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Cultural Close-up: Advice for the Indian Manager

Being Assertive with the Expat

By Ranjini Manian

 

Do you have a hard time saying ‘no’ to an expatriate?

Do you find yourself taking on a task you don’t want to, simply because you’ve been asked to?

Do you find it hard to speak up if your point of view is different from his or hers?

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, you’ll be interested to know that I often hear expats say Indian managers need to be more assertive, have a point of view (POV), critique their bosses’ views, and importantly, share their POV in meetings.

Let me reach back into memory to tell you how I walked down this road and negotiated the bumps and the ditches.

When I started my relocation business with an American colleague I too found it hard to voice my opinion, even when I knew I had a good idea — maybe one that would work better in the Indian context.

Instead, I found myself going along with her game plan. Then we would both struggle to achieve a mutual goal. After this happened once too often, I decided I needed some assertiveness training.

The class taught me about my rights:

To hold my own values and beliefs, which I could voice

To not have to explain myself all the time and make excuses for what I did

To tell others how I wanted to be spoken to, even if I had made a mistake

I also learnt that the ability to speak up and challenge statements was considered a sign of one’s intellectual ability and leadership qualities in the West.

I have practised four things that have helped me morph from a passive to an assertive individual.

  • Start sentences with ‘I’

I did this with my colleague. Instead of saying “You didn’t tell me we had to go to Bangalore,” I said: “I needed to know beforehand about Bangalore, Joanne, as I have to handle various demands of a joint family.” For her it was a new concept that I needed “permission” to travel out of town.

  • Bring emotion to your lips

“I am feeling insulted.” “I am so relieved.” “I am delighted to hear this.” Such expressions don’t come naturally to us in India. Of course, we feel all these emotions but don’t necessarily translate them into words. Yet, how does the other person know what we feel, unless we articulate it? This articulation is a powerful step in assertiveness and self-confidence. I once told my American colleague that I felt bad when she humorously recounted with another Westerner Indians’ habit of nodding their heads. Since I took it up with her immediately, we were able to sort things out and forge a true partnership.

  • Make your needs known, don’t expect the expat to know them

“Well, she should know I have a child too, she is not the only one that has to leave at 2 pm for a school pick-up,” I used to think, wondering why she needed to “run out the door,” as she was fond of saying, when I would send my driver to collect my kid. Then I realised that that was her need, and she had the courage to not bat an eyelid about saying what she needed. I realised that my need to be consulted before doing things was not one she would implicitly understand. I had to explain what I needed — consult me before committing to a client, a time frame or budget. Quickly she began to toe that line once I had made her aware of my needs.

  • Don’t hesitate to disagree politely

“That’s a good way to do it, how about if we added / tried…” is a politely assertive way to not agree with everything the expat boss is doing. On one occasion when my colleague was wrong in wanting to impose a price hike too soon, I suggested that we charge additionally for the pre-course work, prefacing it with “How about if …”. Framing statements in this way, I found, made her listen and yet not find me an argumentative Indian.

However, be careful not to make it a habit; we don’t want to be termed ‘nay sayers’ either. It’s a fine balance that we’re seeking!


Ranjini Manian is a Sr Associate with Global Dynamics and the CEO of Global Adjustments.