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Leading in India

by: Navkaran Singh

1. Why should I read this document?

If you are or will lead and manage a team in India, this article is for you. We look at what leadership style works in India, which cultural values play a role behind the scenes and some key factors that you must learn to become a successful leader in India. This article assumes the leadership under focus is in the business or corporate context in urban India.

2. Important! 

5 most important things to know about leadership in India (if you only read one thing this is what you should read).

  1. Be visible all the time. Teams expect the leader to be around and visible to show interest, guide and inspect daily. This applies even when you lead remotely.
  2. Make all the decisions. A good leader is expected to make all decisions on the team’s behalf. Meetings are only to communicate and get further buy-in from the team.
  3. Invest time in informal discussions. Teams are expected to evolve from a group of people to a family led by the Godfather. During meetings use the first few minutes to get to know your team better. 
  4. Avoid negative feedback in front of the group. Loss of face in front of the team members can be very demotivating. Use one on one meets for constructive criticism and exchanging open feedback.
  5. Be flexible. Plan for short term deviations and flexibility in a long-term plan. The team will expect to have the flexibility to adjust the progress and juggle multiple things at the same time. Communicate the priority list daily. 


3. Short Introduction

The recent Covid pandemic has shifted the workplace to homes and with that the leadership to virtual environments. This trend is likely to stay and even grow beyond the pandemic. India is forecasted to be one the fastest growing economies during 2021-22. Companies will take advantage of new virtual workplaces and we expect to see the growth of extended teams or global offices in India. Current leaders will also be expected to manage these multinational teams. We know from our experience and research that managing the cultural differences among these teams is going to be the biggest challenge and priority for these global leaders as Indian national and corporate culture is vastly different from most developed western countries. Any leader assuming to walk straight into India and continue his or her current leadership style may well buy a return ticket to be on the safe side.


4. Content

The role of a leader is defined the same way across all cultures of the world. A good leader has the potential to influence and motivate others to achieve a common goal. A universal definition. A leader needs to balance three main factors to succeed: getting each team member to utilise their full potential, keeping each team member highly motivated and delivering optimum results for the business. How you achieve this, depends on the culture to which the team belongs. Peter Ducker famously said that “what managers do around the world is the same, how they do it depends on the culture”. This could not be truer for India. Assuming a successful manager in France will automatically inspire and lead a team of Indians well, is like wasting effort in fitting square pegs in round holes. Leading in India needs an understanding of the gaps between your own and the Indian culture, and making efficient changes to succeed as a leader without being too frustrated with the “unnatural” changes you may have to make.
An ideal leader in India can be defined in two words – benevolent godparent. As a godfather or godmother, you are responsible for nurturing a group of people into a family. You set a strategic direction for your family and each individual. You make all the important decisions for the family. You ensure each member is inspired and motivated by investing time in everyone. You listen to their work as well as personal plans and issues. During tough times, you remain calm and pragmatic. In return, a well-established family will work as one unit, deliver results as per your plans and will be motivated to go the extra mile for you and other members of the team.
To become this benevolent godfather or godmother, you will need to identify the cultural gaps in your own cultural values and the Indian cultural values, and then plan changes to fill this gap. You can start by looking at the values of the country where you grew up. Go to to see where you score compared to India. Below, we will look at the national cultural values of India and how they drive the leadership behaviours in the country.
How do Indians decide? With a score of 77 on Power Distance Index, India is a high-power distance culture. This means a leader has full authority, power and the responsibility to make decisions for everyone below. You make the decisions before the meetings and use the meeting to communicate with your subordinates. A good leader is expected to show power and confidence to others in order to inspire and motivate them. The communication is mostly top-down. A good leader will create an atmosphere for the team to ask questions or share ongoing issues, where they feel they add value by doing so. In the business world, your title, as well as age or experience, gives you this power. Be careful not to offend your team members who may be older than you. Meet your immediate subordinates in person regularly, at least once a quarter.
Individuals or the team?  With a score of 48, India scores in the middle of this dimension. However, compared to most developed western countries, Indians come across as very collectivist. This means that the welfare of the group takes preference over individuals. Your team members are looking to become an integral part of the “family”. They are loyal to the group and the group looks after them. It is in the leader’s job description, to nurture a group of individuals into a family. At the start, investing time in informal group meetings should be the main part of your team-building plan, and you should do this by being physically present with the team. The leader maintains the harmony and well-being of the whole group. Business and personal lives overlap, and your influence and responsibility go beyond the office. You take interest in people’s personal life as much as business matters. Communication is preferred face to face. Emails are usually followed by a call. You manage the conflicts between the team members and sustain harmony. Remember business is always personal in India.
Winners or losers?  India scores 56 on masculinity, making it a relatively masculine culture. A good leader is a winner. You are quick at making decisions, you reward the high performers, and you show assertiveness when required. Everyone in your team is aspiring to become the same. Team members would be competing to become the best in the team. A good leader will reward the high performers with bonuses, promotions, or salary hikes. You can motivate the team by creating symbolic rewards like employee of the month. But you need to be incredibly careful in balancing this with the family first rule. Ensuring there are group incentives in place, benefiting the whole family. You need to motivate the lesser performing members by promising more for the next year, by creating a new career path, by offering new learnings and so on. If ever in doubt, the rule of thumb remains the same, the group takes preferences over individuals.
Is change part of the plan? India scores low on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index with a score of 40. A good leader plans for unexpected changes on the way. Your communication and planning are high levels with the details left to subordinates. You prefer actions over too much planning. Your team expects that plans will not be perfect, and things can change at the last minute. You need to create a buffer for deviation and flexibility in your plans. If progress is made in the right direction, accept the short-term deviations. Your team in India will absorb the last minute's changes and requests without much frustration. When things do go wrong, you do not show emotions, stay calm and pay extra attention to when emotions are shown.
How flexible is flexible? India scores 51 on Long Term Orientation, placing it right in the middle. As a leader you are pragmatic. You are short term flexible with long term goals in plans. You expect and accept different ideas and approaches. Your team needs constant instructions and check-ups from you. A good leader plans to prioritise and communicate the tasks for the team daily.
Is business a serious matter? With a score of 26, India is a restraint culture on the Indulgence vs Restraint scale. Leaders are formal and serious people. They do not make jokes on behalf of the company or business. A leader dresses in formal clothing. Business meetings are usually serious and discuss ongoing issues. Leisure is planned outside business hours. Plan regular team lunches and dinners with the whole team.
In many cases, the leadership will be remote. You can plan all the changes remotely, but certain things can never be fully virtual. The answer to this is delegation. Create a local team lead or manager to compensate for the lack of your physical presence and act as a daily checkpoint. Even if you follow all the advice and points above, the one mistake most leaders make with their Indian team is not giving them enough time to gel together. Cocoon to a butterfly takes time and the right conditions. And you need to create the right conditions and give enough time, so a group of people become a team and eventually a family!

5. Short case study

A Dutch bank has its software development team in India. For a new software, Peter in Amsterdam had been assigned as the project lead. 7 out of 10 resources  were sitting in India. The project was running behind schedule and Peter decided to have an emergency meeting with the whole project team. During the meeting he called out 2 of the engineers sitting in India for missing their deadlines and asked them to improve their communication. The engineers took it very offensively and felt totally demotivated by the loss of face in front of the whole team. Peter did not realise that unlike the Dutch culture, in India negative feedback is avoided in front of the whole group and should be done one on one.  Reflect on the Indian cultural dimensions that you learned from this article and try to answer the questions: Why did the Indian engineers feel demotivated after the meeting? In this situation, what should be the leader’s approach to giving negative feedback?


6. Resources and interesting links

For more cultural insights check out other CUBE IN documents on India (Library | CUBE IN)
Last updated: 28.12.2021 - 08:54
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