Understanding the Importance of Building Effective Relationships for Collaboration In India

The face, and especially the mindset of Corporate India, is changing quickly. However, some traditional cultural values still remain: the importance of building strong relationships at work is still critical to working effectively with most Indians.
Most foreigners, including a majority of French project managers, executives and expats working with Indians, have a tendency to think that the relationship building with colleagues and partners as a time wasting exercise. “We all are working for the same company, so why do we need all this dancing around each other” was telling me a French project manager recently.
It is true that relationship building takes time. However, French managers need to keep their final objective in mind. If their company is present in India to penetrate this emerging market or to cut production cost, they do not have the choice but to live up to this expectation from a majority of their µIndian partners.
Building relationship is not only using cues like ‘Dear so and so” or “best regards” in our emails or asking people whether they had a good weekend. These expressions are necessary to show basic politeness. However, building relationships is goes much deeper than this.
The easiest way to score relationship points is to show basic interest in Indian culture. Indians, like the French, have a very long cultural heritage which they are very proud of. Moreover, after centuries of colonisation and cultural imperialism, many Indians feel validated by the fact that foreigners (especially coming from western countries) show interest in learning about Indian art forms, languages, festivals, traditions, etc. One does not need to become an expert in Indian culture but just show interest. Learning a few words of local languages can work wonders in breaking the ice with a new team or partner company. I once witnessed the CEO of a French company, who was coming to launch a JV, pronounce the first few sentences of his inaugural speech in Hindi. The reaction in the crowd of Indian employees was incredible: people turned to each other wondering how and where he had learnt Hindi and saying how great it was to see him reach out to them in their local language (even though they were all fluent English speakers). The CEO didn’t speak any Hindi but had asked his counterpart to give him a phonetic translation of a few keys sentences. The result of this little effort was an immense goodwill from all Indian employees vis-à-vis this next French JV partner.
Another tip for relationship building is asking our Indian partners about the meaning of different events or festivals that happen throughout the year in India. Indian generally appreciate helping foreigners better understand their culture. Festivals are a great way to do this. Asking the significance of Diwali, Holi, Ganesh Chathurti or even Republic Day will build good will in people as they will perceive you not only as objective oriented but also interested in the people that will help you reach your objectives.
Another tip, which I think is the most useful one but also the hardest one to implement, is to be ready to adapt HR policies to individual needs. I know this sounds like anathema to most business or HR manager who consider that rules are made for all and shouldn’t not be adapted to individual needs. However, one thing we need to realise is that India is a particularist culture, not a universalist one like most western cultures, especially France. People acknowledge that rules and processes are necessary but most of them still expect them to be adapted to extra-ordinary circumstances. 10 years ago, most multinational companies refused to accept this reality of Indian HR management and the result was some of the highest attrition rates in the world (over 100% turnover in certain industries in 2003). A lot of Indians have very strong family and/or community obligations (taking care of elders, last minute weddings, visits from relatives, etc.). Refusing to adapt to these particular needs can have 2 main consequences: creating resentment vis-à-vis a partner/employer or to an Indian employee possibly resigning to meet his commitment. The challenge is to find the line between adapting and being taken for a ride by employees that abuse these family/community commitments.

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