The undeniable driving force in the majority of interactions in India is Power. Who has it, who wants it, who is using it. While these questions are asked in most other countries, the difference in India is that these questions are asked out loud.
Power is the ever-present topic that everyone is sensitive to. Any subtle shift in the power balance is met with opposition, and can be felt as clearly as an earthquake.
Is [your name] trying to get more power?
If you work closely with Indians, this question has been asked of you. It sits at the bottom of most Indians’ brains and comes to the surface anytime there is a slight change.
Rigid hierarchy and power plays not only dominate the political landscape, but also greatly influence life in the office and at home. It can be seen in how someone speaks to domestic staff, refers to an office colleague, or drives on the road.
Power is important to Indians simply because it is more valuable than in other cultures. If you have power, you can get things done faster, get things done others can’t, make other people do things for you, and make money doing it. Unlike many other cultures, if you have power, you are welcome (and expected) to use it openly here. The key to doing what you want to do in India is having power – or knowing someone who does.
Who’s the boss?
While working at a small Indian company, I was asked to contribute to a project alongside a colleague who had been at the company much longer than me. When I offered my thoughts of potential improvement, he was fairly irked that I wanted to tamper with something he felt had been working fine before me. I didn’t back down since I thought the improvements were necessary for the project’s success. I must have pushed him to his limits because he eventually laid the trump card down on me: “This has been approved by the CEO. It is a waste of time to talk about your inputs!”
End of conversation.
I didn’t learn from that interaction and continued to attract bad attention for trying to usurp the power system. I ended up in a meeting that I shockingly realized was set up to deal with my power ambitions.
During this “intervention”, everyone was invited to share the one, big, honest goal we hoped to personally get from the work we were doing. When it came to my turn, I honestly said I hoped to receive recognition from our team and others for putting together such a great project. Satisfied that I was not overly ambitious, my boss then revealed her answer.
She used a word from the local language that translates as “authority” or “influence”. She wanted to be the one to push the buttons, to pull the strings, to make the show go on. This very honest answer is a reflection of what most Indians want in every situation – more power.
Hierarchy in India
This preference for hierarchy is often one of the first “strange” things foreigners notice when interacting with India. Why are they treating me like royalty all the time? Why can’t I be friends with my domestic staff? Why is manual labor seen as such a degrading job? It will take you only a few minutes in India to realize that there is a very clear segmentation to society, you are now a part of it, and there’s not much you can do about it.
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