What did you learn from your university?
I mean really.
While your alumni association would like you to believe you learned exclusive knowledge that set you up for success, it’s likely you’ve forgotten most of that stuff.
What you did learn was how to build a network, how to collaborate on projects, and how to convince a professor to throw out the results of a failed test.
These are the skills that have stick with you and continue to shape who you are today.
Indian universities are no different. They teach technical skills, but the ‘other’ skills are the ones that tend to stick more. Some of these skills are great for the business world, such as how to churn out a group project overnight. Others might cause you to pull your hair out.
I’ve picked out four things ‘taught’ (implicitly) at many Indian universities that can possibly result in frustrating behaviors in Western-dominated offices, and make managing young Indians challenging. Not all universities in India are the same and there are some where none of these things occur. However, you can treat this as a useful generalization that will help you understand where the majority of Indian graduates are coming from.
1. The professor/student relationship is a relationally delicate one
The professor is older, wiser, and has a specific plan to execute. Professors should be honored and respected. The student also has a lot to lose if the relationship breaks down. If this professor doesn’t like me, I won’t pass / graduate / get a good job / get married….
Therefore, communication to the professor is generally indirect. Students frame answers to questions in a way that pleases the professor. They defer to the professor, and don’t question things because there is too much to lose if the professor gets upset.
In the office: Simply replace ‘professor’ with ‘boss’. If employees think you are the gatekeeper to their future happiness, your communication with them will be mostly indirect and they will tell you what they think you want to hear. They will also expect you to have the plan and tell them what to do.
2. Don’t ask questions in the middle of a lecture
Lectures are a time for the professor to impart knowledge to students. The student is supposed to be quiet and take notes. Asking a question in the middle of class might make you seem dumb (Did you really not know the answer?), disrespectful (Are you questioning the authority of the professor?), or a time-waster (We can’t spend time on this, there is a full syllabus to complete).
In the office: Meetings replace lectures. They are a time for the boss to tell employees what will happen. Meetings are not where questions are asked. ‘Brainstorming meetings’ or other participative events seem very strange for freshers coming right out of a traditional university.
3. If you don’t understand, ask a friend afterwards
So what are you supposed to do if you don’t understand something said in the lecture? Check with your friends to see if they got it. If they didn’t, ask the smart kids. The only person you don’t ask is the professor.
In the office: You might close your meeting with “Are there any questions?” Each person shakes his head politely and then leaves. Once they reach their desk they ask each other “Did you have any clue what she was talking about? No, I have no idea. Do you think Jayashri knows? Maybe, let’s check.
4. On your exam, longer is better
When an Indian student gets home after taking a very important essay examination, most Indian parents have one question:
How many pages did you write?
More than 10? Ok, pretty good. Only 3? Oh god.
The more you write, the more likely something in there will be the right answer the professor is looking for, and (most importantly) it proves you did a lot of studying beforehand.
In the office: I was working with a young Indian who was new to the company and trying to make a good impression. He was given the task of giving an overview of a few prospective clients from a particular location. He came back with 30 pages of details about each company’s founder, date of incorporation, tax structure, mission statement, and complete profile all duly copied and pasted from the Internet. I explained what I meant by ‘overview’ and had him try to do it again.
How to retrain
The first question is if you need to retrain. These skills are very useful in a traditional business set up. If you were brought in by your company to set up the operations and then hand it over to an Indian manager, you might be the one who needs to learn some new approaches to leadership and communication.
However, if you are working for a western-dominated multinational where these behaviors will be detrimental to their careers, you should help them learn some new skills.
First, take a long-term approach. These are not things that can be magically changed by a trainer in a one-day program. It took years for these behaviors to be learned and it will take a while to undo them.
Second, praise positive behavior rather than focusing on negative. Remember the relationship delicacy issue. If they think you are upset with them, they will revert back to what they are used to. Reward small achievements along the way, and be liberal in your praise. The key issue is making them feel comfortable around you. Sympathize with the fact that it will be scary for them the first time they ask a direct question in the middle of the meeting.
If they are worried about being seen as dumb, disrespectful, and time-wasters, praise question-askers for being smart, respectful, and time-savers.
Third, train on actual skills. ‘Showing ownership’ and ‘being proactive’ are not skills. Do not call up a training company and ask for programs on these things. Learning how to summarize a five-page paper into two paragraphs is a teachable skill. Coming up with intelligent questions to ask during a meeting is also a skill.
As you seek to build stronger relationships with your team members, and especially as you spend time managing young indians, become inquisitive about what education was like for them. At lunch today, start a conversation with your team about their educational experience. You’ll soon see patterns that will give you a lot of insights about where they are coming from, and how to work better together.
Image Credit: serenity_now on Flickr