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Are We Speaking the Same Language? Bridging the cultural gaps between U.S. and India based technology teams

“They keep changing priorities on their end and don’t communicate these until the last minute. We have to put in extra hours to keep up with the changes.”
The India Team

As the technology leader in your company, you may already use an outsourcing team as an extension for your U.S. based support and development resources. Are these offshore groups effective? Do your teams deliver the code or services on time and under budget? It’s a difficult thing to explain to your CFO that you are saving expenses by reducing headcount costs here in the U.S., but the result of that reduced cost is to extend programs and reduce the amount of systems and support development from your offshore teams.

Where is that ROI?

Gartner, the information technology research firm, identified India as one of the leading offshoring services destinations. So what does this mean for the U.S. worker who has to communicate with offshore teams based in India to get the job done on time? We can laugh at the NBC series “Outsourced” and imagine the even greater magnitude of the challenges when most of the communication is remote with teams working on the other side of the world.

Answering to the business why there is a “rift” in IT and why their project is over-budget and late is no laughing matter. The technology leads, project managers and developers who have to deal with this on an ongoing basis fail to see the humor in the often fraught interactions between U.S. and India teams.

Here are how some people on the U.S. side talk about their experience (recognize any?):

  • “I realize that the India team is often eager to please but I don’t expect to hear a “yes” to every request made. In fact I have learned not to take their “yes” at face value.”
  • “I feel that I am always micro-managing my counter-parts in India. Everything takes so much more time than expected. They are very good at taking directions but we want them to take more initiative.”
  • “I finally understood that there was reluctance from my Indian colleagues to ask for any clarification. Lack of general industry understanding combined with the fact that they don’t want to come across as ignorant leads to problems down the road.”

Now, let’s hear what the counterparts in India have to say about their experience working with U.S. team members:

“The India team is very hard working but I feel they don’t have the same sense of urgency. The deadlines are sometimes missed and what’s worse is that we don’t get any information until the last minute.”
The U.S. Team

  • “The U.S. managers are very polite but don’t really put in any effort to get to know us; it is all about tasks and projects with no focus on relationships.”
  • “We are not provided adequate information or documentation. It’s a problem when they give us one small piece instead of helping us understand the big picture.”
  • “I feel they have unrealistic expectations. We don’t want to offend them or always question them but it would be nice if they asked for our input before deciding on project requirements or deadlines.”

Despite all the challenges outlined above, many teams manage to work together and, over several years, develop ways to collaborate effectively. Imagine the benefits if these challenges could be addressed earlier and more knowledgeably.

We need to take another look at our approach.

At a high-level, we can break these cultural and communication areas down into five major cultural differences between U.S. and India team members, and apply new tactics to bridge the gap; with this, the frustration and mistrust between teams can be significantly reduced.

Cultural Difference #1: Communication Style

An Indian employee talking with a project manager in U.S. says, “We need expert advice from the U.S. team to resolve some coding issues that our team is facing.” The U.S. project lead is a little confused by the request and asks: “Will it be helpful if I ask the technical consultant to get in touch with you?” The Indian employee responds, “Ummm, yes.” The project manager in the U.S. learns after a few days that the team in India was actually looking for user guide documentation and was embarrassed to ask for it directly!

Without stereotyping people, we can make the broad generalization that a lot of Indian team members tend to have a more indirect style of communication. A “yes” could mean a “yes”, “no” or “maybe” based on the context and also what impact the message would have on the receiver. For most Indians, relationships are key and they believe in order to avoid any tensions in these relationships it is best to say what you think the other person would like to hear!

On the other side, a lot of U.S. employees tend to be more direct. In the U.S. workplace, the focus tends to be more on the tasks rather than building relationships. U.S. employees tend to value being straight forward, specific and getting the job done as most efficiently as possible. Today, the business demands that.

Here are a few strategies to help the U.S. team bridge the gap:

  • Make an effort to develop relationships; do not focus exclusively on tasks and rules
  • Be prepared for personal “meandering” or “irrelevancies” that do not seem to go anywhere. Do not treat efforts to “get to know you” as insignificant small talk
  • Find ways to elicit everyone’s thinking, such as structured round-robins or written responses. Ask the other person to summarize in a follow-up e-mail

Here are a few strategies to help the India team bridge the gap:

  • Understand that it is perfectly acceptable to use the word “no” with your American counterparts when you are not sure if you can meet their request.
  • To communicate bad news (such as being behind on schedule) – you need to use these words exactly.
  • Demonstrate a pro-active “can do” attitude rather than waiting to share your thoughts and opinions.

Cultural Difference #2: Orientation to Time

On the Indian side, most people view time as a cyclical process. Time is something that you don’t have total control of. In the social settings, it is acceptable to show-up two hours late! In the workplace, deadlines are viewed as somewhat flexible if other priorities arise.

Now contrast this with the U.S. side, where deadlines and schedules are seen as critical and need to be strictly adhered to in the workplace and even in social settings.

Let’s consider a few strategies to address the challenges related to different orientation towards time. For the U.S. team:

  • Be aware that fostering positive work relationships may be given precedence over adherence to rigid schedules.
  • Make allowances when scheduling meetings and other tasks – do not assume everything will run like clockwork.
  • Be very specific on deadlines. Communicate clearly the priority of tasks and impact of not meeting deadlines.

Now on the Indian side:

  • Recognize that most Americans are more task-focused and not may spend a lot of time building relationships during work hours.
  • Understand how to determine when things are urgent and to establish protocols for communicating high priority projects.
  • Respect the Americans’ need to maintain a schedule.

Subordinates in India consider it rude to openly question managers or contradict their opinions.

Cultural Difference #3: Orientation to Authority/Power

Those who have been on conference calls with teams in India sometimes wonder why, after asking a question to the team, there is a long stretch of silence. If the manager is present for the meeting, all other team members often stay quiet until they either get a head nod of approval from the manager to speak or wait for the manager to speak first.

Subordinates in India consider it rude to openly question managers or contradict their opinions. For all the U.S. managers who wonder why folks in India do not push back or openly ask questions, remember, for most people in India doing something like that would be rude and disrespectful.

On the relatively more egalitarian U.S. side, it is often ok to push back on your manager unless it puts your job in jeopardy. When given project requirements, people are more comfortable openly questioning if they think there is a problem with the approach.

So, what can the U.S. managers do in this case to be more effective?

  • Be pro-active in seeking feedback — seek out ways to do this one-on-one. Be aware that people will often not openly disagree or question people in authoritative positions and/or clients — especially in group settings.

And, for the India team

[In the U.S.] … Handling conflict head-on is often considered healthier — even though it may result in disruption of relationships.

  • Recognize that American managers delegate responsibility and expect you to use your own judgment and make decisions regarding the matters delegated to you
  • Do not hesitate to ask for clarification if you do not understand something
  • Try not to act overly subservient or deferential with your manager; less formality is preferred.

Cultural Difference #4: Conflict

From the Indian perspective, harmony is a key value. The culture is based in family and community and anything that disrupts group harmony is not welcomed. Silence is preferred over open disagreement. On the same note, coming across as negligent or not knowing the answer to a legitimate question asked by a colleague or boss is considered “losing face.”

A U.S. manager may ask candid questions to an Indian project manager such as “are you confident that the project will be finished on time?” To this, he may receive a long-winded answer which throws absolutely no light on the timeline. This often is an indication that their Indian counterpart is not directly saying that there may be issues with the timeline in order to avoid conflict. He or she may also not want to “lose face” by seeming unsure.

Let’s look at the flip side here. The concept of “saving face” does not really exist for the U.S. culture. Handling conflict head-on is often considered healthier — even though it may result in disruption of relationships.

Again, what can U.S. team members do about the different orientation toward conflict?

  • Do not raise disagreements in group settings where people may feel they are “losing face” or being humiliated.
  • Encourage follow-up written communication to get a more accurate understanding of areas of agreement and disagreement.

What about the Indian team?

  • To communicate negative feedback you must say something negative, not just refrain from saying something positive
  • Recognize that “saving face” is not an important attribute for Americans and they value openly admitting mistakes

Cultural Difference #5: Motivation

Companies that have been in India for several years have learned the trick of coming up with creative new titles to motivate employees. Status, and how it is perceived by family and friends, is very important for team members in India. The difference between a “Developer” and a “Senior Developer” is huge and really motivates Indian employees.

Have their friends heard about the company they work for? Is the company brand image prestigious enough to impress the new in-laws? This is important to many Indian employees. However, while titles and brand image are important, what ultimately results in Indian employees staying on with an employer is challenging, meaningful work that provides personal and professional growth. Employees in India detest the feeling of being “a backend office” and would like to be included in key decisions and strategy especially if it impacts their work.

In the U.S., motivation is mostly grounded on individual aspirations with less consideration to the expectations of family and friends

For U.S. team members working with India,

  • Communicate a clear career path to employees that highlights professional growth over years.
  • Include team members from India in key decisions about projects. Move away from the “onsite and offsite” terminology.

For the Indian employees,

  • Avoid jumping jobs even though one employer may offer more than another.
  • Seek to understand the bigger picture such as industry norms, organizational goals, all stakeholders and their expectations.

Awareness about these cultural differences is a must on both sides. Only by recognizing these major cultural gaps will teams be able to meet at a common ground. Neither the U.S. way nor the Indian way is better than the other, it is just different. Recognizing this will allow you to deliver more, with less expense, and help you avoid that trip to the CFO’s office.