India’s Business Culture: Loss of Face and How to Avoid it

by Brandi Moore on July 1, 2010

How to Save Face in India

photo: Scott Liddell

Loss of face is something that Americans understand through definitions rather than experience unless they grew up in circumstances with parents from a culture that values face.  Its very difficult to fully comprehend the entire set of emotions and responsibilities that are linked to create the idea of face.  Further complicating matters is most of us are taught to worry about face when working in China and Japan.  Not India or other places where it is also important.

Americans understand the idea of defending ourselves against accusations and defending our views.  This is the icing of the whole concept of face.  Its more about defending a personal identify than loosing face.  In most cultures that value face complex group membership exists causing loss of face to occur in many directions.  Underneath this complexity is the infrastructure.  In business cultures like India the act of saving face is played out through:

  • deference to elders
  • respecting bosses
  • protecting bosses from loosing face by possibly sacrificing their own
  • setting up processes inside heirarchy to reduce possibility of loss of face
  • avoiding being the cause of someone loosing face by accommodating

And many other ways.

Why do you care about loosing face?  This cultural value in India will impact negotiation, project management, managing people, training programs and many other aspects of interacting with India.  Its critical that global managers understand how face affects every day business culture in India.  If you cause the loss of face a cascade of bad things happen such as employees quitting, negotiations falling apart, and training that goes into the trash because everyone was too upset about the experience to talk about the solutions offered.

As an American its important to add some methods to go beyond Cultural Sensitivity to Cultural Communication and lead to Building Commitment.  What I mean is you can understand a culture, but can you act on your understanding to negotiate inside it?  Can you build commitment in India’s business culture that meets the needs of both India and US interests?  This is the true test of a global manager.  Building Commitment is where the rubber meets the road. Learning about how to manage cultural differences in India with some actions is the process you need to continue over the lifetime of your business relationship.  Chronicle what works and what does not.  The result will be a list of your own cross-cultural management tools that work for you to be effective in India.

Lets talk about a few methods for managing loosing face.

1.) An intermediary to deliver news. There are a few recent examples in the press about using an intermediary.  Once you understand how an intermediary is used, you will see it everywhere especially right now with the government conversations between China and the US regarding North and South Korea.  Countries are invited in between nations often to send messages.  You can do the same thing.  In short, you send a messenger to deliver news.  This news may be better managed by the messenger based on his relationship with the receiver.  The receiver make take the news better after receiving it from whoever is selected as the intermediary.  Because Americans doing business in India rarely use intermediaries, this is a tricky proposition that takes practice.  First, do not select the messenger who is of the same rank in the organization.  Second, insure that the messenger understands clearly what the mission is.  Simply asking them to “Talk to Seth about the timeline of the project” is a contract for failure.  Be specific and compliment your selected messenger on their ability — tell them why you have selected them to deliver the message in terms of “you seem to understand how Seth works on projects like this one.  I need you to talk to him and find out INSERT HERE IMPORTANT POINT.”  If the message is very important don’t hesitate to go outside the immediate organization in your search for a messenger.

2.) Do NOT Ask for FEEDBACK. In the US we love asking our employees for feedback about our performance so we can learn more about how to do better.  This is typically delivered in a 360 format in large organizations.  This ask is perceived as “why would you ask me” or  ” do you not know the right way”  inside India.  While there is many layers of complexity here I am trying to simply, the point that its strange to ask for direction when you are the leader.  Avoid it at all costs. When you are a highly skilled manager you may learn how to ask for feedback on how to do things — asking your employee how they should do something not how your job should be done — but this is down the road.  Don’t ask for personal feedback.  Period.

3.) Engage the Group. Membership in a group is strong in India.  Use this strength to deliver feedback to the group on what was positive.  If you don’t mention what was negative and then mention that X needs another draft they will get the message loud and clear.  Remember one thing: the group may be so strong that you will never figure out who the weak link is that is causing problems.  The idea that the group is, well, responsible for the group is very strong in India’s business culture.  Be mindful that it may feel like a duty to take care of the group membership beyond their own needs. This is a good thing when you are trying to accomplish something and need the group to react.

Try these to start and let me know about your progress!

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