Leading Indian-Dutch Business Teams: 3 Insights that Help Create Results

Indian Flag with small pictures in it

A couple of weeks ago, I advised and facilitated newly formed Indian-Dutch business teams – this in the context of a recent acquisition of a Dutch and very innovative SME by an Indian multinational in the pharmaceutical sector. I (myself born and raised in the Netherlands) coached the Indian-Dutch teams in tandem with a partner born and raised in India – an approach that I would recommend to anyone.

In this article I like to share 3 key insights that came out of the team sessions. 3 insights that helped the teams to tackle the challenges they faced, and helped them to collaborate more effectively, despite the cultural differences.

I was struck by what the Indians themselves refer to as ‘the new India’: the young and tech-savvy generation, often educated in the West, who look at India with different eyes than their parents and grandparents do. A clear sign that the cross-cultural differences we all love to box and map are evolving, an are growing towards one another as the world we live and work in turns more global.

People change and therefore cultures change. Knowing and recognizing key differences between cultures certainly helps (books that do a particularly good job here are Riding the Waves of Culture and The Culture Map).

But in the end the key to working effectively across cultures is not learning about cultural differences. It is being able to adjust your behavior to take those differences into account.

Back to our Indian-Dutch business teams. Working with the teams, what were the main cross-cultural differences at play, differences that – if not addressed effectively – were sure to create friction and would slow down or even derail strategy execution? What proved to be the best tips to overcome existing differences and create concrete results?

Here we go: 3 insights and tips that will help any of you working with Indian-Dutch business teams to create results.

1. Time and planning

What clearly proved to be an issue between Indian and Dutch team members was their different approach to time and planning. The Dutch, similar to Americans and Northern Europeans, have the tendency to see time rather as something linear, and spend much time drawing up sequential (first A than B) plans, plans that people need to follow. In their view, this structured way of working is highly efficient. It also guarantees that all stakeholders are involved.

Indians, on the other hand, have a more synchronic time orientation. In their view, time is not something that can or should be controlled. Time is something that allows you to explore how to increase effectiveness, reach deadlines, and build closer relationships. The relationship is always more important than the plan (find here useful details about how different cultures value time). Imagine the frustration when the Indians and Dutch started to collaborate.

The Dutch viewed the Indians as ‘inefficient’ and ‘chaotic’ because they continuously overruled the agreed planning. The Indians, on the other hand, thought their Dutch colleagues were ‘rigid’, ‘inflexible’ and ‘afraid of change’. In the words of one Indian team member: ‘Sometimes new information comes in quick succession and things change. In India people are more used to multi tasking and adapting. Sticking to your plan can be very inefficient.’ In the words of one Dutch team member: ‘If you keep on changing the agreed plan you create chaos and rework, all very inefficient.’

Tip: Tackle the time and planning issue head-on, and have a thorough joint discussion about your team’s expected results. Clarify which results you exactly want to achieve. Maybe your Indian colleagues have a more holistic view? Maybe your Dutch colleagues see it more focused in smaller steps? You may just find that both approaches have their merits, and find a way to combine Indian-style effectiveness with Dutch-style efficiency. That’s what our Indian-Dutch business teams did.

2. Who’s the boss?

In Dutch companies, every person from the secretary to the managing director is a member of the team, and Dutch bosses generally know better than to issue anything that might be taken to resemble an order. In Indian companies, well, the boss is still the boss (find more on how hierarchy is perceived across cultures). More than once I observed some friction related to this different take on hierarchy. Indian team members, in particular, could not understand why the Dutch kept volunteering their opinions, without showing respect for existing hierarchy (you insult me because you did not take account of my function). Leaving the Dutch person puzzled, because she/he thought that speaking up showed true commitment to the team!

Tip for the Dutch (and other people from egalitarian cultures): Show you are aware that hierarchy is treated differently in Indian/Asian cultures. Instead of volunteering what you think, start by asking the right questions. By asking questions that encourage openness you can show respect for hierarchy, without losing your own preference for open and participative discussions. You can find examples of good questions in this article on how to create openness in cross-cultural teams.

Tip for Indians (and other people from hierarchical cultures): In flat, egalitarian cultures like the Dutch the risk of offending somebody is minimal. There is no need to worry about saying the wrong things! Dutch people are also open to feedback. ‘Very refreshing’, one Indian team member thought, and ‘something India could really learn from.’

3. How far to get involved?

Last but not least. In some cultures, like the Dutch culture, there is a clear dividing line between work and private time. Work is work, weekend is weekend, and colleagues who work well together are not automatically close friends outside the office. In India there is no such dividing line. Indian people (just like the Chinese and the Japanese for instance) are also very relationship-oriented. Getting to know the person is crucial if you want to build the one thing no successful business team can do without: mutual trust.

As a Dutch team member shared with me: ‘Two weeks ago I received an invitation from an Indian colleague for his wedding party in India. I don’t know what I now do best. Is he expecting me to fly over for his wedding? Quite a cost, and I do not know him that well… Can I decline? Will he be offended?’ In the Dutch culture you send an invitation like this to those who are close to you. And the invitation is not something you easily decline. But as the Indian colleague explained later: ‘Of course I send an invitation to all my colleagues in Holland. Not inviting them would show disrespect to our relationship. I understand they will probably not be able to come, that is ok. But in this way I include them into my life’.

Probably the most important tip for people from cultures that are more task than relationship oriented: Invest time and energy into getting to know your Indian colleagues outside of the office. Visit your colleague at home when you are in India, meet the family, and certainly go to the wedding if you are around. It may turn out the best ‘business’ decision you have ever made.

Co-writer: Hanneke Siebelink

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Photo: Yogesh Mharte/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

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