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I have been put in charge of managing and leading a team of programmers based in India.

I have a feeling there are some cultural issues to overcome, aside from the obvious English 2nd language ones. For example, from my past experience working with Indians, I sense a certain reluctance to ask questions or advice, even when requirements are not clear. More than once I have seen Indian developers say they understand the requirements when they really don't, then just make their own unilateral assumptions about how things should be, and plough ahead on that basis without consulting with anybody else, so that we only realize a week or two down the line that they've been developing something completely other than what we wanted.

Is that a general cultural thing, or did I just see a bad sample?

Have you managed or worked with Indian teams? What other advice could you offer as to how best to manage and otherwise relate to them?

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Should be posted on Workplace. Even there it might need rewording to be more constructive. –  Karl Bielefeldt Aug 21 '12 at 22:47
In response to bytebuster's answer, there is nothing wrong in Addressing an Indian with first name. Honestly you should prefer first name over last name. Reason: Generally an Indian last name is based on cast or parent's name so its better to use first name. –  Garv Aug 22 '12 at 6:14
This needs a specific question to be answerable and constructive on workplace –  Ben Brocka Aug 22 '12 at 18:46
@BenBrocka - Based on the thorough and detailed answer received before this question was closed, it would seem that the question was clear enough...? –  Shaul Aug 22 '12 at 20:41
Through and detailed answers don't necessarily mean your question was scoped well; Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.. A too-broad question could probably elicit dozens of separate answers that all happen to be detailed and thorough...and all saying separate things. That's nice, but it's still too open of a question. –  Ben Brocka Aug 22 '12 at 21:20
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closed as off topic by gnat, Karl Bielefeldt, Yannis Rizos Aug 21 '12 at 22:59

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1 Answer

up vote 9 down vote accepted

If you're European or American, you may find collaborating with Indian developers difficult. This is exactly because of the cultural differences. One should understand, "differences" is not a metaphor for "bad work". Here are some key aspects you may consider useful. The list below is not only a guideline on how to understand them. You should also act in a similar manner, otherwise there's a risk of losing respect.

Saving Face

Reputation is important in every culture, but the meaning of reputation is different: Western culture allows mistakes, but Indian culture does not. Instead, it focusses on people's harmony. Everything that intrudes into that harmony, is considered rude.
One should expect that people will tell you what you want to hear, not how things actually are.

Never Openly Disagree. Open disagreement is as rude and disrespectful as criticizing somebody else. If you can't agree, simply change the topic.

Never admit your mistakes. It sounds horrible for the Western culture as we've been taught to admit our mistakes and learn from them. In India, a single fact of admitted mistake would be much more harmful than finding a million excuses why a mistake has happened.
Also, never express your dissatisfaction with someone's work. In exceptional cases, you can do it in private, but certainly never let someone else to know it.

Never Say I Can't Do This. The same reason: if you say no, you admit you can't do something. Note that this applies to risky deadlines, requesting more time, or even just asking for help.


You should not expect for personal responsibility, even if a certain task is assigned to a certain person. In India, every transaction is negotiated, and therefore responsibility is most times collective.


There are other small mistakes that may lead to problems:

  • Avoid calling people by their first names;
  • Avoid certain topics in colloquial discussions (politics, castes, poverty);

This sounds horrible, is it even possible to work with them?

Certainly, it is possible.
I've noticed Indian developers can work as hard as their European colleagues, they often find better tactical decisions, and they often have even better results.

What you may do?

  • Read between the lines. Craig Storti suggested that "This project is bigger than we have expected" literally means "we need more time".
  • Don't criticize. Better convey your message as a hint or indirect suggestion.
  • Be clear about the positions of the people you are working with;
    • Address each issue with the proper person. If you go too low, you may offend the boss as he/she may think you're intruding into their field of responsibility;
    • If you are building the team, do build a strong hierarchy. There's no chance for horizontal structure like many small Western companies have;
  • Negotiate. Sometimes adding more people to a late project, a common mistake in a Western world, works better than everything else;
  • Don't expect people to start punctually at 9AM;

The book Speaking of India by Craig Storti (link, paywalled) (summary) is a great resource to learn from.

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I have no idea how true any of this is of course, but this basically sounds like "no, they'll never properly integrate into a western workplace" which I find extremely hard to believe. I'm sure indian workplaces may be very different, but people of all cultures can assimilate –  Ben Brocka Aug 22 '12 at 18:54
@BenBrocka I admit my wording may be poor and I would be glad to see any constructive edits. Certainly, I wanted to convey the idea that Indian developers have proven great integration into Western workplace. However, in order to achieve best results, a Westerner should follow certain rules. I've listed those rules from my own experience, and this list is maybe not complete. –  bytebuster Aug 23 '12 at 5:17
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