I want my Indian team to take more ownership. Can you do a training session on that?
This is a common request from many cross-cultural managers. How do you get Indian employees to take more ownership over the work of the organization?
You may see associates constantly passing on calls and tickets to their managers instead of dealing with them directly. Your office feels like a revolving door, with people constantly coming to ask questions and seek approval. You wish people would just stand up and take a decision without you.
I was talking with a British manager in India who gave his team the task of preparing a presentation. The team booked numerous meetings with him to make sure everything was done exactly as he wanted. Their insecurity in being able to complete the project on their own led him to a much deeper involvement than he wanted.
“Since then, I’ve tried to teach them to have more autonomy,” he said.
“Is that working?” I asked.
Another way to look at ownership
While your intentions are good, you need to back up and realize what it is you are saying when you tell them to ‘take ownership’. Here’s another way to look at it:
If you are in a crisis situation or there is no clear guide as to what you should do, it is better to circumvent existing authority structures and make the decision you think is best for the business.
Starting to see some cultural issues?
Crisis Situation – This is when #ChaosBeatsLogic. While Chaos might be the right person for the job, you can never be sure how he will handle it.
No clear guide what to do – In traditional Indian companies, the ‘clear guide’ is always there – whatever your boss tells you to do.
Circumvent the existing authority structures – Also known as asking to be fired/sacked.
Make a decision – Superiors exist to make decisions. If you want me to make decisions, why are you being paid?
When Indians Take Ownership
It’s not that Indians are incapable, or averse to taking full ownership over something. It’s just that they typically only do it for a JustGetItDone assignment.
What is a JustGetItDone assignment?
JustGetItDone assignments start by being invited into your boss or super boss’ office for a special project.
JustGetItDone assignments mean you get a blank check and immunity to make sure something is done. If you do something you are technically not supposed to, you will be protected in some way. If your boss tells you to JustGetItDone, he is making an agreement to stand by you if anything goes amiss.
This doesn’t (necessarily) mean the boss is asking you to do anything illegal; it is just an extremely high priority assignment that doesn’t have time for planning.
The key difference between ‘taking ownership’ and a JustGetItDone assignment is that the former is supposed to be a permanent attitude while the latter is limited by time and scope of work. Once the assignment is over, things go back to the way they were before.
In asking an employee to ‘take ownership’, the Leader is permanently handing over control of an area of the business. This is inconsistent with a Parent Leader’s paradigm. The Parent Leader needs to have ownership over all parts of the business at all times unless there is an emergency.
What’s the difference?
Lavanya was called into her boss’ office and given a JustGetItDone assignment – picking up a VIP who had arrived unexpectedly from the airport. Lavanya’s boss told her this guy was ‘super-senior’ and she had to give him the best treatment.
Not knowing who was coming and being new to her job, Lavanya booked a luxury car rather than the usual economy cab they used for guests. The VIP mentioned having some bad food on the plane, so Lavanya took him to a very elegant lounge for a quick snack before coming to the office.
The meeting was a great success, although it turned out that the ‘super-senior’ visitor was a regular guest that had been to the office often.
When Lavanya submitted the receipts she had incurred for reimbursements, finance complained that she had gone far over budget for a regular visitor. Her boss quickly came and cleared up everything and told her she did a great job.
However, over the next few weeks, Lavanya started to see some gaps in the way clients were treated when they visited. She independently decided to start using a slightly higher-priced cab company that she felt was more reliable, and also began giving photo frames to all visitors.
Her boss suggested that she take clients to some of the nearby temples. But Lavanya said that after spending time with the clients, she thought most of them would rather do some souvenir shopping instead.
Over time, instead of praising her, Lavanya’s boss has started to say, “She never used to be like this.” Instead of getting one highly important job done, now it appears that she is seizing control of her department and not allowing her manager to have his say. Which one is ownership?
Tips for increasing ‘ownership’
First, many cross-cultural managers are not aware of an Indian’s ability to perform a JustGetItDone assignment. It is pretty amazing. If you aren’t taking advantage of this, you are missing out.
However, if you are also trying to build more long-term ownership over many layers of the organization, here are some ideas:
- Be specific as to what you mean. Just saying ‘take ownership’ without describing exactly what you mean is irresponsible. Share with them a specific range of behaviors that you expect them to exhibit on their own.
- Truly empower your team. At the Ritz-Carlton, each employee is authorized to use up to $2000 to solve customer disputes with no questions asked by management. Consider similar initiatives for your team.
- Be available. A transition to permanent ownership does not happen overnight. Along the way they will have lots of questions; you should be there to debrief situations. They will feel unfairly judged if they are supposed to have ‘ownership’ over a huge role without guidance.
- Be reasonable about creating ownership in the levels below you. It will be nearly impossible for you to say or do anything as a top manager to create ownership in entry-level employees. Instead, focus on training your direct reports on how to pass on ownership to their teams.
- Defend them to the end. If they’ve made a bad decision while you were trying to give them ownership, they will expect you to protect them from any formal or public punishment. You cannot let them down.
- Publicly anoint responsibility. Anytime you want someone to take ownership of a particular process, hold a ceremony that makes clear to everyone exactly what they are responsible for.
One of the main goals of a cross-cultural manager is to build teams that can function without him or her. A key part of this involves teams having ownership over their projects. Understanding exactly what ownership means and how it is perceived in India will be central to your success in handing over the reins.
Image credit: kkalyan on Flickr