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Cultural disconnects can eat your lunch

Gujrati Thali“Why can’t I motivate the Indian workforce?” This is one of my 10 most common questions from small businesses doing business in India.

It often comes from well-meaning professionals who try to apply U.S. management styles in India without really understanding the differences in U.S. and Indian cultures. It’s a frustrating problem but a common pitfall that is easily avoidable. I’m sympathetic to frustrating, common and easily avoidable problems — especially since I once called my computer tech support to troubleshoot a computer issue only to realize several minutes into the call that my keyboard wasn’t plugged in.

A U.S. manager called me the other day annoyed about the declining participation by her young Indian staff during lunchtime meetings. She was in India on an extended trip during which she wanted to maximize her time and bond with the team. She thought she was being generous providing free sandwiches as an added incentive for the young employees to participate. What she didn’t realize there was a dietary disconnect: Most of the employees ate hot, fresh lunches comprised of several of different dishes. The cold sandwiches were a turnoff, not an incentive.

The manager had read up on the Indian culture before she left for her extended visit but had not fully realized the impact of cross-cultural nuances. It’s a common problem when doing business abroad. Cross-cultural disconnects are often to blame when people complain they only get 6o percent efficiency from their Indian staff (compared to their U.S. staff), or how Indians don’t take initiative or about why they have a high employee turnover rate.

In my experience, most people understand that different cultures think and act differently. But under the stress of a fast-paced business environment, people expect everyone to act the same as themselves. The U.S. manager is a bright woman but once she got annoyed, her ability to identify the problem became clouded. As far as she was concerned, since it worked well in the U.S. it should work well in India.

Her reaction wasn’t unlike my attitude when my computer stopped working. The computer worked fine the day before, so obviously the problem had to be more than an accidental plug disconnect. I know that checking the plugs is a basic step when investigating a computer problem but I went into high stress mode and my judgment became clouded. I immediately called tech support assuming the problem was within the computer.

I learned my lesson, but it still hasn’t stopped me from laughing when my IT friends tell entertaining stories of people complaining about computer problems. Especially when the problem was the computer wasn’t plugged-in.

One comment

  1. What is your definition for “cultural disconnect?”