Building successful business relationships—India

Building successful business relationships—India

Hofstede identified India as a Collectivist nation with a clearly defined hierarchical structure. Indians are sensitive to rank, status, and the position of each individual within an organization. All discussions and meetings are usually led by senior executives, while work is monitored by supervisors. This is partly due to the Indian caste system. A caste system is a system of social stratification based on, but not limited to, hereditary classes (in India, those of the Hindu religion). This system of classification has traditionally guided people’s behavior toward one another.

Although the caste system has been legally abolished, these attitudes still remain. This translates into a high Power-Distance score on the Hofstede scale. There is not a significant amount of upward mobility in India, and individuals in high positions are obeyed and respected. When addressing your Indian colleagues, be sure to use the appropriate title. Use “Professor” or “Doctor” if appropriate and “Mr.” and “Ms.”/“Mrs.” whenever possible. The large inequalities of wealth and power in Indian organizations make it difficult to connect on a personal level with subordinates or those higher in rank. It is not acceptable to call your boss by his first name; to be safe, try to remain formal.

In Indian business practices, interpersonal relationships are very important. As a Collectivist culture, individuals work well in teams and tend to do activities together. Compromise and avoiding conflict are valued, while being able to function well in a group is vital. In India, in order to integrate well, you should focus on establishing a solid relationship with your colleagues. The communication style most commonly used is the indirect approach. This means you should learn to interpret non-verbal signals and cues. A culture of collectivism stems from traditional Indian family values. The ideal family is a joint group, where all members share common property and income. Each individual must be concerned for the welfare of all others, at home and in the workplace. It is therefore important to maintain a sense of harmony in all business negotiations.

Traditional family values translate into a slightly higher Masculinity score on the Hofstede scale than the world average. This means that the gap between the values of men and women is slightly larger than the average in other countries around the world. In general, Indian families value masculine assertiveness and view men as the breadwinners of the family, while women are seen as caring homemakers. Women in business are very common in India because the culture places a large amount of importance on education; however, traditional female roles are still expected.

Appropriate gender behavior in India was first defined by the first Manu, the progenitor of humanity in Hindu mythology, who is said to have given the Manusmriti, the laws to be followed by all social classes (later written down between 200–400 CE). “Even in the home, nothing should be done by a child, a young or even an old wife (woman) independently,” say the Manusmriti. Although these laws are no longer pertinent to India’s modern society, some related attitudes about gender relationships remain. Conservative behavior is key. It is considered very rude to display public physical affection, and in some places it is even illegal. When meeting your Indian colleagues for the first time, a woman should extend her hand first, before a man does. Indian businessmen consider it inappropriate to initiate a greeting to a woman.  

In the workplace, women should wear conservative dresses or well-tailored pantsuits, while men are expected to wear suits and ties. Bright colors are appreciated and it is advisable to choose ties and shirts in warm shades to demonstrate your personality to your host. In the spring, a festival of colors known as Holi or Dhuli Vandana is celebrated. During this Hindu holiday, Indian citizens throw colored powder and colored water at each other to welcome the warm summer months.

Symbolism and the concepts of fate and karma are important in India. One of India’s most characteristic traits is spirituality. This is mainly due to the predominant Hindu religion that views human beings as not having much control over their lives. In turn, this greatly influences the concept of time, which is circular. Negotiations may take longer than expected and a considerable amount of time is taken to get to know your business partner and build a relationship. Meetings may not start on time, and attendees are likely to arrive late. As a foreigner, you should be punctual. Make appointments a month ahead of time and confirm them upon your arrival. To be as effective as possible, use an indirect communication approach.

India scored low in Uncertainty Avoidance compared to the world average. This means that people in general are more open to unexpected situations and events and are willing to take risks. It also indicates that there are not a great number of rules structuring behavior or attempt to control the outcomes of situations. In part, this may be caused by the Hindu view of karma and lack of personal control over one’s destiny. In business, this translates into a greater amount of leeway during meetings. New ideas are more openly accepted and innovation is valued. Your Indian colleagues will appreciate a demonstration of flexibility and your willingness to consider other options. If you present your materials in a manner that appears too rigid and structured, it may be misinterpreted and may diminish your credibility. You should not expect a decision to be made within the first few meetings, because it may take a considerable amount of time for your colleagues to consider your proposal.

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