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Three Dimensions in India

Sunday July 22nd, 2018

Three weeks ago I was in Bangalore, India, for the training Influence and Accountability. The training takes 3 days and always has a certain flow. We can predict and describe the atmosphere changes during the three days as changes from reluctant to involved, from sitting back to stepping in, from slightly skeptical to highly engaged. The program is deeply personal, and challenges participants to give and receive open and honest feedback, and to (re-)define their own leadership, whatever role they are in.


Being accountable in your culture


During the program we work with a 3-dimensions model of influencing, the I, YOU, WE-model. We discuss several different levels of communication, and we work a lot on the congruence between the verbal and non-verbal communication. For many people, it is an eye-opener to discover that in our model, effective influencing is each time a conscious choice you make. Rather than responding to situations on auto-pilot (and doing what you always do), we challenge participants to step back from the situation to think about what they want to achieve, and then make a conscious choice of the influencing method that applies best to the situation at hand. The underlying message is: don’t just go through the daily motions of office life, but decide what it is you want to achieve and then go for it. Take ownership, be accountable.

Easier said than done. This way of thinking is often already challenging for European and American participants, who may work in very hierarchical situations or do not perceive to have a lot of freedom to take their own decisions in their job. The challenge multiplies when the model is applied in other cultures, such as the Chinese or the Indian culture. In these cultures, following orders from direct superiors is the norm and “taking initiative” has a different meaning than in Europe or the US.

In Bangalore, it was clear that many people did not have a strong initial learning goal for our program. They wanted to learn to become better influencers but did not expect this to depend on their ability to take a position and stand up for what they think is needed in a situation. The influence model – although all participants politely adopted it and practiced – clearly did not ring a bell in the earlier stages of the program. One participant worded it very nicely: “In India, we are born and then we get handed the script of what is expected of us in life. We execute the script, to the best of our abilities, and if circumstances permit us to do so.”


What does your culture expect from you?

Indeed, India is a culture where own initiative is not readily taken, at least not in the way we do in the western world. In a so strong hierarchical framework, where it is very clear who holds the power, employees are expected to take orders from superiors. Your own initiative – in hierarchical and collectivistic cultures – is not very much appreciated. Good employees follow the orders from the higher echelons of the company and carry them out. And this works very well in Indian society.

So far for cultural stereotypes. As the program evolved, we spoke passionately about influence and asked participants for their proposed plan of action in certain situations. Even in situations where they were not expected to lead themselves or come with ideas, it turned out people had strong suggestions and opinions but did not share these for cultural reasons. Working in a global context, however, means adjusting your approach every now and then, such that you increase your overall effectiveness. Without us prescribing what is needed in certain situations, the Indians took gradually more initiative and started to actively influence situations that initially seemed outside their circle of influence.


Aren’t we imposing the western way of doing things on India?


No, I believe we are not. I say this with confidence because we do not impose anything. In the program, we constantly challenge participants to expand their comfort zones and practice new ways of influencing others to achieve results. We indeed make them practice influencing methods that are unfamiliar and often out-of-comfort-zone, such as giving negative feedback and speaking up against superiors. Practicing these behaviors is essential to master them, and ensure that – if the situation asks for it – the behaviors can be applied. Participant’s backpacks get filled with new approaches, such that their range of options in certain situations is expanded.

We do not tell participants which of these new behaviors – if any – they need to use. They are themselves the best judges to decide what can work, and what will not, within their culture.

Fascinating is what happens when participants are presented with real-life situations, and get asked what behavior is required there to achieve your objectives. More and more people start to choose for behaviors that go against the norm. Not because we tell them so, but because they think this behavior will work best in the given situation.


Coloring within the lines


I describe the process always to participants as “coloring within the lines”. It’s like making drawings in school in the early days. If you always color within the lines, show no initiative and do what is expected of you, you get good grades and make beautiful drawings in the cultural context where you work. But work often throws more difficult challenges at you. Situations in which you have to decide what you think is right. Where creativity is needed, not meticulous coloring within the lines, but creative strokes in unexpected places.

When pondering over these questions, and struggling with what is expected of them in their cultural context, we challenge participants to make a bold choice. Will you keep doing what (you think) is expected of you, or will you do what you think is needed, in spite of eventual consequences?

Will you color within the lines and end up with a drawing like many others in your class (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this)? Or will you end up drawing outside the lines, being original yet also vulnerable?

It sometimes helps to ask people to think about the top leaders of their company. How do the most senior leaders in the company achieve success and reach goals: is that by coloring within the lines and be mediocre, or is that by using unconventional methods, and accept the consequences of being different from the norm.

We often know leaders because they chose the divert from the norm. Not because they look for the outsider position, not because they want to be known for not rocking the boat. But because they have a passion for what they do, and believe in something. Because when they want something to happen they take creative turns, coloring outside the lines is often what makes us know them.


Color more outside the lines, and follow your heart. Cultural programming cannot and should not be an excuse.

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