cities. On top of that, things are changing fast.

So of course we’re speaking in very general terms in this blog post, and there will always be exceptions. However, the generalizations we use here will apply in many cases and have proven useful to many Westerners working with Indian colleagues or business partners.

Last, but not least: In C3 Consulting, we believe that all cultural understanding begins with self-understanding.

So when you work cross-culturally, start by becoming aware of your own cultural baggage and everything you take for granted. That's essential to finding the key differences between your own and other cultures, and learning how to deal with them constructively.

Need inspiration on how to do that? Check out our article here. And read more about C3’s approach to culture and cultural differences here.

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