With Indians, push a bit more

02 Sep 2009
Posted by Kiran

Sometime back, I wrote about how we should be prepared to say "No". Well apparently that made for interesting reading for a colleague of mine who is from Eastern Europe. She immediately pointed out that saying "No" was second nature to people elsewhere on the globe. However, for Indians it seems like a big deal. She went on to say that when Indians commit to doing something, it usually cannot be relied on. We Indians tend to say "Yes" to everything, even when we aren't really sure of being able to deliver on that commitment.

It seemingly is a cultural thing. In India, we find it tough to say "No" primarily because we are tuned to viewing it as a sign of disrespect to the other person. It also shows that we are a people eager to please those in positions of power. If I were to say "No" to my boss or elder, it could easily be construed as showing disrespect to them. Whereas, in western cultures it is usually a statement that they are unable to or unwilling to take up the task - they usually don't make it as personal as we do.

Moreover, even if it is personal, the westerners are more open to clearly drawing the line beyond which they do not entertain interference in their lives. We Indians tend to be much more ambiguous about it and that often gets us into trouble.

The other question really is, will that kind of westerner's attitude work when dealing with Indian superiors? The answer probably is, No. Just as Indians aren't accustomed to replying in the negative, they aren't accustomed to listening to negative replies. That is the reason we Indians usually end up sacrificing our personal lives in the face of corporate demands.

This weakness has been recognized by most of our clients as well. Whilst most of the clients are very reasonable and actually would expect vendors to ensure proper work-life balance for their employees, there are the odd "demanding" customers who do not mind exploiting the weakness Indians have. I have personally worked with a few clients who would silently accept a refusal from a British or an American executive but would vociferously challenge a similar refusal from an Indian vendor. I don't believe this is a racially motivated discrimination; it simply illustrates that they understand that when Indians refuse, there possibly still is room to push and get the work done. Whereas, Americans or British workers simply won't budge! And let us accept it, if the Boss or the Client knows that some work can get done they would like to get it done. It simply makes more economic sense to push the Indians a little bit further; they may just bend over with a little push.

If I really think about what has contributed to this kind of perception, I am left with only one thought - the Indian Chalta Hai attitude.

Chalta Hai
Chalta Hai is Hindi for saying it is OK or it will do whenever things either don't work perfectly or don't go exactly as planned. This attitude enables Indians to tolerate imperfections and inefficiencies. It also makes us inefficient and unprofessional. We as a society have become so accustomed to listening to and saying "Chalta Hai" that we no longer seem to either strive for or demand perfection!

Chalta Hai provides Indians the much-needed escape route; it is the way Indians escape responsibility; it is the way we say "it isn't my problem because it isn't a problem in the first place. Why are you taking it so seriously?".

Where's the link?
Now you may be wondering what Chalta Hai has to do with Indians getting pushed a little further. Well the way I figure it, the inherent inefficiency that this attitude induces is also perceived by Clients in the way most Indians work, causing them to push us harder to compensate for that inefficiency; Bosses probably just say Chalta Hai as well, assuming that employees' work-life balance is just not their problem. To be fair, we cannot blame individual bosses for doing this. It is a culture that has been built from the ground up and its foundations are based on the infamous Chalta Hai, which means there is little else that individual bosses can do.

If you observe the normal Indian work culture you will soon realize that we routinely over-promise and under deliver. The implicit assumption is Chalta Hai.

What can we do?
The Chalta Hai attitude has been the subject of many a debate and there have been suggestions on how to rid our society of this attitude. I am sure each one of us has our own views. I view it more as a cultural problem that is so deeply ingrained that to actually rid the entire society of it would be a tough ask.

However, having said that, I must hasten to add that each one of us can make a difference. I obviously don't have an answer for the entire Indian society; not yet at least. The few ideas that I have on what corporate executives such as myself can do, will perhaps have to be the subject of a separate blog.

It is going to be a collective responsibility of all of us to ensure that we as a society, as an educated and responsible society, take the initial baby steps towards a more professional attitude towards work, towards delivering on commitments made and towards gradually changing the perception that others have of us Indians.