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Indian and German work culture – forming a clashing or fitting team?

Benjamin Pfrang, Associate Fellow – The Imagindia Institute, (March 2015)

The new Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is eager to attract foreign investment. „Make in India” is the slogan which aims primarily on Western companies, inviting them to invest and make their products on the subcontinent. Given the assumption that the government succeeds with this campaign, besides the newly created jobs for Indian citizens, an increasing number of employees from abroad – also from Germany – can be expected.

Also from 13th until 17th of April the Hannover Messe, being the world's most important and biggest industrial fair, is hosting India as official partner country and Prime Minister Modi himself will inaugurate it along with Chancellor Merkel. On both sides, more investment and exchange is expected. Now is the right time to give some more thought to the basis of cross-cultural cooperation – mutual understanding of the partner's inherent work culture.

Distilling the essences
Given the size of the Indian population and its diversity, it might seem inappropriate to speak of one single work culture. For Germany, with less inhabitants than West Bengal and less diversity, it is easier to speak of a German work culture, although it is also at least doubtful that employees of a young start up in Berlin share a work culture with lawyers, public officers or bankers from Bavaria. But still, there are some basic characteristics that apply to most people belonging to the same culture.

Of course there are certain stereotypes persisting for Indians as well as Germans, which should not always be taken too seriously. On one side we have the cheerful IT specialist, coming from a country which not only has holy cows and sadhus, but nowadays also sends space probes to Mars. On the other side we find the very strict German, most probably an engineer who lacks a sense of humour. But, as a fellow countryman of famous Indologist Max Mueller who had great influence on Indian Sanskrit scholars, he is definitely well educated.

And if you observe work life in both countries a little closer, some more attributes come to mind. There would be Indian Standard (Stretchable) Time vs. punctuality, jugaad vs. high end engineering, preference of telephone call vs. email or solution- vs. problem-orientation.

While these buzzwords could easily be coined as mere expressions of prejudice, a true essence to each one of them cannot be denied. Research about origins and evolution of cultures – being the broader context of work cultures – uses various methods of anthropology, geography, sociology and other disciplines to explain cultural differences between regions, countries or continents. While these approaches and their viability shall not be discussed in this article in detail, it should be noted that at least a brief look into this topic is valuable for anybody who is going to work in another country, especially for Indians going to Germany and vice versa.

Suddenly the maybe annoying German habit of planning or even over-planning can make sense to an Indian. The simple fact of having seasons in Germany, with a winter that doesn't allow to grow crops, delivers a reasonable explanation why people in this country had to get used to exact planning in order to survive. Whereas this kind of planning was not required in India, with exception of the most northern region. These circumstances have influenced our mindset or “cultural programming” and of course also our style of working. We are following our own action chains which might be different to our counterpart. For example, while it is common for Indians to get to know their colleagues or business partners a little bit first, Germans tend to keep talks about personal matters aside.

“Are you married?” is a rather unusual question to a German, ready to sign a contract with a business partner or just joining a new office.
But, for each habit that is either called typically Indian or German, there is a reason. Once anybody working abroad understands and accepts that, he certainly develops a higher level of tolerance towards the work culture that is different to his own. Not only can the culture shock that most people face in a different environment be eased, but the work and its result itself will be better.

Patterns of hierarchy are another major point of distinction between German and Indian work culture. Broadly speaking, German business hierarchies are flat in comparison to Indians. Employees at a low executive level might have responsibilities that would be at least very unusual for the same position in India. Again, historical development in both countries explains these differences as well as the prevailing individualism in Germany in contrast to collectivism in India.

Thinking of collectivism as a mindset that gives more importance to the well being of the group – e.g. the family, community or company – than to the individual itself, the accuracy of applying this mindset to Indian society gets really challenged for a foreigner finding himself stuck in Indian street traffic. It seems hard to find a place where Individualism in the sense of “me first” is exercised more rigorously. Thus, collectivism does not exclusively describe Indian society, it is merely applicable for smaller groups. Concerning work life, collectivism is often perceived as employees who see themselves as members of a team without ambition to stand out in order to climb the career ladder, contrasting the perception of the supposedly individualist German employee - an assumption that can be contested nowadays.

Changing realities
According to Vishal Jadhav of Pune-based enterprise Crescendo Worldwide, a major difference that can be observed across sectors lies in the methodology. Assisting companies from both countries which pursue to expand their business, he observes these different methodologies most clearly in the manufacturing sector. While Germans stick to planned out concepts and a certain time-line, Indians tend to execute these concepts in a more flexible way which can lead to varying results.

Concerning the way of managing a company, the basic difference can be traced to the psychological setting. German companies are often owned since generations by a family, whereas Indian firms are mainly run by entrepreneurs who are comparatively new to the business. The difference in heritage can cause difficulties when it comes to negotiating joint ventures.

While the differences in work style prevail in most sectors, Vishal sees a common platform already achieved in the IT branch. And interestingly enough, the IT sector is attracting more young professionals and is more likely to have similar standards around the world than other sectors. Among these two factors, youth seems to be crucial. Conversations with young Indian professionals in their twenties or thirties show a trend that is very different to the “traditional” Indian work culture. Across sectors, you will find young people who are willing to take and also given responsibilities. Determining the difference in mindset between them and young German employees becomes a tricky task.

Reasons for this trend are various. For example, an increasing number of young people leaves the shelter of their parental home to study and thus has to take responsibility earlier in comparison to the ones staying at home longer. Also, ties with the US play a role. Still the country with the supposedly most individualistic work culture is the favourite destination for Indians who are going to study or work abroad. The experience of those returning to India clearly has an effect on domestic work culture.

And while this is not meant to perpetuate the notion that “West is best”, these thoughts should be a motivation for Germans, young people as well as companies, to take the step towards India or invite young Indians to Germany.

Traffic teaches you how to drive
Even if our work cultures still have some major differences, this doesn't have to be a disadvantage. On the contrary, building work teams of Indians and Germans and utilising strengths of both can be beneficial. Peter Eisenschmidt of the German-Indian Business Center in Hannover sees this potential especially in the area of Design and Development. For example, German accuracy combined with Indian problem solving skills can create better results than one without the other.

But to prove and improve this point, more exchange is needed, especially on University level in form of internships. Because this provides the best chance for young people, equipped with a good amount of tolerance to get to know the other work culture without already being completely attached to their own. For Peter Eisenschmidt it is clear that having Germans in Indian companies as well as the other way round, can help tremendously in setting up cooperation and Indo-German joint ventures.

Vishal Jadhav also stresses the importance of promoting exchange on executive- as well as entrepreneurial level because there is no better way to get to know each other, “traffic teaches you how to drive”. So, while conservative assessments of German and Indian work culture would suggest “clashing” attributes, this need not be the case. Work culture is no static concept, but a framework of behaviour that is underlying constant – although slow –  change. This accounts for India as well as Germany. If efforts for constant exchange are made, both work cultures can surely fit together.