If only people in India would work like we do… but they have ‘no clue’

People from India always deliver late, and when a project is delayed, they will never tell you but rather say everything is fine”. Many managers of international projects where part of the work is done in India will recognize these frustrations. Unconsciously, there is always the conviction that our structured and organized way-of-working is superior, and if only people in India would learn to work like we do, projects would be on-time and communication would be effective.


The India culture is rich and fascinating. And little understood in the West. And after reading a lot about it, I still feel that I have only understood a fraction of it myself. I know however 3 things that Western project managers should know and understand when working with a team in India.

1. Hierarchy and clarity of instruction.

India is very hierarchical society. The caste-system probably is the clearest display of the fact that people – by definition – are unequal. And in the hierarchical Indian society a boss is expected to lead and take decisions, and lower ranked individuals are expected to obey and execute. The consequence of this is that people expect very clear and precise working instructions from somebody who has higher status, like the project leader from a Western country.

So when you tell Indians what you expect of them, don’t say things like “I expect you to be pro-active“; this is vague, unclear and does not fit the India way of working. They will nod politely when you ask them to be pro-active, but the command will not be processed in their brains. It’s an instruction their system cannot work with. When you say “I expect you to make sure that the problem of the customer gets resolved within 12 hrs, and expenses under 5.000$ to realize this are your personal decision, and …” that is already a lot clearer. In call centers this goes as far as writing down exactly what the India service representative should say for each possible question a client has. While we find this very mechanical and almost like you speak to a robot, for the Indians this is a very natural way-of-working. They feel good when things like working instructions are very clear. What feels like micromanagement to many Westerners is the default – and therefore appreciated – in India.

Practical advice therefore for the Western project manager is to

  • Say clearly what you expect of people, how to carry out their work and how to report back to you (on what, using which medium, when, etc.)
  • Describe work processes on paper, and even practice work processes with the people who carry them out
  • Do not expect people to be creative and pro-active. Explain them very explicit, and very often, what ‘creative’ and ‘pro-active’ means to you. Be very explicit about the fact that you want them to think out-of-the-box and voice their opinion. Help and encourage them often to do so.
2. Indirect, high-context communication

The Indians always say all is fine, when you ask whether the project is on-time”. That’s right, they will. It is up to the receiver of the message however to read between the lines, understand all the non-verbal gestures and derive the meaning from the context. “It is challenging, but we will make it” should be interpreted by a Westerner as “We are not on schedule, but we will work very hard to achieve as much as we can”. The meaning has to be derived from the context, and Indians will always prefer to give difficult messages or bad news in an indirect way. Where Westerners sometimes interpret this as vague or even dishonest (“They don’t tell the truth; you cannot trust them.”) the reality is that the Indians prefer to keep communication smooth and clean, and to avoid the discomfort of bad news.

This inevitably plays a role when you ask your Indian team members for their opinion. They will often react in a very reserved way, which then is wrongly interpreted by the Western manager. The reserved reaction is interpreted as “You see, they don’t know, they have no clue”. In reality they know very very well, they definitely have ‘a clue’ and often know the solution to a difficult problem. They just need to be invited to voice their opinion directly. Once a relationship of trust and respect is established however, Indians can be very direct, and openly share their opinion.

Practical advice therefore for the Western project manager is to

  • Ask a lot of details, carefully interpret all the non-verbal and verbal messages you get, and train yourself not to hear what you want to hear. Place yourself in their shoes: what is this person trying to tell me?
  • Ask people for their opinion. Invite them to speak up. When you create a context of trust and respect and invite your India colleagues, they will speak up and be direct
  • Explain that you come from a very direct, low-context culture yourself. When Indians understand that our directness is not rudeness but an attempt to be open and clear, communication will improve
3. Personal relationships

While in our culture business and private life are separate things, this is not the case in India. We minimize what we call ‘small talk’ at the start of a meeting, such that we can get to business quickly and efficiently. But lengthy, personal discussions before starting work is not ‘small talk’ to Indians: it’s big and important. Building personal relationships is a natural part of life, and good work only can get done once people know and trust each other. So the Indians spend a lot of time getting to know you. They value this process, and will be offended when you cut them off to get to work quickly.

What we perceive as efficient (getting into the office, focus on tasks, moving rapidly from one task to the next) is unpleasant for the Indians. They will not feel valued as persons but feel treated like work machines. Once building personal relationships with the people on the team, you start to appreciate the Indian work context, and this is a necessary step to become effective in Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai.

Practical advice therefore for the Western project manager is to

  • Spend time to get to know your team members individually (when working remotely, you will need to go there once and preferably more often and spend time). Put a map of India on the wall, discuss where people come from, where their families live, read some basic books about India. Knowing their culture and country will resonate with the pride that all Indians feel of their country
  • Explain the task-based culture that you are used to, and explain to the Indians that your task focus does not mean you do not value them as persons. At the same time, let go of your task focus every now and then, and get personal
  • Take time to build relationships. Especially with people where you perceive this to be difficult, remember that your effort is appreciated a lot, and personal relationships get established in months and years, not in minutes and hours


So be clear on your instructions and use the hierarchy, expect indirect communication and build personal relationships. At the same time:

  • learn to see chaos as a way to be flexible
  • learn to see rigidity as a way to achieve the very best
  • and learn to interpret the friendly smile of the Indians as an invitation to connect

Have a great time in India!



For those who want to understand more about India, read ‘Riding the Indian Tiger – Understand India, the world’s fastest growing market’ by William Nobrega and Ashish Sinha. A highly recommended book, that gives clear insight in India’s market and businesses.

My book ‘Managing Through a Mirror – Successful Business Communication where Cultures Meet‘ also describes India in much more detail, and provides practical tips on managing change, managing teams, managing performance and managing negotiations across cultures. As the India culture is a very rich one and quite different from the W-European or US cultures, a lot of attention is paid to working with Indian professionals in the book. For more information on the book, click here.

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