Millennials comprise a very large percent of today’s global workforce, across many countries and many different cultures. Regardless of an area’s traditional culture, its Millennials typically have very different tendencies and expectations than older generations. This post is part of a series intended to help global business leaders raise their awareness of continuous shifts in cross-cultural diversity by exploring how Millennials are re-shaping cultural attitudes in selected countries.
The diverse ways many cultures approach hierarchy in the workplace can be difficult—and sensitive—to navigate in today’s world of globalizing businesses because the way a culture views hierarchy is often interconnected with parts of our identities in which we take pride. For the same reason, it can also be critically important to understand the full range of different cultural norms and behaviors between the Egalitarian and Hierarchical social structures at either end of the Hierarchy Dimension of the CultureWizard Intercultural Model®.
Cross-cultural challenges related to this Dimension are further complicated by the fact that hierarchy is evolving in many countries as millennials join the workforce. This is especially pertinent in India, where rigid hierarchy has long been a defining element of the way people make decisions and the ways in which they show and receive respect.
But before I dive into the ways that millennials are influencing change in India, I’d like to illustrate how hierarchy can affect intercultural dynamics with a story from my own experience.
As a kid growing up in the U.S., I (mostly) wanted to please my parents, and felt that it was important to adhere to their rules and expectations. Of course, there were exceptions. I remember often asking my (French) mother why I had to behave in certain ways. Most of the time, she would say, “Don’t be insolent!” and reiterate that I should do as I was told. This was not a satisfying response for me, however, and I would become frustrated.
My (American) father’s approach suited my personality much better. When I was about six years old, I asked him for a box of matches so that my sister and I could build a bonfire in the backyard. He explained to me that there was no good way of containing the fire to ensure safety, so he would not give me the matches. I accepted his logic and chose a different game.
It was not until years later that I understood how my parents’ different styles reflect the diverse cultural perspectives that shaped my childhood. My mother was born and raised in France, where Hierarchy is more highly valued than in the U.S. Because she was the authority figure, she generally expected me to follow her instructions without protest. My father, however, has always embraced an Egalitarian approach to relationships. Today, I still have a more Egalitarian style—but I also have greater respect for Hierarchy than many of my American peers.
My story parallels the intersection of Hierarchy and generation in the global marketplace, where millennials are influenced by multiple overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) cultural perspectives. As the world continues to become more interconnected, younger generations are shaped not by only one set of traditions and beliefs, but by the many different cultures they encounter in art, entertainment, diverse urban centers, social media, international education … and the list goes on.
These international influences on Hierarchy are particularly relevant in India, where the increasing number of millennials entering the workforce were raised during a massive boom in the country’s software and tech industry. This generated economic growth, helped spur educational development programs, and increased demand for young, well-educated employees. The tech boom also helped globalize the Indian workforce, exposing many millennials to diverse ideas that do not always align with India’s tradition of extremely Hierarchical structure.
The effects of these factors are visible in a few different aspects of Indian society. The increasing number of well-educated young people means greater economic independence. They can leave home at an earlier age or simply not rely so heavily on their parents or family for support. Since much of Indian hierarchy is rooted in family values, the independence of younger generations somewhat defies or challenges traditional structures.
In the workplace, Indian millennials will probably retain customary respect and deference for authority figures, but they may also break outside of this mold. For example, they may share their opinions more readily with a manager or superior. They may be more willing to take risks, such as actively seeking opportunities for growth and promotion rather than waiting for acknowledgement of their status within the hierarchy.
It is also important to note that Indian millennials may have different expectations of their bosses. While older generations were accustomed to a more authoritarian style of management, Indian millennials may perform better for a boss who acts more as a coach and role model. For example, rather than delivering explicit instructions, managers of Indian team members in a cross-cultural environment might encourage employees to ask questions or offer ideas for how to approach a project.
Of course, there are no hard-and-fast rules, so it is important to observe behaviors and expectations of your team members and adjust your communication style accordingly. Even as Indian millennials influence change, traditional Indian customs are still prevalent in Indian society so you will be most successful if you remain cross-culturally aware, open and respectful of diverse perspectives. Remember that India is a huge country where individual work style can be influenced not only by age, but also by region, education, and/or socioeconomic background.