Business culture in India

There is no democratic country that has a more hierarchal society structure than India. This applies to both social and business culture. For western companies based in India it can be an enormous struggle to impose a conventional flat management structure. Persuading senior managers that on occasion they may have to roll their sleeves and chip in is an anathema to most, and one which makes junior colleagues uncomfortable too.

In recent years the hierarchy system has softened, but for business executives new to the country they should be ready for a different management culture with the ‘boss’ totally dominating those below who in turn act out roles of deference.

What this means is that senior managers manage by dictating orders. And they have to be detailed because subordinates are not expected to apply any initiative. They obey, and they will not question what they think may be wrong. This means directives have to be detailed with the result that the vast majority of companies are micro managed.

Micro management also applies to outsourced supply companies utilised by western business. Instruction must be in detail leaving no room for interpretation.

Another alien element to visitors is that Indians do not say no. It is not part of their culture to disappoint with a straight rejection. Those questioned can sometimes be seen to struggle and hesitate to come to a conclusion in answering a question, which are signs that ‘no’ is the answer that will not be spoken. Therefore questions have to be oblique. Asking what the outcome may be in a given situation is far more effective than a head on approach.

The good news for western executives is that English is one of the 16 official languages of Indian, and most mangers in the major cities speak the language well. In the provinces the situation can be different.

Meetings can be a frustrating exercise for those unfamiliar with the protocol involved. Small talk is used to explore the character of new contacts, and in traditionally run businesses the subject matter wanders and people come and go from meeting rooms in a seemingly random manner. Despite the frustration this may cause the process should not be hurried as it will cause offence.

However, in the case of many newer western orientated companies, particularly service and IT companies, meetings follow a much more familiar pattern. But do not assume they will always follow such a structure.

Business dining is a common feature of business, and dinners can play as important a part as lunch. A large number of Indians are vegetarian and the majority of dishes are vegetarian, but meat options are usually available. As a rule no offence is taken by eating meat with vegetarians. Westerners should, however, be prepared for cutlery free dining in some restaurants, though it is usually found for those that struggle with hands only.

Corporate gifts are a common part of corporate life, and it is the gift giver that thanks to recipient. Also, gifts should not be expensive and they should not be opened when first received, or wrapped in black or white paper, which is considered unlucky.

Some things in India may be familiar to Western visitors due to the influence of the British, but the social protocol and business culture is very different for most visitors and it is important to learn about it in order to conduct business successfully.