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Book Extract: Silos In The Minds

Hierarchy in India exists in varying degrees, across the divisions of caste, age and gender

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So, John, how's it going so far?’ Aditya asked his colleague, referring to his first couple of weeks in India as Chief Executive Officer of the bank. They were having lunch at one of Mumbai’s oldest clubs.

John, taking a bite of his Chinese-only-in-name Schezwan Chicken, replied, ‘You know, it’s been quite good, actually. I haven’t found an apartment yet that I have liked and that’s taking a while to get sorted, but on the work front, it’s been fairly smooth sailing. The office is great, people are friendly and professional. But I did notice one strange thing – people seemed to work very late, certainly much later than I have seen back home. You know that I have been working till about 8.30 or 9 p.m. most days since I am trying to familiarize myself with developments in the last few months in our business. But I noticed that I wasn’t the only one working late; there were many people around. Is that the norm here?’


Aditya, who was the bank’s Vice-President, laughed. He remarked, ‘They work late because you work late. While people do work long hours in India, if there is a new boss, there is a tendency, at least initially, to not leave office until he does. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.’

‘But that doesn’t make sense!’ said John. ‘I stay until late largely because my family is not here. I don’t expect people at the office to hang around. They should leave when they are done and go home!’

Welcome to working in India!
This anecdote illustrates the hierarchy-ridden mindset prevalent in India. While hierarchy is an intrinsic aspect of organizations universally – and in some countries hierarchy is prevalent in the social context too – in India it is complex. Here, hierarchy is the silent operator that underlies or permeates many relationships.

It is most obvious between people who are separated by a clearly demarcated position – say, between the head of a department and a trainee, or a janitor and an office receptionist. But hierarchy is not restricted to differentiation in designations.

It exists, in varying degrees, across the divisions of caste, age and gender.

There exists a mindset of mentally placing people in categories; this categorization determines the nature of behaviour meted out to them.

...Hierarchy is not exclusive to India and is, in fact, relative. As Peter Clark, who was at the time of writing this book Chief Operating Officer for a large foreign company in India, points out:

Hierarchy is definitely present in India; it exists in other countries to a greater or lesser degree. Of the countries I have worked and lived in, Denmark is probably the least hierarchical, followed by the UK. Of the Asian countries, Japan is the most hierarchical. India is probably somewhere in between.

How Hierarchy Plays Out At Work
The value of respect for elders is ingrained in most Indians at an early age and is manifested in various ways like touching their feet or bowing to them for blessings. This intrinsic humility and deference translate into respect for the boss and seniors at the workplace.

That said, hierarchy, in the professional space in India, varies. Broadly speaking, in some Indian companies and public sector undertakings, the degree of hierarchy is high. It is toned down in Indian professional organizations, multinational companies and foreign banks, depending on the organizational culture, the values and mindset of the CEO and the senior leadership team.

Hari Sankaran, Vice Chairman of the IL&FS group in India, fleshes this out as he says: ‘In government-owned public sector undertakings (PSU), the culture of hierarchy infuses the bureaucracy with a density that rivals black holes. In familyowned businesses, the culture of hierarchy allows family members plenipotentiary powers over staff, without reference to competence, experience, acumen, intelligence or outcomes.

They belong to the family and that is sufficient. And then you have the professionally owned and managed corporates. They observe management principles, systems and processes and work cultures that are in sync with global practices. But they are still Indian – which means that the culture of hierarchy will rear its head to varying degrees.’

Eric Labartette, former Managing Director of Metro One Operation, comments that ‘in India, a boss is like God’. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there are vestiges of truth in this statement. And in organizations headed by foreigners, people look up to them more than they would an Indian boss.

On a slightly different but related note, also common to many Indians is the premium placed on fair skin. ‘Fair is lovely’ within India. The same degree of respect that is given to Caucasians is often not accorded to Asians or Africans.

A couple of expats I spoke with have experienced this. Stans Kleijnen, who is the Executive Director of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency for India, says, ‘You just know that you are treated differently because of your skin colour. And it’s often in little things like getting preferential treatment in a restaurant.’

Having established the broad contours, let’s drill down a bit to understand some of the nuances better. This chapter explores some of the ways in which hierarchy impacts work in an organization. We also discuss how people have worked with and around the hierarchical mindset to be more effective.

At the outset, hierarchy in the workplace seems to operate on two levels. One is at the primary level of optics, where treatment is visibly different depending on where one is in the pecking order.

In an organization where I worked, coffee was served in bone china cups for the senior managers while those who were below a certain level drank coffee in simpler, less fancy mugs. An Asian expat, Kevin (name changed), observes: ‘These are small things but you can feel them. For example, when you are out and you are ordering something, the most junior guy will be the one to coordinate.’

How often has one seen a ‘boss’ getting out of his car while talking animatedly on his mobile phone, with his chauffeur opening his door and an assistant carrying his files? In India, if you are the boss, you need to be seen behaving like one.


Virginia Holmes, Director of Fat Mu, a premier make-up academy, says: When we are on set, being a Brit and accustomed to it, I would carry my make-up bags. And some of the guys on my team say to me, ‘You cannot be seen carrying the bags, you’re the boss!’ I am, like, ‘Don’t be stupid,’ because where I come from, everybody carries everything, you’re a team. But here they push me forward with respect, take the bags from me, which is quite interesting because you have to be seen to be a boss! You get judged here.

It is a ‘status’ thing. As observed by an interviewee, ‘The hierarchy is very important. My secretary Vinita has an assistant, Dev, the office boy. Vinita will not do the filing, the scanning or make the coffee because those are Dev’s jobs. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world!’

Scott (name changed), a senior executive at a multinational organization, offers an interesting perspective: We recently moved offices in Mumbai. My old office at the plant was like a fortress – a big reception area for my secretary, meeting room and my office. It was a very grand, very spacious corner office. When we moved to the new office, which is an open-plan office and much less imposing, my secretary really struggled.

In the old office, no one could see me or visit me; now in the new one, they can see me, and if they see that I’m in my office, somebody will just walk in – and they can just walk straight past her, which I don’t mind. My approach is: ‘If I’m there, come in.’ But, for her, that was and still is a big issue because she feels that she’s being undermined. She feels that she should be the gatekeeper! That’s the dynamics of hierarchy coming into play with the office structure being changed!>>

Talk like the boss
At times, it’s important to be assertive and talk like a boss as that’s accepted and also expected. This is Virginia’s viewpoint: In India, loud and powerful = acceptable. I sometimes change my style in different situations. When I’m in the office, I’m quite easygoing; when I’m out, sometimes I am a bit more authoritative than I would like to be. If you’re not that, they won’t take you seriously. For example, our industry (cosmetics and make-up) is quite fun but it’s very stressful as well. And sometimes, with my team, I will say, ‘Guys, I need this done now, you’ve got to make it happen.’ I say this firmly but without upsetting them at the same time.

The Devi Wears Prada

This particular tendency is more relevant for Indians who have repatriated after working overseas. The few that I spoke to mentioned that in their initial days and weeks back in India, the people they interacted with observed and reacted to the clothes and accessories they wore – in a sense ‘checking them out’. This was not something they experienced as much when they were overseas; they may have been observed but no more or less than their colleagues.

Ashish Vijayakar, a senior officer at a foreign bank, puts it succinctly when he says, ‘People don’t react to you as a person. First, they react to your designation, to the car you drive, to the watch you have on, so it is obviously a lot more materialistic.

These are a few things that hit you when you come back.’ I recall experiencing some of these behaviours when I moved back to India with my family. While it’s not a big deal, it can be a bit annoying or strange because one is coming ‘home’ and does not expect to be seen through this lens.

These are a few areas where hierarchy is observed at a superficial level. But it can run deeper. It may translate into a person not empowering his subordinates sufficiently or questioning why an associate seems to enjoy certain perks that are commensurate with a higher position. These actions maybe deliberate but, often, they may occur on a subconscious level on account of the inherent conditioning of the manager who has a hierarchical mindset.  

With permission from HarperCollins India


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