Recently I talked to a friend of mine who manages teams of engineers. We came to have a chat about foreign engineers and their challenges in terms of working in a team in the Australian context. One of these challenges, he said, is that they are sometimes not able to adapt to the local work environment. He used the example of an Indian, who refused to report to his supervisor – a New Zealander. While it is difficult for me to make a prognosis about what the real issue here was without having exact knowledge of the environment, and while it is perfectly possible that he just didn’t like his supervisor, or that there were other personal problems involved, there is a good chance that cultural issues lie at the heart of the issue.
India is a country with massive power distance – meaning those who are in power, and those who are not, perceive these differences as a crucial aspect of their relationship. We have all heard of the caste system in India. A friend of mine, who was volunteering in an organization in India, invited one of the housekeepers at that organization for a coffee. When they arrived at the coffee shop, he was surprised to see that she stayed in front of the coffee shop and didn’t enter. She was from the untouchable caste, so she wasn’t even allowed to enter the coffee shop. It was even a massive shock for everybody that he even talked to her. That’s how strong power distance can be. Now, compare this with Australia. I am personally amazed by how welcoming people of the small business community here are of me. They treat me as an equal, although I just started out and they have years and years of experience in the business.
In many Asian cultures, and India is one of them, elders are not only highly respected, but age also determines to a large degree who is the more powerful individual. You may have heard of the value of seniority in countries such as Japan, for example. This now causes a lot of conflicts, because the younger generation starts to question whether age should really determine a person’s position in the organization.
Anyways, back to our issue at hand. So these two factors – that older people are often more powerful, and that power distance plays a massive role in India – makes me assume that the problem was due to the fact that the New Zealander was much younger than the Indian. Potentially this has caused a value conflict, and made the Indian employee feel disrespected. Why did he, and ‘elder’, have to report to a youngster?
Now, I admit that this is really just a prognosis from far away, and it may very well be wrong. However, whether it is correct or not is irrelevant of the point that I will try to make in this article. In this case, it is easy to blame the Indian employee. He was not willing to follow the rules of his organization, to adapt to the local environment, so he is at fault. That’s probably the most common response you will get to this situation. However, one has to keep in mind that adapting to another culture is not only extremely difficult, but also takes a lot of time.
It is easy to say ‘well, then from now on I am just not going to employ people from overseas anymore’. But is that really a solution? Is it wise to simply forfeit the benefits one can reap from diversity? After all, it is scientifically proven that diversity leads to higher levels of innovation? I personally believe that there are better solutions to the problem. But this solution is not to expect your employees to adapt immediately. That’s just not possible.
From my point of view, the most important thing to recognize is that not all people can adapt, but you can! With that I don’t mean that you should, in this case, simply adapt the Indian culture. No. But there are different levels of culture. One of them is national culture, another organizational culture, and yet another team culture. And that is what is flexible because you can have an impact on it. You can shape in ways that suit you and your team. And your team can impact on it as well.
I believe that it is of crucial importance that you sit down with your team discuss your team values with them. Let them have a say what they value in regards to working together, and the rules they would like everyone to follow. The Indian employee has a problem with reporting to a youngster? Fine. Find a compromise that lets him keep his self-respect. This requires a bit of flexibility and creativity, but can be as simple as redefining the job titles of everybody involved – from ‘project manager’, to ‘team harmonizer’, or something of the sort. This would be based more on the assumption that everybody in the team is equal, rather than one has more power than the others. He or she harmonizes, not manages. As you can see, this solution would be in perfect harmony with Australian values, too.
What it all comes down to is giving everybody a voice in determining the values of the team in a way that suits everybody, and then acting based on these values, instead of forcing everybody to conform to the national values of the country the company is based.