Why Your Team in India Won't Say 'No'

Your software engineer in India loves to say yes but hates to say no. So much it can bring you to the brink of despair! So what is the remedy for India's "yes culture"?

Software Engineer in India
Credit: Waseem Hussain

Last Thursday, I ran into the head of software development of a multinational engineering conglomerate based in Switzerland. Enjoying tasty espresso in a café, he commented on a piece I published earlier this year about major stumbling blocks when outsourcing to India. He wondered why it was so difficult for people from India to say no. He asked: "Is there remedy for yes culture?"

I've been hearing this question for a long time now. Many years ago, when I was the relationship manager at the Swissair Group and responsible for working with IBS Software Services, our software development partner in India, project managers would come to me and wonder: "Is there any way how to make our Indian colleagues say no? That'd be nice for a change!"

A few years later I was instructing software engineers at Credit Suisse how to culturally prepare for working with peers at Wipro and Cognizant in India. Some participants were new to offshoring, some had been exposed to outsourcing to India before. Just as I was explaining work ethos in India using masala (or Indian spice mix) as a metaphor, one gentleman wanted to know: "Why do they always say 'yes, no problem'?"

He said that after a series of negative experience he now reacts with suspicion each time he hears that set phrase. All alarm bells available in his mind go off with a shrill. "No problem," the gentleman at the bank’s IT department concluded, "means there is a serious issue and it requires immediate attention."

Stay On The Yes Side of Life

I am writing this blog on my way home from Basel, Switzerland, where I worked at Novartis with 20 enthusiastic participants on how to successfully work with India. It was another déjà vu. At one point a lady raised her hand and asked bluntly: "How can I make my associates in India say no?"

This is a paradox. We fill libraries with books on how to get to yes. Ask anyone in sales, and they'll tell you about their daily quest for affirmation. But remember, we human beings are the immediate result of yes: We were conceived and accepted nutrition through the umbilical cord until we finally chose to be borne and thereby affirmed life.

India sticks to this yes culture quite naturally. The Indian child, teenager and adult is reminded time and again that the most important goal in life is to establish harmony between yourself and the rest of the universe. Obviously, this is achieved more easily by staying on the yes side of life.

Say No And Loose Your Face

India is changing. The country's national economy is in the midst of industrialization, which comes along with improving education, increasing income and more personal freedom for the individual. For example, the tradition to subordinate yourself to people with more authority (because they are older, more knowledgeable or more powerful) is under scrutiny by a growing number of people.

But visit a large office space at any BPO or software services company in India, and you'll discover that societal change still has a long way to go before you can call it an egalitarian society.

You'll find that superiors and subordinate workers follow hierarchical principles. To lead and to follow, to superordinate or to subordinate are seen to be normal, necessary and appropriate. The employee avoids contradicting his superior, as so for neither of them to lose face.

If an instruction from the top is met with a compliant "yes" from the lower levels, a mutual dependence is formed. The employee's chance of advancement and self worth become dependent from his superior's goodwill. The superior, in exchange, makes her status and power of cooperation dependent of the employee's subordination. Suggesting that there is indeed "no problem" is a good choice.

But here we are, customers in the west, begging to get a no from our offshore delivery manager, solution architect or software engineer in India!

Remedy? Try mental homeopathy: Each time you would usually say no, try to coin a yes sentence.

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