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Prevalence of High Power Distance Among Indian Workers in the United Arab Emirates Case Study

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Updated: Jul 9th, 2019

Background

The cross cultural issue under analysis is the prevalence of high power distance among Indian workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Indian immigrant population is one of the largest in the UAE.

However, because the emirates have a high representation of foreigners, Indian employees tend to experience difficulties at work that stem from cross cultural interactions. First, they are quite attentive to detail and thus end up spending enormous amounts of time in seemingly trivial details.

Co-workers or managers that come from other countries may have difficulties imposing strict deadlines on this category of workers. Therefore, the Indian culture imposes obstacles in the management of time by these immigrants in the UAE.

Indians often frown upon aggressiveness in the workplace. They think it is disrespectful to use such an approach. Therefore, individuals working for multinationals in the UAE may end up in a state of demotivation because of too much aggression from their co-workers or their superiors (Lanier 2000).

A number of them may also experience communication challenges in such environments. It is difficult for Indian employees to approach colleagues and supervisors who have such an attitude and this prevents them from expressing themselves or improving anything at work.

Perhaps one of the most relevant issues to this research is the Indian perception of hierarchy; Indians respect rank and formality in the workplace. They address their superiors using the titles ‘Sir’ or “Mr.’ and will rarely call their bosses by their first names.

Their supervisors should monitor work progress or implementation of deadlines. As a result, non-Indian managers who work with such employees may find that they have to keep monitoring the group in order to guarantee deadline adherence.

Sometimes this may be quite overwhelming for administrators as they may be stuck in the micro-management cycle. Additionally, Indian workers may have ideas about how to develop their workplaces but may refrain from speaking up.

This prevents them from exploiting their potential. It also causes them to avoid taking ownership of results; everything is in the hands of managers. A number of them may also avoid pushing themselves because they know that credit will go to their seniors.

Since most Indian employees have a high respect for rank, they will rarely say no to their bosses. They will sometimes do too much work, or accept projects that go beyond their area of expertise just to avoid letting down their managers.

Many of them may not be aware of the fact that it is alright to reject certain work responsibilities when one cannot handle them. Consequently, some of them may provide substandard results that may disappoint administrators.

Alternatively, companies may not allocate the right work to the appropriate individuals since the subordinates are afraid of rejecting the task. Such an atmosphere also makes its quite uncomfortable and stressful for Indian workers to operate in subordinate positions.

High power distance also manifests itself in meetings among Indian workers. Many of them expect seniors to speak in discussions, project teams or meetings.

Furthermore, few of them will rarely object to a matter brought forward by their seniors (Sagie & Aycan 2003). As a result, western or non-Indian administrators may mistake their silence for agreement, and this may lead to unwanted consequences.

Such a preference can also be quite problematic to Indian workers because they do not have alternatives for expressing their frustrations with work issues. It should be noted that the high power distance issues stem from the caste system in Hindu culture.

Their religion places a lot of importance authority and status. Unless a non-Indian manager fully understands this context, then it may difficult to establish changes that would harness the experiences and insights of Indian employees.

The need to adhere to strict hierarchical guidelines also implies that most Indian workers give more precedence to rules rather than results. If a multinational in the UAE consists of western workers who value results over rules, then a state of tension may arise in that workplace.

Their concern will be on establishing the appropriate processes that can govern work. Managers from the UK, US or other cultures with low power distance may feel frustrated by all the procedural reasons given by Indian workers about how a certain goal could not be achieved.

This may ruin workforce relations between seniors and their subordinates. It may also lead to dissatisfied teams on both sides of the divide. In fact, slow decision making, particularly among Indian employees stems from their respect for processes and procedures rather than results. If they had been results-oriented, then they would try to optimize their time resources as much as possible.

Indians in positions of power within the workplace or those managing their own businesses tend to have a preference for relationship-building rather than technical processes or meeting specific business objectives. They tend to give a lot of precedence to people of high status in organizations and will negotiate with persons of the same perceived rank. Westerners may find this difficult to cope with as they focus more on business-related elements (Storti 1999).

Some studies have also shown that when a worker possesses high power distance orientation, then he or she is likely to put up with greater abuse from his supervisors. Such a person will not question one’s supervisors and will accept that kind of behavior passively.

Indian workers who work in subordinate positions may work under poor work conditions and still fail to question their bosses or complain about it because of this high power distance. Human rights reports indicate that Indian workers in the UAE are confronted by poor safety conditions at work, poor overall conditions of work, salary delays, forced work in extreme day temperatures, non payment for any overtime work done.

Alternatively, others are expected to surrender their passports upon entry. There are a number of reasons why Indian immigrants put up with such abusive workplace conditions such as their lack of better alternatives in their own country.

However, one of the cross-cultural issues that lead them to accept this abuse is their high power distance orientation. Since many of them respect rank, status and power, few will question or report anomalies in the execution of this power.

All the above – mentioned problems may cause tensions, communication breakdowns, frustrations with performance, oppression, and low results in multicultural organizations with Indian immigrants. It is essential to identify instances of how these cross-cultural differences can manifest themselves. Special emphasis will be given to the prevalence of high power distance among this category of workers.

Case Description

Four interviews were carried out among Indian immigrants in the UAE. Two of them worked in the construction industry, another one worked in the hospitality industry while the other one worked in a telecommunications firms.

Each individual was expected to respond to a different set of questions (A,B,C,D) designed to address the job-related issues they face as a result of their power-distance inclinations. One interviewee was expected to respond to one set of questions alone.

Questions and answers to set A

Were you taught to express your opinions and think for yourself as a child?

No. As children, we were never supposed to question our superiors, more so our parents. If my dad said anything, it was regarded as the final word. I think this was even more important because I was a girl. I was taught to submit to my father and would later submit to my husband in marriage.

At school, can you or any other student question the teacher if you believed he/she is not correct?

Not really. In elementary and high school, the teacher was assumed to speak from a position of authority. We participated in discussions amongst ourselves, but rarely questioned what the teacher had to say.

In your business culture, are first names used between managers and employees? Is it considered unfriendly to use to use Mr. and Mrs.?

In my current workplace (the telecommunications firm) some managers and employees know each other by their first names. I haven’t gotten around to doing the same. I just don’t’ approve of such casual relationships between bosses and employees. He is my boss, not my friend.

Can you approach your boss and tell him that there are better ways to do something if you had any suggestions to his directions?

In my company, other people are doing so but not me. What if my boss turns it around and accuses me of rebelliousness. I could even loose my job for that. There is no way I would do that. I fully understand what my place is in this enterprise. I am here to get things done not to change the whole firm.

Do you need specific tasks from your boss? Does your boss provide you with all the steps to accomplish the task?

That is how I was taught how to do things but my boss does not always understand this. He is from the Netherlands you know. I sometimes find it so frustrating to work on a job when he only talks about a project slightly. He has an off-handed approach to things.

Are employees usually afraid to openly disagree with the boss?

Not in my company. Few of our bosses are from the UAE or even from my home country so they can put up with such kinds of things. But for myself, this can never happen. I would use another route to show him how unhappy I was with the decision. For example, I would be too slow with the project. This may cause him to think about the problem and deal with it properly.

Questions and responses to set B

Does your boss give you a lot of latitude on how you get things done? Does he assign you a task and expect you to achieve it with your own methods?

Not at all; he knows that it is his job to explain everything that should be done. In fact, we spend the whole day with my boss completing a certain task. In the construction business, you cannot leave room for guesswork.

Do you think your boss encourages employees to participate in decision making?

I wouldn’t say so. He often reminds us about his years of experience in construction so he does not expect us to rival his decision making. Sometimes we might remind him about the lack of certain materials or tools, but that is as far as it goes. We only remind him and then he adjusts his decision to include that prompt.

Does the boss usually make the decision without consulting any of their team members?

Almost always and I think that is the right way to go. We will waste a lot of time if we kept consulting. Besides, isn’t it always wise to assign the most difficult task to the most qualified person? My boss is the best person to make decisions so we do not object to his method.

Do you think about his decisions or desire to change it?

My colleagues and I seldom think about the decision or whether it is the right one for the company. That’s not our job; we don’t like stressing ourselves with these thoughts. All I care about is doing what I am supposed to and getting my salary at the end of the month.

Questions and answers to set C

How would you gauge your job description; is it narrow and specific or does it cut across multiple disciplines?

My job is narrow and specific. I am a chef and I focus on preparing meals for a restaurant. Other people, take the food to customers, get their payments and buy the ingredients that I will require.

Would you wish to expand this job description?

I think I am the best Indian chef in Dubai. If I started doing other things like serving customers then I would be distracted from my area of expertise. The manager can deal with those other things.

When you have a new idea, are you free to implement it?

Not quite; all new recipes must be tested by the restaurant owner. He will taste them continuously for one week in order to ensure that I am consistent. My boss will consider the price of ingredients before he can add the new recipe to the menu list. So I have to pass through my boss before trying anything new.

Do you communicate directly to your seniors, especially the owner of your business?

Where would I get the time? If I have something to say, I will start with the restaurant manager then he will talk to the boss about it. He will then follow the same path and get back to me about what the boss said.

What kind of culture or country does your boss belong to? How does it affect your workplace relations?

My boss comes from India like me; ours is an Indian restaurant. My workplace relations are quite good because my boss understands me. The way we did things in India is the way he still does it here in Dubai.

Questions and answers to set D

Does a colleagues’ age affect the way you interact with him or her?

Yes. I think older people should be given more respect because they have been exposed to so many things.

What would you respect more in a colleague or a boss- competence or years of experience?

I think someone’s years of experience are more important than his competence. If someone has worked for a company for twenty years, then he or she should be more familiar with the company than the competent one.

Have you ever felt unjustly treated by your employer? If so, was there a mechanism to address it? If not, would you have reported the incident?

Sometimes yes, but not all the time. The company has no mechanisms for handling the problem but I don’t think it is my job to scrutinize the manager; let other people do it.

Do you think other non Indians in your workplace understand the methods you use to make decisions?

We Indians like to explore all the avenues available to us before we make decisions. I might call my uncle about a faulty device before fixing it because I want to do it right. Sometimes this does not go well with non-Asians. I often notice those problems when they ask me to hurry up.

What problems are caused by cultural differences? Did you air these problems to your superiors?

I wish most foreigners would stop asking me about my caste; I was just born into it and had nothing to do with it. I also do not like the way some people make fun of my faith. Someone once asked how I could worship a mouse! I have not told management about it because I don’t want to cause trouble, but one day I will.

Lessons Learned

I learned from these interviews that power distance is a very important determinant of cross cultural tensions. All the interviewees that had non Indian superiors and colleagues appeared to have difficulties in one way or another. First, it was clear that the Indian immigrants in the UAE had challenges with decision making.

They did not mind being secluded from decision making and actually felt that this was the best way to work. They seemed to be driven by fear because they thought questioning authority would land them in trouble. Constant dread amongst the Indian workers is counterproductive and detrimental to their careers as well as to their companies.

Some of the interviewees also revealed that their employees maintain high – power distance even when they come from other parts of the world other than India. This indicates that the workers have imposed upon themselves these rules. Furthermore, it is almost as if supervisors from western cultures have accepted the Indian worker’s way of doing things.

They have few mechanisms for seeking their opinions or getting their contributions. Many of them provide their employees narrow job descriptions such as the chef in the Indian restaurant.

Hofstede in his cultural dimensions explains that power distance is an attitude towards hierarchy. It is higher in countries with authoritarian systems; decision making is supposed to be left to those with a higher status, rank or power (Hofstede 2000). This is the reason why most Indians appear to refrain from decision making.

Communication is an endemic problem for Indian immigrants in the UAE. Most of them asserted that they could not approach their superiors directly with a problem. There is a clear gap between these members and the people in authority.

One of them even asserted that he had been discriminated against by his colleagues but had never taken the matter forward. Communication only works vertically downwards for these employees. This hampers their ability to contribute to their organization or improve their own well being.

In order to understand this problem one can use Hall’s high context versus low context framework. In this theory he explained that high context cultures rarely send direct messages and will use other cues in order to send their messages. The communication gap in UAE firms with Indian workers stems from the prevalence of high context cultures interacting with low context cultures and misunderstandings arising.

Some superiors appear to be unaccountable to their employees. One of the interviewees revealed that his supervisor had treated him unjustly but he would not consider reporting the matter.

This illustrates that they have an unquestioning attitude to authority even when this may be abusive. One can understand why so many cases of employer mistreatment of Indian workers are common.

Most supervisors that manage Indian workers tend to make even the most minor decisions for them. This makes them vulnerable to overworking.

Even the quality of those decisions is questionable since they rarely get input from them. Micromanagement may stem from the Indian workers’ illustration that they are not comfortable with job autonomy. In the Trompenaars seven dimensions of culture, there is a dimension known as achievement and ascriptions.

High achieving societies value merit and performance in determining one’s status. Ascription based societies attribute one’s status to one’s age, education or who they are. This could explain why most Indians may not be comfortable with job autonomy because they may feel that they do not deserve it or that it should be done by those with rank.

Solutions and Recommendations

Employers from non Indian cultures need to reach out to their Indian employees. They need to empower them by actively seeking for their opinions. Managers should make them realize the value of their contribution so as to make it easier for them.

Additionally, they should not accept this passive decision making process as the only way for Indian workers to operate. Some educated Indian workers, especially in technology firms, have no problem with this concept. Consequently, westerners or employers from low power distance cultures should enlighten their Indian workers about the possibility of using a different approach at work.

Employers can also solve the problem of narrow job descriptions by providing workers with non-technical skills training. However, this should only be done if the employees themselves are willing to take part in the course.

They need to understand that high power distance is part of their culture and cannot be waved away with one wand. It takes training and deliberate organizational effort to expose these immigrants to other options of work (Gladwell 2008).

Managers need to be cautious when Indian immigrants take on too much work as they may afraid of disappointing them. Additionally, they should understand their decision making processes. Westerners should refrain from aggressiveness as this may be misconstrued as a sign of disrespect.

Alternatively, a company needs to streamline the processes at work so as to reduce the chances of poor adherence to deadlines. One must attempt to be polite and sympathetic in order to get Indian workers to open up.

Business owners should have more vigilant accountability mechanisms in order to avoid the abuse of power that works in tandem with high power –distance immigrants such as Indians. All these issues are generalizations and one must take the time to understand one’s workers. Every person is unique and may have lived with westerners.

References

Gladwell, M 2008, Outliers, the story of success, Little, Brown and Company, NY.

Hofstede, G 2000, Culture’s consequences, Sage, NY.

Lanier, S 2000, Foreign to familiar: a guide to understanding hot and cold climate cultures, McDougal Publishers, Hagerstown.

Sagie, A & Aycan, Z 2003, ‘A cross-cultural analysis of participative decision making in organizations’, Human relations, vol. 56 no. 4, pp. 69

Storti, C 1999, Figuring foreigners out: a practical guide, Intercultural press, Yarmouth.

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IvyPanda. "Prevalence of High Power Distance Among Indian Workers in the United Arab Emirates." July 9, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/prevalence-of-high-power-distance-among-indian-workers-in-the-united-arab-emirates/.

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