by Craig Storti

A women of Indian origin works for one of my clients, a large insurance company in the Midwest. She has lived in the United States more than five years and was recently promoted, but she had expected to be promoted at a much faster pace, as indeed she had been back home in India. “I did all the right things,” she said, laughing, “and nothing happened.” When I asked her what some of the right things were, she listed three:

  • “I never exceeded my authority; if I was not specifically told to do something, I did not do it.”
  • “I never responded to requests from internal clients without checking with my boss, even if that meant a delay.”
  • “I did not speak up in meetings unless my boss called on me.”

The observation that a lot of American readers would make right about now: No wonder she wasn’t promoted!

All the right things in one culture may not be the right things in another. In this instance we are dealing with differences in management style between India and the United States, specifically the degree to which managers empower their subordinates. Simply put, the difference is this: American managers generally empower their direct reports and Indian managers generally do not.

This is precisely the cultural difference that tripped up my Indian colleague, for she had indeed done all the right things in a culture where subordinates are not routinely empowered:

  • She followed instructions and did not presume to use her own judgment and do something she was not specifically told to do. In the United States, we might call this not taking ownership or not taking responsibility; in India they would probably call it not stepping on the manager’s toes. You can never make a mistake, after all, if you do exactly as you’re told.
  • She always checked with her boss before responding to requests from internal clients. In the United States we would call this micro-management; in India they would call it….actually they would call it micro-management too, and celebrate its wonders. (But what about the delay, you ask? If the internal clients need something right away and our friend—let’s call her Priyanka—waits to respond until she can check with her boss, won’t the clients be annoyed? Probably not; they’ll just assume Priyanka hasn’t been able to contact her boss yet.)
  • Finally, Priyanka did not presume to speak up in a meeting unless she was called on or otherwise given permission by her manager. If she did speak up on her own, that would imply that she was at the same level as her manager, that she had the same right to speak as those above her. And that would be presumptuous and even disrespectful.

In the U.S. workplace, managers delegate responsibility and empower their direct reports. There is the sense that you hire smart people and you get their best work if you leave them alone and let them use their smarts. They may be expected to keep their managers in the loop, but they certainly would not get into trouble for using their own judgment, getting back to internal clients without consulting their manager, and contributing freely at a meeting. Indeed, they would be expected to do these things and be suspect if they did not.

“All the right things in one culture may not be the right things in another.”

This is probably the place for a disclaimer about India and Indians: India is changing fast, especially the information technology sector where many western business paradigms have been adopted, in theory, anyway, if not always in practice. Indeed, empowerment is almost as much of a buzz word in many Indian corporations as in American ones. But I have not seen it that much in practice, or, more accurately, I haven’t seen empowerment practiced quite the same way it is in the United States.

Being an empowered subordinate in India doesn’t mean you don’t check things routinely with your boss; it means, rather, that he or she usually approves whatever you had in mind. It doesn’t mean you express your opinions spontaneously in a meeting with your boss; it means your boss always makes sure he/she calls on you. Being empowered in India, in short, doesn’t involve putting direct reports on the same level as their bosses; it means the best bosses know they don’t have all the answers.

If you’re a U.S. manager or team leader, you’re going to confront the empowerment issue with employees/team members from many of the world’s cultures, not just India. If Priyanka works for you and you expect her to take initiative, use her own judgment, and speak up in meetings—if you need or depend on Priyanka to do all these things, what happens when she doesn’t? You get upset, and at the end of the day, she doesn’t advance in the workplace.

Assuming Priyanka wants to advance and you (her boss) would like to help her, what should you do? First, it helps if you understand better where she’s coming from, why she is behaving the way she is, and especially that this is at least in part a cultural issue and not a personal one. In other words, Priyanka probably doesn’t realize that she’s performing poorly and is certainly not trying to do all the wrong things. If she knew what was expected of her, she might be able to rise to the occasion.

So your next task as her boss is to lay out your expectations of her. This may be something you’ve never or only rarely had to do before, especially if most of your staff are Americans. After all, they grew up in the same culture you did, and they already know what you expect of them.

This advice, to spell out your expectations, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Expectations are deeply subconscious, the products of years of conditioning; the only time most of us ever become consciously aware of them is when they don’t pan out, when something we were expecting doesn’t happen. Most American managers, for example, probably don’t know they go around expecting people to speak up freely in meetings until a direct report fails to speak up.

So it’s easy to say you should spell out your expectations of Priyanka; the hard part is getting in touch with them. Hence our third piece of advice: When Priyanka, through no fault of her own, fails utterly to live up to expectations she has no idea you’re harboring, go easy on her. She’s not like some of your other staff who should know better.

Finally, you may have to coach and mentor Priyanka to make her more aware of and help her develop the behaviors that will be rewarded in the U.S. workplace, again something you’d never have to do with your American

This article has been sponsored by:
Communicating Across Cultures

Craig Storti

Craig Storti

A consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: [email protected] or learn more at his website: