Recognizing Across Cultures: India

July 8, 2014 Darcy Jacobsen

Do you know what attracts and keeps Indian workers? Do you know how recognition is unique in India?  In our ongoing series on Recognizing across Cultures, we will discuss the cultural and business norms on a region by region basis and use our experience to give you some recommendations for making recognition relevant and powerful for your employees.

Recognition in India




India is home to 1/6th of the world’s population—about 1.16 billion people living across 3.2 billion kilometers. A land of opportunity and growth, India’s burgeoning economy has become an exciting focal point for many global companies—both as producers and as consumers of goods and services.

But anyone who looks to India as an inexhaustible supply of talent and labor may be disappointed. The reality is more complex. India’s tremendous growth has put pressures on an educational system that is still struggling to meet demand. A talent war is already raging there. Reward & recognition programs are becoming critical as wage inflection spirals and staff turnover hits new highs.

India is also a curious mix of contradictions. A traditionally collectivist and relationship-driven culture, increased globalization and economic growth have re-emphasized India’s tendencies toward individualism and personal achievement. Similarly, the country is a highly paternalistic, stratified culture—but that hierarchy competes with India’s strong ambitions to be a meritocracy.

For Indian workers, this cultural mix is an exercise in adaptability. Indian managers—many of whom are educated abroad—are experts in navigating it.

“For the Indian manager,” explained R. Gopalakrishnan, the executive director of Tata Sons, in a recent Harvard Business Review blog article, “his intellectual tradition, his y-axis, is Anglo-American, and his action vector, his x-axis, is in the Indian ethos.”

Indian Work Habits

India’s cultural mix and adaptability comes as a result of its series of unique influencers. India has always been a traditional collectivist community, where loyalty and familial/paternal protectiveness were historically necessary to survive—and persist to this day in business relationships. The traditional caste system has long-reaching repercussions on India’s stratified hierarchy that should not be overlooked.

Secondly, this ancient culture has a spiritual base in Hinduism—which unlike many collectivist religious traditions has a strong emphasis on individualism—achievement and enlightenment. This informs Indian workers’ strong sense of personal ambition and desire for advancement. It also influences India’s holistic, measured and long-term approach to business. (Though the trend is toward a more specific way of thinking.)

Next there is India’s long colonial history. The British Raj embedded many western values deep into the power structures of the country. It is perhaps this influence which gives many (not all) Indians a monochronic approach to business time.

Monochronic is the way things are going, so I’ve gone with that above for business and recognition purposes, but don’t get too comfortable with your stopwatch—India is still a mostly polychronic culture, where multitasking is common and time commitments are fluid. Checking cell phones is common in meetings, and flexible IST (India Standard Time) is the bane of international business partners. (Just the same, if you are arranging a business meeting in India you are advised to err on the safe side: schedule in advance and be punctual and attentive.)

And finally there is India’s large and growing global economic role—both as an outsourcer for western and global firms and as a local base of operations. This exposure to global business norms has significantly impacted both business culture and employee expectations. Indian workers, especially millennials, are increasing demands on employers.

India – Workforce Snapshot   

The last twenty years have seen an exciting period of major economic development in India, since reforms in 1991 enabled the country to open its economic arms to the world. The growth that followed, and in particular India’s appeal as an outsourcing company, has had a significant impact on Indian business culture and workforce demographics.

The world’s third largest economy in purchasing power, and growing at about 6.4 GDP this year, India has roughly 450 million workers—30 million of whom are unemployed.

That unemployment is highest for unskilled laborers, but as in the rest of the world, there is a still a severe shortage of skilled talent—particularly in IT, finance, and management positions. India’s universities don’t have enough seats available to keep up with demand for educated managers and specialists—which has fueled a war for talent in those roles and put retention, advancement and a good organizational culture front and center for employers.

Moreover, there is something of a growing generational gap between older, established workers and the more ambitious, globally focused younger generation. Companies are struggling to both control internal equity and attract the skilled talent they need in a two-tier workforce. Many organizations are actively looking for ways to make India’s hierarchical culture work for them.

Finally, no discussion of the Indian workforce would be complete without talking about its diversity. As Winston Churchill once famously said: “India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator.” There are more than twenty-two major and hundreds of minor languages spoken in India, along with seven established religions, and a profusion of castes, subcastes and tribes. Equity is an important tenet of Indian law, and companies are challenged to provide fair and equal but also flexible and culturally sensitive policies that can support this thriving and diverse population in a thoughtful and effective way.

In our experience, here is how India looks on a Molinsky-type framework for cultural variables:

Work attitudes in India

Indian Business Culture in a Nutshell

  • Relationships are the key to work in India, where decisions are made based on long-standing emotional ties. Work is at the core of Indian life and work achievements and accolades are very important to Indian workers.
  • According to research in the Journal of Human Resource Management, Indian workers are beginning to expect to be rewarded equitably, provided with growth opportunities, and to be “given fair and constructive feedback on performance. This is a move away from previous traditional Indian work systems which were known to be based on social connections with those based on formalization, professionalism and a systematic approach.” Motivation and reward are an important way to push workers beyond their key result areas (KRAs).
  • Managers are especially fundamental in Indian workplaces—in part because the patriarchal and patristic hierarchy means that work relationships and feedback are traditionally highly directive. Workers expect clear direction to know what is expected of them, and Indian managers are accustomed to unquestioning diligence. But those relationships don’t always go right. The high formality and low directness of Indian workers can bury issues until it is too late. A 2012 survey of Indian organizations cited in Forbes suggested that 48% of turnover was due to poor relationships between employees and managers. Companies are on the look-out for ways to improve these ties.
  • In India, according to social psychologist Geert Hoftstede, the word “adjust” is also critical to the cultural philosophy. Captured in the Hindi term jugaad, or the hybrid phrase adjust kar lenge, it “means a wide range of things, from turning a blind eye to rules being flouted to finding a unique and inventive solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem. It is this attitude that is both the cause of misery as well as the most empowering aspect of the country. There is a saying that ‘nothing is impossible’ in India, so long as one knows how to ‘adjust’.”
  • Finally, Indian workers—and especially millennials—are highly focused on development and career advancement, and seek out companies where they will be fast-tracked for promotion. In fact, a 2012 survey by Catalyst reported that 78% of young Indian workers aspire to senior executive or CEO roles, and their time frames are urgent.

Why Recognition Matters in India

Recognition is a critical part of talent management in India, says the Wall Street Journal India. “Employees need to know that what they do is valued,” they write. “It’s important that staff are appreciated not only when they do extraordinary work but also for the smaller daily tasks.”

According to the Indian Best Places to Work Institute: “Rewards and recognition is a wide concept and is increasingly being redefined to include not just traditional ways of thanking and compensating employees, but also newer areas like physical, and emotional well-being of people. The purpose of rewarding and recognising, as we all understand, is to tell employees that their contributions are valuable to the organisation. It matters to employees because they feel validated, important and respected.”

In fact, researcher Kuldeep Singh surveyed 82 Indian firms and found a significant positive relationship between two HR practices—professional development and reward systems—and perceived organizational and market performance. Recognition and reward, in other words, have a direct connection to better business results.

One reason Indian workers are particularly responsive to recognition is the long hours Indian employees put in. A ten hour day is not at all uncommon. As a result, work “family” can be just as important to Indian workers as home family is. A healthy, positive culture is critically important in this context, as well as consistent acknowledgement of the effort and time committed to the firm’s success.

Lastly, polarization can be another issue in India business that recognition can mitigate. Indian managers are competitive and often inclined to divide employees into groups: those who are apne log (part of the group) and those who are paraaye log (out-group members). Recognition is an important way to establish ties that reach across groups and synthesize workers into a larger—and less divisive—culture.

How to Recognize Indian Employees More Effectively

So how can you recognize more effectively in India? Here are a few pointers:

  • Share and make recognition social. Indian workers thrive on positive feedback – but more than this, they thrive on shared positive feedback—social recognition that broadcasts their successes to peers and superiors. This is even more effective in India than in the West, because Indian employees are so status conscious and eager to make a mark on the business that increases their personal capital. Adding a mechanism for others to add congratulations intensifies and extends this effect.
  • Let them choose their own reward. India is a patchwork of micro-cultures, and strictures around gift giving are significant. Jewelry, for example, is considered an intimate gift. Gold jewelry is normally given only among family and relatives and jewelry of any kind is inappropriate for a man to present to a woman. That watch or gold pin will not go over the same way in India. Not to mention gifts of leather—which are verboten. It’s best to let Indian workers choose their own rewards, from a selection of local and culturally-tuned options.
  • Make it mobile. Three quarters of the Indian population have mobile phones. Indians are accustomed to technology and use it to connect to one another and to make their voices heard. Any recognition solution that you employ in India simply must have a full-featured mobile component to be viable and practical for the vast majority of workers.
  • Discourage reciprocity. As in China, Indian employees feel a strong social pressure to reciprocate when they receive a recognition and reward from a colleague. Make sure they understand that reciprocity is not a healthy part of a recognition and reward program. Encourage them to “pay it forward” by noticing great behavior throughout the organization and by adding their congratulations to awards that are displayed on an internal social newsfeed.
  • Identify high potentials. Use recognition data to spot your top performers, through the eyes of their colleagues, and flag them for fast track development and promotion. When HiPo employees see positive feedback and understand that it is advancing their career path, it helps them to stay focused and committed, and discourages them from jumping ship in order to be promoted.
  • Offer all workers an opportunity to express themselves: Because Indian business is such a strong hierarchical environment, workers rarely have an opportunity to share feedback with superiors. Chamachas (yes-men) are often cultivated to feed a superior’s ego, and negative feedback is virtually never offered back up the ladder. Recognition, however, does offer workers a chance to provide feedback to superiors and peers in the form of positive feedback that encourages the behavior that is really working well for the team. It is a great way for Indian workers to give feedback to higher-ups in a way that fits comfortably into the established culture.

Does this resonate with your experiences in working in India and with Indian employees? Do you have something to add to this assessment? We welcome all your input and experience to make this guide more substantive, so please share your own thoughts!

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