Thursday, September 20, 2007

Indians Too Argumentative?

Long ago, I wrote an article, titled ‘Are Indians creative and original?

To a question, ‘How creative are Indians?’ Edward De Bono says:

From the limited interactions I’ve had, I find Indians very argumentative. Argument is a primitive way of discussion – not constructive one at all. Americans are creative and have a ‘go-getter’ attitude. The Chinese are not much creative. The Japanese, on the other hand, are moving from logic-based thinking to more creative one.

When I came back from USA to work in India, I started to observe many new things in this industry. All my opinions about Indian industry are from those eighteen months I spent in a ‘high-tech’ services company based in Bangalore. I was working in India for the first time. I was working in a services company for the first time.

Something that I observed was the way meetings were held. First, nobody spelt out the agenda. Second, there were too many opinions. Some opinions were taking the course of meeting completely astray and divergent! Some of them were completely nonsensical just taking up everyone’s time! Many meetings just got extended, and some of them didn’t produce any result. For the first time, I saw ‘democracy’ in action on a completely different definition from what I was used to. [I keep sticking to that famous line from Crimson Tide, where a military guy says, ‘We are here to preserve democracy, not practice it!’ My rule for an organization is simple- ‘Ideas flow bottom up, decisions come top down’].

On few occasions, when a manager said, we will do this, few subordinates just brushed it off emphatically saying, ‘No, we won’t do it’. And the way the manager reacted was something that I did not anticipate. He suddenly took a conciliatory stance and tried to cajole them.

I would have expected something completely different. I would have expected the manager to be stern and not tolerate such indiscipline. When I started to learn more about Indian industry, I realized that it is heavily services oriented where attrition is a big problem. The manager has to somehow ‘manage’ the show, maintain the headcount to get the revenues. And the fact that excellence is not rewarded nor recognized in this industry, it allows everyone to fall into a mood of complacency, saying, ‘sab chalta hain’ (anything goes), including being belligerent and rebellious towards your manager.

In another episode, an Indian company recruited an American as their VP. When he was holding a meeting here in Bangalore, one of the Indian managers gave a very curt and insulting reply. This VP suggested they discuss the matter later after the meeting. The manager insisted that they should discuss the issue though it was outside the agenda. He insistence was undermining the authority of this VP. The situation went out of control when the manager was not ready to stand down. He was only trying to show the rest of his team who is the boss. After few attempts to calm him down which failed, the VP fired him right then and there and asked him to leave.

I was sharing notes with few others from the West who have experienced Indian industry and I realize that definitely there is much more room for unnecessary arguments in Indian companies, sometimes to the point of being unproductive and sometimes destructive.

Are we ‘too argumentative’ to the point of making the discussion not constructive?

I have many examples from Indian TV. Each time I sit down to watch a debate on Indian TV I really get fed up within the first few minutes because every member starts shouting at the other. After some time, everyone is bickering, fighting, and they don’t stop talking even when the other person is talking. The mediator just cannot stop the fight and even he enters the fray, talking and shouting to make other people stop talking and shouting. That’s when I change the channel. That’s too much of argument for me. Nowadays, I flip the channel whenever I see such a debate.

What use is it when there is nothing to take home after such a long debate? What we all do is come, argue, and nothing gets done. Debate is something quite different from an argument. What we see on Indian TV is usually heated and nonsensical arguments, not a debate.

‘All talk, no action’, is what I call them all. [I have another one, ‘All fluff, no stuff’]

And as I said before, I like the slogan from Nike, ‘Just do it’.

More of action and less of arguments would be quite healthy for Indians.

24 comments:

  1. Thanks for a good post. I really like your "Just Do It" attitude.

    How do you foster creativity and innovation in your own organization, i.e. your services company?

    How do you limit arguments and debates and focus on the real issues in your company?

    How do you run effective brainstorming meetings in your organization?

    How do you foster "individual creativity in team context" for your company?

    What is the structure of your organization? How do you determine incentives and structure that promote "politics free" behavior?

    A few successful examples would be great. I look forward to your insights. I sincerely would like to understand these issues from India perspective.

    Sujai: What is your email address? If you do not mind, please write that back to kewlfungi@yahoo.com. Appreciate it.

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  2. Without details this Blog might end up being just another one of those "arguments and opinions".

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  3. Darpan:
    What details are you seeking?

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  4. Sujai:

    I think a lot of this has to do with the organizational culture. I work for GOI and the situation there is completely opposite. We do not ever argue with our manager. Forget about unnecessary argument, even genuine discussion is considered indiscipline. Argument with your boss is unthinkable. The motto is: boss decides, underlings execute. Hell with creativity and original thinking.

    I believe the problem with our bureaucracy is that we recruit some really smart and bright guys through civil services exams and then allow them to do nothing. Being smart and intelligent, they excel in whatever they do. If they are allowed to do nothing, they excel in "doing nothing".

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  5. Vivek:
    I know what you are saying.

    We work closely with Indian Defense research labs. And the way they work is so different from the private industry.

    We just don't fit in :)

    As you rightly said, when the managers says it is considered a diktat! We have often talked about it and remarked how suffocating that might be.

    As you said, we do see some bright people - and they are so constrained by all kinds of stupid bureaucratic rules.

    Once we had to put a nail to hold a mast, and I casually said that we should go ahead a put a nail. But one of the directors was a bit hesitant and said that they may not get the permission. (BTW, we still could not put that nail).

    We told ourselves- may be, we are not sitting on crores of rupees but at least we can hammer a nail when we want to! :)

    Coming to 'doing nothing', I have loads of stories (I guess you would have more). But I can't discuss those!

    Thanks to this interaction with Indian organizations, I am now able to understand why so many projects have never taken off :)

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  6. Sujai: I am looking for these "action oriented" details that you might have already tried in your organization. After living in the US for 8 years, I am going back to India to setup my own business. Looks like you have done something similar and have 18 months worth of experience already :)

    Here are some of my questions again -

    How do you foster creativity and innovation in your own organization, i.e. your services company?

    How do you limit arguments and debates and focus on the real issues in your company?

    How do you run effective brainstorming meetings in your organization?

    How do you foster "individual creativity in team context" for your company?

    What is the structure of your organization? How do you determine incentives and structure that promote "politics free" behavior?

    A few successful examples would be great. I look forward to your insights. I sincerely would like to understand these issues from India perspective.

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  7. Good article....have seen it happen too many times in the offices....especially even in trainings where people come up with insane doubts just for the sake of an argument!!

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  8. Darpan:
    I sent you an e-mail at the address you provided giving the answers to your questions.

    I do not discuss my personal stuff on this blog!

    Thanks.

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  9. "On few occasions, when a manager said, we will do this, few subordinates just brushed it off emphatically saying, ‘No, we won’t do it’. And the way the manager reacted was something that I did not anticipate. He suddenly took a conciliatory stance and tried to cajole them."

    Yes. This happens mostly because of the following reasons (in my experience):
    1. The Manager hasn't done his homework right and hence does not have any other option when one or more object to it.
    2. The folk(s) that objects, just does this to have a transient sense of 'getting one over the boss' (some times, this is done to just avoid more work - but this is very minimal as most of the items generally discussed won't involve any great addition of work!!).

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  10. Sujai,
    I have been reading you blog for sometime now. I took your posts to be really good but did not give so much weight to them.
    But now I am begining to feel,
    you are not just an ordinary guy with a key board blabbering your mind about things in India.
    But you are an intellectual.

    I say you must write and publish a book.

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  11. Yes, a book!
    Hopefully I have time for that!

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  12. I second Kaushik. If you get your posts published, that will be one of the best books published in India, in recent times. Nice analysis in such small amnt of words!

    Just contact some publishers, no?

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  13. Kaushik,

    Thatchy, is the beauty of the Indian IT Work Place. Hierarchy is only for the board room meetings.

    If you are eager to see the strictest of the Hierarchy, go and work in Japan or Korea. They have got the worst work culture, where authority pervades. You are supposed to wear you wares out for the company.

    Compared to them, We are very fortunate to work in a lot more tolerable work place.

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  14. Absolutely beautiful article. This is not just a problem of organisations or organisational culture in India. The problem is more deep rooted, I think it flows from the average joe's mind set and behavior patterns over there. The argumentative nature is kind of embedded, ingrained and bred in their subconcious minds. I rarely see any issue(even the most pettiest ones) being resolved amicably.

    Lack of professionalism and emotinal hijacking are pretty common place.

    If any survey measures Emotinal Intelligence of different ethnicities, we Indians will be among the lowest level.

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  15. Not being an Indian myself, I found this an eye-opener, or rather, it clarified what I had a sneaking suspicion of. I find some Indians particularly argumentative and unfortunately they bring out the worst in others in classroom situations. A classroom discussion is not the place to bring in debating skills that require the debater to be obtusely perverse in sticking to their point. A strong and loud voice temporarily prevents everyone present from seeing the statistical syllogisms and strawman arguments that are often used. I can imagine how it must be in office environments.

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  16. Some people in the west say that the Indians are too submissive. They do not push back enough. They just silently take what is given. I guess there are always two sides of the coin.

    Sujai is an exceptional Indian with a great "fighter" attitude.

    Other stereotypes for Indians - "Smelly, submissive, weird accent"

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  17. Some people in the west say that the Indians are too submissive. They do not push back enough. They just silently take what is given.

    Heads I win - tails you lose. Some people want to take it both the ways - if you debate then you are argumentative and if you are silent then you are submissive.

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  18. Argumentative ? nope. we lack a healthy debate. we have polarized politics of hatred and venom spewing from every single party. we hardly have a constructive debate.

    why does this happen? because we are not honest. we bury a sathyam scam, we bury a bofors scam, we bury the sikh/ gujurath riots, we push everything under the carpet. we have no justice unless media intervenes, sometime - like the arushi case - we cant even solve that cos the media has messed it up, we have a botched mumbai terror hostage situation because barkha dutt discloses identities of people hiding and they get killed, she's completely free of guilt cos she thinks everyone else has done it too! we have a media that does not show anything about sikh riots - but trips on teesta setalvad and her cooked up stories (for which she was docked by the court, and yet mainstream media has completely blanked that news!).

    where is the honesty ? we will have these completely exaggerated versions of news, bordering on conspiracy theories, given push by vested interests of every hue of every party. we'll end up with each person shouting for his cause.

    we only accuse each other and settle it out of court, under the table or anything else. we hardly debate.

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  19. Very informative article.

    Has anyone ever worked with people from Eastern european background? Mainly Bosnia, Croatia or Serbia.

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  20. That is an excellent post..

    The difference in Indian attitude to the Americans that i personallly feel is that we lack the ability to reason... When we say that something has to be done, it should be backed by a reason.. not because it is coming from an authority...


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  21. Well The world does not work equal in all places, of course the costumes change and bla bla, the job with computers will not change either, but when you say too argumentative ? I guess it depends because if you have good ideas, great but If you say just stupid things, sayonara.
    Good luck.

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  22. Interesting article. I'm not Indian but work with a few Indians and have noticed that when I request them to do just something, I will always get an argument back which I find quite odd. How do Indians handle this? Do they argue back? Is there another way of responding without arguing? Perhaps I should say, "Just do it."

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  23. As an Israeli who works with Indians, I find the characterization of Indians as argumentive surprising. To be honest, I have not know any country to be as argumentive as Israel and I don't think it makes us any less efficient. What I have seen with Indians is a tendancy to focus their disagreement on issues which seem to me as unimportant.

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  24. http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column_art-of-disagreeing-without-being-disagreeable_1643598

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