Sunday, 20 January 2013

No, that's not it

Last year I posted a cartoon that I thought nicely encapsulated a lot of the dynamics of the Indian workplace. Being the only non-Indian in my office has given me plenty of opportunities to observe these dynamics at close hand and I continue to find it fascinating and frustrating. I'm no stranger to cultural hierarchies, but there are few places where they are more starkly on display than an Indian office.

A couple of days ago, for instance, we were called from our desks for a prizegiving ceremony. One of my colleagues from another team, a fairly senior chap, was getting an award for Excellence, and for "going above and beyond". We all shuffled into the board room and dutifully attended while the award was presented by a senior colleague, a nice old gentleman with silver hair and an avuncular air.

He handed over the award, we obligingly applauded, and then he asked the recipient what "Excellence" meant to him. Well, the chap said, I suppose it means that I always do that extra bit to make sure that what I produce is of the highest quality and meets customer needs. I was squirming at this point - I'm all for taking pride in one's work but I have an inherent allergic reaction to corporate-speak - but it was a decent enough answer. We thought.

Then the silver-haired gentleman interrupted. "No, you're wrong," he said. "That's not what Excellence means." He then launched into his own explanation of the actual meaning of Excellence, while the poor old recipient of the award (the award for, you know, excellence) was forced to smile and nod and say "thank you, Sir" for the sharing of this wisdom.

I couldn't meet anyone's eye. Half of me wanted to tell him to shut up and let the man have his moment - if you're getting an award for excellence, you should at least be allowed your own definition of what it means - while half of me was fighting back giggles at the ridiculousness of it. Of course all human societies have their hierarchies of status and we all constantly engage in communications, subtle and unsubtle, about where we fit and whether we are superior or inferior to those around us. It's just that in Indian offices, from what I have seen, those with the upper hand make no effort whatsoever to mask their claims to higher status. As a rule, senior people nakedly make their claims to not only give their subordinates any instruction they fancy and to castigate them for transgressions, but to have a superior understanding and knowledge of any subject under discussion.

I've long been critical of this, because I've seen people with good ideas to contribute be shot down because they are not considered sufficiently senior to have any ideas at all, and because it tends to discourage any initiative-taking or innovation among junior members of staff. But on the other hand, it is at least honest. There are plenty of managers back in the UK who squash people's contributions, but they tend to hide it behind nicer words and "feedback". At least Indian managers are straightforward about it.

Still, arguments about management styles aside, there does seem to be a greater willingness here to use public occasions to emphasise these points of hierarchy. I don't think I would appreciate being told in front of my colleagues that I don't know what "Excellence" means, and I think - hope? - that this would be unlikely to happen in quite this fashion back home. Hierarchy simply permeates everything in India in a way that is hard to appreciate until you spend some time here.

And that famous British class system? Well, it's still alive and well, and anyone who tells you it's not is living in a dream. Some of its manifestations are obvious - check the educational background of the current Cabinet line-up - but actually it's mostly a much more subtle system of coded behaviours that often need interpretation for non-Brits. Indian hierarchies - built on a system of detailed codification, multiple strata, and roles and expectation defined to an intricate level of detail - are out there for everyone to see. It's a fascinating contrast.


Supriya Prathapan said...

Lol.I thought only acdemics had ego issues and the Indian corporate world was 'COOL'.I think degress from elite institutions does that to a lot of people.

Some Professors and Readers from the central universities of India, are exactly like the oldie you referred to. These erudite creatures leave no stone unturned to humiliate their juniors. Some r jealous of their own students. They are power hungry and want attention all the time.

Chris said...

Hi be honest I think it's something that cuts across a lot of society here. Your use of the word "humiliate" is exactly right - I don't think my example here was quite in that category, but I have certainly seen behaviour that was exactly that.

Of course there are people inclined to bully their subordinates everywhere, but there does seem to be something in the way society is ordered here that legitimates this kind of behaviour. Certainly I've been shocked by things that most people here seem to see as quite ordinary acts by people in positions of authority.

I've also met academics with the kind of attitude you describe. On the other hand, the country also produced Amartya Sen, who is of course brilliant but also one of the nicest men you could meet...