Is Indian Deference Like Catholic Guilt?

Deep-rooted cultural norms are at play when “yes” means “no.” Good managers can spot the difference.

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When Professor Michael Morris was doing research in Bangalore several years back, he worked with the M.S. Ramiah Institute of Management to build a computer lab that would help him gather data. As the project took shape, he one day met with the school’s IT manager to ask if he could come by the following Tuesday to check on the progress of the lab. Specifically, Morris wanted to test some software on one computer in the lab before loading it onto the rest of the network.

The manager agreed that Tuesday would be fine.

When Morris arrived on the scheduled day there wasn’t a computer — or an IT person — in sight. In fact, carpenters will still hammering together the room. The manager had said “yes” to Morris when he clearly knew that the lab wouldn’t be ready, but that was just the beginning of Morris’ problems there. “I was utterly incapable of getting anything done at the institute,” he says. “I’ve never felt like such a bad manager in my life.”

In the airport before his flight home, Morris spied a copy of Speaking of India: Bridging the Communications Gap When Working with Indians by Craig Storti. That’s where he first read about Indian Deference Syndrome, an increasingly common label for a deeply rooted cultural norm.

This syndrome has been cited in academic research as a key limitation preventing Indian companies from moving up in the value chain and as a challenge for Westerners trying to work in the country, notes Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School and a Chazen Senior Scholar,. “But labeling something as a syndrome isn’t an explanation,” he says. “It doesn’t tell you how to predict it or how to manage it.”

Only by understanding what triggers that deference can managers more accurately predict it and redirect workers’ actions, Morris argues. Determined to identify the root causes of that deference and find ways to maneuver around it, Morris designed several experiments.

Oh, the Guilt

He took as his model a noted study on Catholic guilt conducted in the 1980s by Mark Baldwin of the University of Winnipeg. Baldwin recruited 100 Catholic students and 100 non-Catholics and asked them to solve a series of anagrams on a computer. While working on the problems, half of the participants were exposed to subliminal photos of Pope John Paul.

The images flashed so quickly that the participants couldn’t consciously register them, but they stuck in their subconscious. After completing the anagrams, the students took a survey about relationships and emotions that included the question “Do you plan on having premarital sex?” A follow-up question asked them about feelings of guilt.

The Catholic students — and only the Catholic students — who had been exposed to the photo of the pope were less likely to say they planned to have premarital sex. They also reported much higher feelings of guilt that other participants.

It was clear that the subliminal images of the Catholic authority figure triggered their guilty consciences. “The pope was watching them from the back of their minds,” Morris explains.

Getting to ‘No’

To identify and measure Indian Deference Syndrome, Morris designed similar tests and conducted research on MBA students in India and the United States. One portion of the study asked participants to imagine they had graduated and were working as engineers with the opportunity to take some professional development classes. The choices were rigged so that one option sounded fun and one sounded very technical. For example, one choice was a class on networking and the other was on modeling software cycles.

One group was asked which course their manager would prefer they take. A second group was asked which class they thought their peers would prefer. Among Indian students asked what their manager would prefer, a much larger proportion opted for the technical course than among US students. And for those who opted for the “fun” courses, guilt was significantly higher.

“Just thinking about what your manager would prefer changes the decision that you make,” Morris says. It’s a trigger for the kind of mental deference that can interfere with making the best decisions.

The implications for managers are:

  • If you want a subordinate’s thoughts about a plan, don’t reveal your own opinions until after you hear theirs.

  • Don't ask yes-or-no questions, because the natural inclination for Indian subordinates is to say yes. For example, don’t ask if a project will be ready next Tuesday. Ask what they need in order to finish the project.

  • Don’t ask them what should be done, as that prompts deference. Ask them what they prefer or what they want to do.

“For managers, leadership is essential, but there are times when we want employees to not follow the leader,” Morris says. “We want dissent. We need pushback see where our ideas are wrong instead of being blindsided by them when it’s too late.”

Watch a video of Michael Morris discussing this research.

About the researcher

Michael Morris

Professor Morris is highly regarded for his research on social judgment, the study of how people make sense of events observed in their environment...

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