September 25, 2012 | Research Feature

Un-Follow the Leader

Cultural norms of deference to authority figures can inhibit Indian employees from challenging the status quo and sharing innovative ideas with managers.


In a working world made smaller, managers increasingly oversee employees across the globe — and the cultural divide. But while crossing cultures can create new opportunities, it brings challenges, too.

Take India, which seeks to transition from an economy based on manufacturing and offshored services to one based on innovation and design. A challenge for managers is to foster independent thinking in a culture where employees are socialized to defer to authority figures more than are their western counterparts.

Silicon Valley-style innovation requires that young scientists and engineers who know the latest technological developments assert their ideas. The egalitarian culture of the United States, and specifically Northern California, help to make this work. As India strives to develop the Silicon Valley of Asia, an increasingly recognized challenge is its cultural tradition of respecting hierarchy and the ways this plays out in employees’ behavior toward managers. “There’s a tendency in India for employees to tell you what they think you want to hear. You sometimes hear “yes” to a question before you’ve even explained it,” says Professor Michael Morris, who maintains a research laboratory in Bangalore. “It’s great that people are so agreeable and eager to help, but it makes it difficult to get the push back that you really need in order to do things creatively. As a manager, I don't know the cutting-edge technical possibilities; I need my young programmers to propose how they think it should be done.”

To navigate a cultural dynamic like this one, managers need to understand the psychology underlying it. Cultural patterns of behavior can arise from internal beliefs; that is, Indians may defer out of a belief that authorities actually do know best. Or, patterns can arise from perceived social norms; Indians may defer because they believe that their fellow Indians expect this behavior. This role of external expectations in our behavior may seem at first counter-intuitive, yet upon reflection we can recognize that many of our daily behaviors (putting on a tie for work, driving on the right side of the street, reading the morning paper) are adopted to mesh with the expectations of others, rather than out of personal commitments about these matters.

Morris, along with post doctoral scholar Krishna Savani and N.V.R. Naidu of the M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology in Karnataka, India, designed a series of experiments to determine whether the purported Indian deference syndrome exists and whether it reflects that employees internalize their managers’ agendas or that they follow a norm of acting in line with the authority figure’s wishes even though they may not internally agree. Participants — both American and Indian university students — were asked to choose from a slate of short evening classes offered as a job benefit. Some of the classes were technical and useful to their employers — quality control, software design, and spreadsheet modeling. Others were more fun, social topics — bartending or networking — that might be useful personally but not for their current jobs. Participants faced a series of binary choices between technical and fun classes (offered at the same time). They were told that their boss would never find out which classes they chose. Half of the participants were simply asked to choose, while the other half were asked to write down what their boss would want before choosing. The researchers found that while thinking about their boss did not affect American participants’ choices, it shifted Indian participants’ choices from 52 percent technical classes to 64 percent.

In addition to making choices, participants also evaluated how much they liked each course; interestingly, these evaluations were not affected by the “boss prime” manipulation in the way that overt choices were, suggesting that its effect comes more from triggering norms than activating internal beliefs. In subsequent experiments, Morris and his colleagues found that Indians’ distinctive deference response in choices occurs even when they were just implicitly reminded of bosses through a word puzzle rather than explicitly asked to think about their boss. Deference, for Indians, seems a unconscious reflexive response to authorities, much the way one might reflexively smile at a child or slow down when walking with an elderly person.

To further test whether Indian deference is a matter of following norms triggered by authority figures, Morris and colleagues conducted further experiments in which participants faced different decision tasks. Consistent with the norm account, they found that boss-priming affected Indians in a task that asked which courses they should choose, but not in a task that asked which courses they want to choose. In a final experiment, Morris and colleagues measured emotions such as pride and guilt that followed boss-primed Indians’ choices. “Indian participants who chose a course with their boss in mind did not feel pride in their choice, which they would have felt if they were following through on an internalized goal,” Morris explains. “But we did see guilt among those who made the opposite choices, which is to be expected if the participant feels they are breaking a norm.”

Morris says the findings have implications for both Indian managers striving to lead innovative startups and Western managers leading the Indian divisions of global firms. Instead of trying to convince Indian employees of the importance of dissent and innovation, targeting their personal beliefs and values, innovation leaders would do better to target their perceptions of the social norm in their community. Innovation leaders could change a perceived norm by enlisting a few young employees to behave non-deferentially at public meetings after insisting to their managers not to sanction them for insubordination. Staging role-models of dissent in this way is a new approach that managers may have to use in a culture where challenging one’s boss is unusual. Morris points to Vineet Nayar, CEO of the Indian company HCL Technologies Ltd., as a prime example of an Indian leader who took such measures to create a corporate culture that departs from traditional Indian norms. To encourage his young employees to share their software development ideas, Nayar posts critical evaluations of senior executives on the company intranet and encourages executives to join him in inept Bollywood dances during company offsite meetings — anything that makes the managers seem less intimidating in the eyes of younger employees.

“You have to change norms by modeling different behaviors and adapting your style, and Nayar accomplishes that by creating scenarios where one executive is critical of another or by setting up symbols within the company’s culture to show that everyone fails — it’s not a place where managers should be treated with deference,” Morris says.

For western managers, Morris adds that the most important aspect to changing employees’ deferential behavior is to recognize that it stems from following cultural norms. “When we see cultural differences, we shouldn’t impute that people have fundamentally different values and goals,” Morris says. “It may just be the rules in that society, like the traffic laws, are different. Norm-driven behaviors are easier to change than behavior that comes from internal values and goals. If you understand the psychology underlying a pattern of behavior, you know which levers will work for managing it.”

Michael Morris is the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership in the Management Division and a senior scholar at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Morris, Michael, N.V.R. Naidu, and Krishna Savani
“What Drives Cultural Differences in Deference to Authorities? Internalized Goals versus Injunctive Norms.” Working paper, Columbia Business School, 2010.

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