There are times when someone says something so perfectly that you can’t get it out of your head.
I was chatting over email with a French friend who had lived in India for a few years about his experiences. His insights hit me so much that I asked him if I could share his thoughts with everyone. He asked to remain anonymous, but I think you will get a lot from reading his thoughts here. I’ve put in bold some of the things that jumped out at me.
What are some of the frequent challenges you faced while working in India?
Working with India was both very challenging and very rewarding. I sometimes felt that I wasn’t on the same planet while in India; so many things are different culturally, socially and even intellectually.
A frequent challenge was to explain a point of view to people who have a different benchmark in their mind. For instance, my parent company was always trying to look forward. Whatever is done is done, and we must look ahead, plan, forecast and build what will be done tomorrow and there after.
In India, my colleagues were always looking backwards, checking what had been done, correcting it, checking again after some time, and perhaps correcting it again. Planning was really difficult for them; they argued that reality can be so different from your expectations that it is useless to plan anything.
But I would also say that if it is a challenge for us, then it’s also a challenge for them to work with us and we shouldn’t forget it.
Where are the areas of the greatest difference between French work culture and India?
I think the greatest difference was definitely in rationality. In my country, engineers are usually “Cartesian” or rational and secular, but this was not necessarily true in India. A lot of things are related back to the divine or linked to God (from a truck to a computer). You have auspicious days where it is good to do something (meaning that other days are not correct). It’s usual to ask a Vastu to decide where your desk should go in your office, and it is commonplace to wait for an act of God to sort out an issue. On the whole, Indians give more importance to their family and religion than their job. A religious festival is more important than a deadline, and your family is your biggest asset. I like the fact that they try to keep their values and spirituality inside their companies.
For example, my India boss had frequent chats with the head office in France. When we scheduled meetings, he looked as his calendar not to see if he was busy, but to know if it was an auspicious day or not.
On time, my boss called me in his office and said, “I found a way to improve the profit of the company.”
“Great, what is it?” I asked.
“Don’t you see that I moved my desk to the other side of my office?”
It wasn’t unusual that he changed the topic in a middle of sentence so I said, “Yes, it is nice, but what is your idea to increase the profit?”
“I just told you!”
Another time I was outside with an engineer when I realize that an electric generator was burning and no one seemed too concerned.
I said, “Should we call the fireman?”
“Don’t worry a solution is coming.”
Skeptical, I said, “What do you mean?”
“You will see”
Suddenly, the rain started and the fire stopped. My colleague said, “You see? That’s what I meant.”
How did you have to adapt your own work style while in India?
In India, before talking or asking for something, it’s important to have a quick chat to talk about family or religion. Before doing anything, you must know if the person is married, how many kids he has and perhaps what his religion is if you have a doubt (the name helps). Indians are curious and will ask you the same. It is important to get this information. The next time you need to ask for something, don’t hesitate to ask how the kids are, and if you can remember their names, that’s even better.
I think one big difference in working with India is how they perceive their company. For them, a company is more like a family. A manager, is not only someone with a better experience, he is also someone responsible for his team. The team will be dedicated if they think that the future is certain with you. Once you get their confidence, they will see you as a father or a grandfather. They will share their doubts and pains with you, and will ask for a lot of advice.
As a foreigner, they may perceive you as someone with good experience to share. So you should manage them in the same way you manage your children. Talk to them, but more importantly listen to them. They will give you a lot information that you would never get if you had to ask directly. But, be careful with this as well. Sometimes, they will try to play this relationship and will give you wrong information just to show off. When you talk to your manager in India, you must show a deep respect and make him understand that he is the best person you could ever imagine to have as a boss.
What do you think is at the root of most conflicts between European and Indian business deals?
Every deal is different, but one funny thing is that Indians try to assure you that they have all the skills you would imagine. A company without a lot of quality certifications, international awards, “best in category” or meeting international standards doesn’t exist in India. They can get pretty irrational when they talk about their country or their company; they describe it as the best in the world without any doubts. The great ambitions of the country/company and the reality might be very different. Unfortunately, the gap between expectations and the reality may be huge and some foreigners might be disappointed.
What were some of the best lessons you learned in your experience in India that you would share with others like you?
From our point of view, Indians seem to be crazy. Everything is upside down, they don’t respect basic safety rules and you wonder how things ever get done.
But it works. We should not forget that. The country has grown up very fast even if everything is not efficient. I think it’s important for them to do things with their own style.
I remember when I arrived in India, my first goal was to send a full report within 3 weeks. I spoke to the person who was able to give me the figures and explained to him how important it was, and he assured me that he would give me the figures on time. I chased him almost on a daily basis. Obviously I didn’t get the figures on time. When I show him my disappointment, he just told me “Why is it so important to have something today that you didn’t have yesterday?”
I can’t say that he was fully wrong.
Image Credit: mynameisharsha on Flickr