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Building trust and relationships in India

by: Divya Susan Varkey

Why should I read this document?

Trust and relationships often have different meanings in different cultures and for Europeans doing business in India, this difference in meanings may be more pronounced than otherwise. This document, written by an Indian interculturalist living in India, gives useful guidelines on how to approach trust and relationships in the subcontinent.


5 most important things to know about doing business in India (if you only read one thing this is what you should read)
  • India is a land of contrasts - rule of thumb: NEVER ASSUME AND ALWAYS RECONFIRM.
  • The two things I always ask my clients to pack in their suitcases while doing business in India: PATIENCE and FLEXIBILITY
  • Trust completely only when you have reason to, but without revealing your indecision.
  • Following up on the status of commitments is a sign of the urgency of the task at hand and not a sign of distrust. People often expect to be followed up on a task given to ascertain its importance/urgency.
  • An ideal boss in India is one that earns respect through merit while gaining the trust of his employees by taking care of them like family.
Different cultures approach trust in different ways. For one, the rule of thumb may be that “you trust unless there is reason not to” and for another, it may be that “you don’t trust unless there is reason to”. Knowing how your host culture views trust and how relationships are forged can make a difference in how you approach people while you are there. Moreover, knowledge on the emphasis your host culture places on cognitive versus affective trust and in which instances one is relied on more than the other can help determine your approach while meeting potential partners, clients and employees.


An American gentleman I trained recently commented on how matters of trust seemed to work in India. He said, “I tend to trust people unless I have reason not to, but it seems to work differently in India.” I agreed with his observation - in India, people who trust readily are looked at as gullible and lacking “street-smartness”. The tendency is to not trust, unless someone proves his/her trustworthiness. Of course, this lack of trust is not overtly revealed, but the trustworthiness of the person involved carefully and tactfully ascertained through interactions over time.
Trust too easily given can also sometimes be perceived as an easy target for those who look to take advantage. Blame for a misgiving is often placed on the one who did not take enough caution, rather than the wrongdoer.  Erring on the side of caution while exercising trust is hence, the name of the game while in India.
Surviving Vs. Thriving Cultures
The hesitance to trust could be due to the tremendous disparity in socioeconomic status levels that the country has had over the years. With the majority of the population of India in the lower income group and the aspirers growing steadily, India is still a country with the majority of the people with needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. I like to classify cultures as “surviving” and “thriving” - where the motivation of each is very different from one another. Surviving cultures, as the name suggests, have the majority of its individuals focused on surviving and climbing up the socioeconomic ladder whereas thriving cultures are those in which its individual members have enjoyed a certain level of affluence for a period of time and are more or less equal in society.
In a surviving culture, the rewarded values would be thrift, shrewdness and opportunism. Thus, it can be argued that in cultures such as these, those who trust too easily can be seen as foolish and inviting trouble. I would place India in this category - where the rising affluence (see article on India: Customer needs and behaviour) is still new for the Indian mindset. As one goes up the socioeconomic ladder, for example, one notices a change in this mindset into a more inclusive and altruistic one.
Cognitive and Affective trust

Cognitive and Affective trust and the importance of both are cited frequently in management and psychology papers, but their relevance in intercultural interactions may be understated yet. How much a culture subconsciously relies on cognitive more than affective trust or vice versa could affect intercultural relationships at a very basic level. As in every other culture, in India too, there is an interplay of cognitive and affective trust involved when forging relationships - but the weight on either varies according to the role one plays. Thus again, knowing your place becomes critical.
When choosing an employee as a large company, there is more weight on cognitive trust than affective trust - the individual’s competency, his ability to perform a task at hand, etc. takes priority over, for example, whether the individual will get along with the rest of the team. The smaller the size of the company, the more weight on affective trust since a young company needs to forge a positive relationship between the few employees it has in order to grow. However, the individual’s competency remains important in every case.
When choosing an employer, on the other hand, affective trust plays a larger role in the Indian psyche. Past the brand name or prospects of growth, employees look for managers or company leaders that will “take care” of them and take a personal interest in their growth. As an employer, beyond the guidelines given in the document “Finding, Attracting and Retaining Employees and Partners”, you will do well to provide an atmosphere to forge positive relationships at work and have a genuine interest in the well-being of your employees.
For business partners, both cognitive and affective trust weigh equally in importance, as monetary investments demand competency and credibility at the same time.
Of course, the weight put on either kind of trust is also dependent on the individuals and their preferences and cannot be attributed to the entire culture. For example, in rural India, there would be more emphasis on affective trust than cognitive trust - however competent you are, unless you are able to forge a positive relationship with your prospective partner, chances are that your business deal will not go very far.
In metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Mumbai, in the younger start-up ecosystem, business dealings are more informal and topics of conversation can vary from sport to politics and business. Indians are always enthusiastic in talking about their favourite sport, cricket, and also keen on various other topics depending on the situation. It would be worth exercising caution when it comes to the current government in India, as there are contrasting points of view about its capability.
In more rural areas of India, a more formal stature earns more trust. One must exercise better caution when choosing topics of conversation - cricket remains a favourite while politics may be best left neutral.


Short case study

A young company in Bangalore had a small team of extremely dedicated employees who trusted the company and management wholeheartedly. As the number of employees began to grow, the company started introducing HR policies that would help better run the system with a larger team. Some of the earlier employees expressed their concern that this would mean a less personal connection between the management and employees, making it “just like any other company”. They prefered that the management trusted them with work rather than make policies to get work done.


Last updated: 10.05.2021 - 08:28
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