by Rukmini Iyer, Director, Exult! Solutions
This article is based on the paper published in this link (the paper was originally presented at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok in 2013 at a Peace Conference).
As someone who runs a consulting firm (Exult! Solutions) that works in the area of organizational transformation, learning & development and peacebuilding, my analysis of the topic labelled above is from the professional perspective. It concerns a rather protracted, fuzzy conflict that professionals in the roles of consultants or employees in the fields of OD, HRM, L&D and related areas have to regularly contend with.
Corporate India, in current times, is a melting pot of the East and the West. In 1991, the Indian economy was liberalised, opening it up not only economically and financially, but also culturally. Multinational corporations came in; a lot of Indian companies went on to become multinationals. In the subsequent process of assimilation into the global economy, the Indian workforce had to adopt attitudes to work that are productive, but not traditionally familiar.
Now, to understand the social conflict caused by this economic shift, we need to understand the persona that is India. Let us use a mythological paradigm here to explain the prevailing culture. As children, a lot of us grow up listening to stories and reading them. As adults, those stories may not have a conscious impact, but given that they stay in the social structure, they always have an unconscious impact.
India as a society has been hugely influenced by the Hindu and the Buddhist philosophies, both of which happen to contain multi-life beliefs; i.e., they talk about reincarnation. One of the stories that demonstrates a dominant belief about competition and achievement is the story of King Bharat, whom India is also named after. The epic Mahabharat also comes from this name. Bharat wanted to conquer the world. And according to the story, he eventually did. At the end of the conquest, he went to the peak of Mount Meru, the mystical mountain, to hoist his flag there, to say, ‘I came here first, since I was the first one to conquer the world.’ But when he went up to the peak, he saw thousands of flags already hoisted there – each one claiming ‘I came here first!’
Against this backdrop of infinity, Bharat felt insignificant. This myth explains a core belief about ambition in Indian society, where time is not seen as a linear concept, but as a cyclical one. The general belief is that while one must strive to evolve, one must also be humbled by the fact that one person’s effort is merely a drop in the ocean in the huge collective world. There will always be someone before you and after you, to surpass what you have done. And if you do not get it right the first time, there is always another lifetime.
Now, juxtapose this with the stories that Alexander the Great grew up with. He grew up with Homer’s Iliad, with the heroics of Achilles, the bravery of Jason. The lessons here were about securing victory. He was told, that you have but one life, and to create value in it, you must win and achieve. And then when you die, you cross the river Styx and you will be welcomed into Elysium, the heaven of the heroes. The denominator of the achievements of a life is therefore, one.
Indians also say there’s a river you cross at the end of your life. It is called Vaitarni. But you do not cross it once. You go to and fro, endlessly. The denominator of the value of achievements is therefore, infinity.
So now you have contemporary India: The ground reality is highly diverse, chaotic, non-linear, ambiguous – and people who are rooted in Indianness are comfortable with it. But with the reality of globalisation comes the consequent need for structured thought processes and actions.
The blend of the two beliefs is a space of cultural conflict.
In the paper mentioned at the beginning of this article, I have spoken at length about the statistical cultural parameters based on the work on Geert Hofstede. A quick summation of that is that India collectively is a country with a high power distance – there is a tendency to believe in seniority and hierarchy over merit. It is largely collectivist; so conformity is important. It is masculine, which means free expression of thoughts and emotions is not very high – hence assertive communication is low. Uncertainly avoidance is low – which means people are ok with ambiguity, with lack of documentation and processes. Finally, there is a high level of long term orientation, so there is a lot of resistance to change.
When we juxtapose the cultural parameters with modern economic and business needs, we have a situation where the workplace is very different from home, for the average Indian. Families are divided because the lifestyles of its members are hugely varied. There is an obvious generation gap at work in terms of attitudes and thinking, resulting in insecurity and lack of cooperation.
The challenges to professionals working in India in the area of Organizational Development or Strategy in general include the fact that they need to be extremely culturally and emotionally sensitive in their corporate engagements. Very importantly, they need to be cognizant of the social impact of behavioural changes that business needs call for.
My recommendations to professionals currently working in India includes four main points:
- Enable shift of organizational culture using methods based on social constructionism, such as Appreciative Inquiry, instead of traditional problem solving methods that can be judgmental and end up labelling people instead of dealing with a situation.
- Build learning organizations by gradually instituting systems that document organizational assets, including knowledge.
- Draw upon the local wisdom. Use local folklore, mythology and epics to draw lessons on strategy and management rather than blindly importing foreign theories and frameworks. This will ensure that there is less resistance and the older people will feel more engaged and valued as a part of the conversation.
- Create advocacy groups for these practices in business networking forums that promote inclusion. Wilfully work on policies that promote peace and minimise conflict.
Conflict is bound to be present in the corporate world since economies are based on competition. It is important that gradually, we transmute conflict into collaboration. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the willingness to address conflicts through peaceful means.
(Rukmini Iyer is the Director of Exult! Solutions. She has worked extensively around Asia in the areas of organization transformation, training and peacebuilding. She actively practices Non-Violent Communication, NLP and Appreciative Inquiry and is a trained expert in conflict resolution. Know more about Exult! Solutions at www.exult-solutions.com)