What’s the worst that could happen?” This six-word question led to a life that has turned out to be rewarding beyond my wildest imagination. With a graduate degree in electronics and an MBA in marketing, I was already a successful sales manager with a reputable packaging company in India when my wife posed this question. We were discussing my long-cherished dream of becoming a trainer, and as usual, I was expressing all sorts of apprehensions at the idea of giving up an established career for an ambition that could well turn out to be a foolish dream.
Fifteen years, 3,100 participants, and travel across 21 Indian cities and 19 countries later, that one question has proved to be an invaluable gift. The answer led to giving up a sales career, becoming a consultant, and joining and rising to be a Master Trainer with Dale Carnegie Training, one of the world’s oldest training companies. From there I went on to work with Coca-Cola and reach the head of leadership development for a group of 18 countries. Both these experiences have given me an incredibly fulfilling career.
However, all these experiences are still inadequate to providing a definitive guide to training in India, an overwhelmingly diverse country of 1.2 billion people, more than half under age 35. Among them, they speak, read, and write 22 languages, practice seven religions, and worship at least 100 gods. The people, culture, and languages are so different in various parts of the country that a person from the north of India might feel linguistically more at home in the United States or the United Kingdom than in the south of India. At the same time, Bollywood movies, the game of cricket, and a booming economy that promises a land of opportunities unite this country beyond languages and geographies.
This cultural and generational diversity creates challenges even for a native trainer who works in a different part of the country from their own. I remember an embarrassing incident when I was training in the state of Maharashtra in western India. While facilitating a session for a construction company, I was trying to throw in some local words and phrases to build rapport with the audience, rather than delivering the course completely in English. An enthusiastic participant started to converse in the local language, Marathi. I wanted to tell him, “I do not know Marathi.” However, being a native speaker of another language, I ended up using the wrong word. After a slightly hostile reaction, they informed me that the verb used in my mother tongue for “to know” means “to like” in their language. So an honest confession—“I do not know your language”—came out as, “I do not like your language.”
The biggest mistake you can make while preparing to train in India is to assume that India is one uniform country. There are many cultures in India, and this makes the process of training people from India both exciting and challenging.
If this sounds overwhelming, rest assured that training in India can be a fascinating experience. Indian audiences have a unique combination of intellect and hospitality, and it is a delight to conduct a session for groups who are quick to understand concepts and ask challenging questions. The sheer warmth of the people—who are known to play perfect hosts to the trainers, taking them shopping and sightseeing and inviting them to family dinners or even family weddings—is a memorable experience for many talent development professionals.
I hope that you, too, will get to experience the warmth and hospitality of the Indian audience. And when you do, the information that follows will help you navigate the Indian classroom.
People and Culture: Get to Know Your Audience
Despite the diversity, there are still many characteristics that people across India share. It will surely help a trainer unfamiliar with the country to keep some of these in mind while preparing to deliver sessions in India.
Let’s start by sharing some behaviors rooted in culture that Indian audiences may exhibit in a classroom. These behaviors are relatively uniform across the country. Understanding where people are coming from will help you see things in the right context and respond appropriately.
We Expect the Trainer to Provide Answers
Most Indians grew up in an educational system that was more directive than reflective. We expect our teachers (and trainers) to know the answers and tell us, rather than leading us to discover on our own. We expect them to lead us to the light of knowledge from the darkness of ignorance. In a training context, it means that using a facilitative approach and not taking a stand about the right answer could be perceived as a lack of knowledge.
For example, a globally respected facilitator once came to our organization to conduct a series of sessions on coaching for our midlevel managers. Masterful as he was in the art of coaching, he refused to provide definitive answers to the work challenges that the audience brought, and instead kept pushing them to explore the challenge from various angles to determine the course of action. The most common complaint heard from the audience members was, “The trainer is a good person, but he does not know much. If we were to find the answers on our own, why is he here?”
A trainer can still adopt a facilitative approach. The key is to strike a balance between times to demonstrate superior knowledge and times to ask the audience to gain knowledge from their peers or experiences. The recommended ratio is approximately 50:50. Go below that regarding trainer input, and a loss of credibility may occur.
We Avoid Speaking Up
Indians have a deep-rooted cultural value of respecting elders. Unlike Western societies, disagreeing with or even questioning a senior is often seen as a mark of disrespect. This conditioning manifests in the workplace as bosses who do not like their juniors to question them. Employees tend to keep their mouths shut, although they may disagree with their senior. In many schools, it’s common for students to listen to teachers deliver knowledge with an air of authority that seems to discourage questioning (although younger students are relatively less governed by these norms).
This cultural influence poses a peculiar challenge to a trainer. In class, when participants are in the same room as their boss, they are less likely to open up, share their true challenges, and say anything against workplace practices. At times, if someone decides to speak up, the boss may jump in to shut them up with a “final verdict.”
For example, I once conducted a course that required the participants to open up and voice their workplace concerns and challenges candidly to resolve issues. The CEO was very keen to attend the program, but it was obvious that his presence would shut down the participants, so I insisted that he not attend. He very reluctantly agreed. However, in the introduction to the session, he sincerely urged the participants to speak up, saying that he had planted two spies in the class who would report to him if someone was nonparticipative. His message was a cleverly worded but thinly veiled threat to the participants to keep them from speaking up. As a result, I could barely get attendees to divulge any real issues. As a facilitator, avoid putting bosses and direct reports in the same class to ensure a whole-hearted participation.
Because Indian employees are conditioned not to ask too many questions of seniors, as the trainer you may also experience a lack of questions or disagreements. Encourage questions for a more participative atmosphere. Early in the program, if you establish that there are no stupid questions or answers and demonstrate acceptance to being challenged, you are more likely to have rich discussions in the class.
We Have Our Own Notion of Time
One of the first things that you’ll notice while training in India is our intimate relationship with time. In most social functions, arriving within 30 minutes of the announced time may make you the only person at the venue. Lateness does not come from disrespect for others’ time or disregard for their schedule. So don’t take offense if people arrive late to your training course. Because people are not inconsiderate, once they understand how you view time, they will follow your schedule.
Getting Started: Conduct a Needs Assessment
A fascinating experience for anyone who visits India, especially from the West, is the way people drive on the road. Westerners have described local driving habits as ranging from disorderly to dangerous. However, there is a method to the madness, and surprisingly, India has far fewer road accidents than you would expect. This style of driving reflects the way of life for us—focus on outcomes more than the process. Reaching our destination is more important than following traffic rules. This quality makes Indian executives extremely innovative and very competitive.
This overwhelming focus on outcomes also affects the needs assessment process. The common needs analysis process comprises a gut feeling of the leaders, HR data analysis, personal interviews, focus groups, and online surveys, in that order.
When conducting an interview with a manager, it is likely that the manager will jump to offering solutions rather than describing the problems. For example, you are more likely to hear, “The team needs a one-day communication skills training program” than, “My challenge is that the team members do not communicate openly with one another” (which could very well be a trust issue rather than a communication issue).
Because people are not very comfortable speaking up, most may hold back when participating in focus groups, especially if their managers are in the room. The facilitator needs to firmly and credibly assure confidentiality. Some of the participants may still hold back due to the presence of their peers. It is for this reason that online surveys are likely to be more accurate than focus groups.
Itineraries: Plan the Learning Journey
Learning and development is still a pretty new area for a large number of Indian companies. The multinationals are ahead of the curve because they leverage their global programs and practices. Following multinational corporations are large Indian conglomerates, which are trying to strengthen their training departments to attract talent and catch up with their more evolved competitors regarding employee development. However, most small and medium-sized Indian companies are still in early stages of learning and development. Depending on the enterprise, there are different degrees of readiness at an organizational level regarding supporting training initiatives.
The most popular delivery method is classroom training. Also, Indians—being inherently social people—respond well to group activities and collaborative learning. Although not recommended, Indians also accept a monologue delivery by an instructor because that is how they grew up learning in schools and colleges.
However, the dominance of classroom training is quickly receding, and a combination of the following factors is likely to have a significant impact on online delivery:
• Internet connections. With 462 million Internet connections, India has the second highest Internet user base in the world (Chakraberty 2017). With the government’s focus on “Digital India,” this number is growing rapidly.
• Mobile connections. According to global mobile intelligence website GSMA (2016), India has 1 billion mobile connections, second only to China. India enjoys a whopping 76 percent market penetration. When visiting India, it is almost impossible to find a person who does not own a mobile phone. For many visitors, this contrasts with their impression of India, with its limited resources and lack of basic amenities for many people.
• Millennial population. With 385 million people aged 19 to 35, India has more Millennials than any other country in the world (Peterson, McCaffrey, and Sillman n.d.). Similarly to other parts of the world, they are much more comfortable with technology than older generations.
These three factors together make India a great place to leverage technology for the entire training cycle, from needs analysis to learning reinforcement and program evaluations. These factors have also started slowly but steadily moving the needle toward virtual delivery, such as e-learning, virtual classrooms, or gamified learning. Many companies and universities are already leveraging the Internet to substitute face-to-face training with virtual synchronous or asynchronous sessions.
However, India seems to have just tapped the tip of the iceberg when it comes to leveraging technology for learning. There is great potential for training companies who are experts in this area to offer their solutions, and for trainers in other countries to expand their services to India without traveling there.
When it comes to measuring success, very few organizations are making a conscious effort to do so. One of the reasons is that, outside of multinationals and some large Indian organizations, not many companies are making any significant investment in training programs. As one training manager cryptically remarked, “We do not measure the return on investment for our training programs because the cost of measurement will wipe away any returns, and we will end up with a negative ROI.”
Although some companies do deploy the Kirkpatrick model to measure training effectiveness, a low percentage go beyond Level 2, assessing knowledge. Since Indians are not intuitively data or process oriented, a good way to measure training effectiveness is to collect anecdotal evidence. One of the most efficient methods I have seen used is collecting success stories from the participants 60 days after completing the training program.
A smart way to leverage the inherent competitiveness is using social media to share the success stories. On one occasion, when a company started sharing success stories on its intranet, it saw a significant jump in people making a sincere attempt to implement what they learned in the training program.
Packing Lists: Logistics, Technology, and Resources
Like any other country, India has its set of unique logistical challenges and opportunities; ignore them at your peril. The following suggestions will be useful in ensuring a smooth execution of training programs.
Internet Connection Speeds
Although India has deep Internet connection penetration across the country, the speed continues to be a challenge in many cases. According to Akamai’s Internet connectivity report, although India is second in Internet connections worldwide, it is 105th when it comes to average Internet speed (Mehta 2016).
What that means for a trainer is that, if on a company’s premises—especially in larger cities—there will not be many challenges regarding good download speeds. However, if training up-country or at a hotel, then speed could be erratic. So if you are streaming videos from YouTube or any other online portal, it is best to download them onto your computer rather than trying to connect to the Internet during the session. The same goes for online simulations. I have had experiences where an online simulation could not be run effectively due to a poor Internet connection. My preference now is an offline simulation on the participants’ computers, unless I’m certain of the location and Internet connectivity.
As innocuous as it may sound, lunchtime has stumped many trainers who are not from India. Indians have almost all meals later in the day than their Western counterparts. Lunchtime is typically around 1 or 2 p.m. One of the logistical challenges faced while delivering sessions in programs designed for a global audience is that most of them had lunch planned at noon or 12:30 p.m. Often participants wanted to push back meal time, so this meant that the afternoon presentation started before lunch, required a break in the flow, and continued on the other side of the lunch hour. When designing a program for India, try to schedule the lunch break no earlier than 12:45 p.m.
Spices at an open-air market in Delhi. Indians eat most of their meals later in the day than those in the West.
A related challenge with lunch was pointed out by a colleague from the United States who was co-facilitating. When we finally took a break for lunch, she asked why she was not informed about the lavish spread for the meal. She wondered if anyone would be alert enough in her session after lunch. In India, unless the training course is happening in the office, lunch is always an extravagant affair. When in a hotel, lunch is invariably a large buffet, including regional dishes, international dishes, a choice of salads, and at least five desserts. This great meal, coupled with Indians’ natural penchant for a siesta, creates a huge challenge for the trainer in the afternoon. Be ready with a handful of energizers.
Customs: Body Language Dos and Don’ts
Indian participants in training programs exhibit complex body language that can be confusing to an outsider. And while almost all Indians are proficient in English, it is not their native language. Combine that with the thick accent that varies from state to state, and trying to decipher what is said can create an interesting situation for a non-Indian trainer.
Body language and cultural nuances change when moving from one part of India to another. However, there are still some common aspects that you can keep in mind.
For example, something that can confuse and even mislead any non-Indian trainer immediately is what is commonly known as the Indian Head Shake. Indians move their heads in an incredibly flexible way to convey various messages, ranging from a simple yes or no to admiration or confusion to agreement or frustration. When it comes to communicating, our heads are like Swiss Army knives—serving multiple purposes with just a slight change in the way the tool is used. It is too complex to list all the possible variations. Be extremely open-minded and nonjudgmental when you see someone shaking their head. Just be sure to ask them what they mean and then reconfirm it.
Another general trend is that Indians are not very comfortable with physical contact. Although this is changing rapidly, especially in the corporate context, it is not very common for people of opposite gender to greet each other with a hug. In the business context, it is OK to shake hands, but accept that some of the women may not be very comfortable shaking hands with a male trainer and may offer a limp handshake or just a nod with a smile. In team-building activities, it is best to put men and women in different teams if it involves close physical contact. However, if the audience consists of younger participants (under 30), they will be much more comfortable in their body language compared with people from older generations.
Finally, it is considered rude to consume food while in class—for both participants and trainers. For example, some trainers from the United States bring breakfast into class. In India, such behavior will evoke expressions ranging from shock to disgust. In some cases, people bring tea or coffee to class, but trainers should consume any food or beverage outside the class to maintain a professional demeanor when conducting the session.
Climate: Create a Warm Learning Environment
Indians are inherently friendly people who are more than willing to share everything, from their food to their life stories, with others—even strangers. At the same time, due to a multitude of cultural factors, they also take longer to open up to foreigners. Their sensibilities, especially when it comes to humor, are different from and more conservative than Westerners’. So some techniques that help trainers create rapport with an international audience may not be very effective while training in India. Here are some suggestions for creating a warm and friendly learning environment.
Despite so many differences, there are two factors that bind Indians across the country: the movie industry (Bollywood) and their love for the game of cricket. The quickest and surest way to connect with the audience is to bring in some references to either of these. Bollywood is more popular in northern and central parts of India than in southern areas, which have their own movie industry. However, cricket is the common religion of the country. Referring to cricket legends and Bollywood movies is bound to bring down the barriers that participants may have with trainers from another country. Even if you’re unable to find something that perfectly matches the training program’s message, the fact that you attempted to relate it to what the country is passionate about will create an instant rapport with the audience.
Cricket is a favorite sport for many Indians across the country.
Indians who are otherwise warmhearted and generous are extremely reluctant to voice their appreciation to people. There is a drastic difference in the amount of encouragement a child receives while growing up in the West versus India. Traditionally, the patriarchs—be it fathers or teachers—provide more criticism than applause to a child. Many Indian managers are very uncomfortable giving praise to their employees, and it is not uncommon to come across a participant who cannot recall the last time their bosses showed appreciation. However, this cultural dimension also provides an opportunity as a facilitator. Find something to appreciate and acknowledge the participants for in class. Doing so creates a tremendous amount of gratitude and goodwill. Because the trainer is seen as an authority figure in the classroom, it will be greatly valued.
Although it has started changing, Indians do not laugh at themselves easily; self-deprecating jokes and roasts are still rare. Although in India there are stereotypes of almost every linguistic segment, they do not take kindly to humor that makes fun of them. As a trainer, use humor but avoid cracking jokes on Indian idiosyncrasies, even if you find the participant initiating the discussion.
Also, because of cultural differences, Indians may not get the jokes that a Westerner tells. One time during a train-the-trainer session, a new trainer went to the master trainer, who was from the United States, asking for suggestions on how to close the day. “Just tell them to get the hell out of here!” was what the master trainer casually suggested. The candidate confidently walked to the front of the room, and with a very professional tone and genuine expression, announced, “It is the end of the day. Now get the hell out of here.” The master trainer could not understand how an otherwise sharp trainer did not get the joke. That said, a younger audience will be more open to the Western brand of humor than their older colleagues.
Things to Consider: Handle Classroom Challenges
Most of the Indian trainees will try hard to establish a relationship and seek the trainer’s attention. If you find a few trainees who are hesitant to establish eye contact or form a bond with the trainer, realize it may be due to their inherent fear of making a mistake, not being understood, or not understanding due to language limitations or accent issues.
A trainer from the West needs to be cognizant of this fact. Try to identify such trainees and establish trust and a relationship with them privately. Keep in mind these two other issues:
A trainer who is unfamiliar with India can work around time challenges. Factor in Indian stretch time when planning sessions. Do not over-interpret lateness as a rude or disrespectful behavior, but more as a cultural norm. Announce the starting time for the session, and after the break, invite participants to use the times on their phones versus their watches, which may all be set to different times. Also, since the stretched definition of time applies even to closing time, you can extend the end of the day without any major complaints from the audience.
Indian audiences are very competitive. In almost any exercise or activity, they want to get ahead of others and win. This desire to win, combined with their focus on the outcome rather than the process, may lead them to find shortcuts in the classroom exercises. This competitiveness is a double-edged sword that can either be leveraged by a trainer or wreak havoc in a session.
Use this competitiveness as an advantage. For example, an incredibly effective trick is giving points to teams for various positive contributions during the day and deducting points for any fault, like coming back late from breaks. Although the points don’t have real value, the sheer competitiveness of an average Indian makes them attach tremendous value to them. The first time I announced that five points would be deducted for each person coming late to the class or from the break, I was surprised to see people running to reach the class. Another example is giving a quiz every day to teams about what they learned the previous day. When I used this trick, the participants’ desire to win led them to get together every evening to study the content of the day, and it worked great for learning retention. However, after a couple of days, they worked out an agreement among themselves: Instead of everyone studying all the content every day, they divided each day among the team. Then only one person studied the topics each day to be able to answer on the team’s behalf. Of course, the rules have to be modified to keep up with the changing competitive nature of the teams.
Tips and Warnings: Advice for Nonnative Trainers
Here are a few things to keep in mind when working in the Indian culture.
Indians are passionate about the mind-boggling range of cuisines available in India. Not all Indian food is spicy, so it is possible to choose dishes that are not heavy on spices, especially if you’re training in a good hotel. Sharing food and food habits and being daring during lunch and coffee breaks (or tea breaks, to be precise) will immediately make you accepted.
Although Indians are fluent in English, they are not native speakers of that language. Most of the education in urban areas is in English. At the same time, most Indians study either Hindi or another native language in school. Many times, an Indian will think in their mother tongue and translate it into English while speaking. The translating makes it slightly difficult for trainers to understand participants, and for them to understand the trainers.
Although younger generations and people working in multinationals are accustomed to calling one another by first names, many Indians are not comfortable calling their seniors by the first name. As a trainer, expect many people to refer to you as sir or ma’am, which is also how they addressed their schoolteachers while growing up. So sir or ma’am means not only respect, but specifically a respected teacher. Most participants will be OK with being called by their first names. In fact, I trained for a company where everyone addressed one another by their surname, but after I started to address them by their first names, participants listed it as one of the best parts of the course. Some Indian names are very long and complicated, especially in the south. However, most of them will either use a short name, such as Ramki for Ramakrishna, or initials, such as VS for Venkatesh Somayajulu.
Learn a few words of Hindi to create instant goodwill. Namaste is a universal greeting. Shukriya is thank you. Moreover, if either of these greetings are used with folded hands, which is a sign of respect and not surrender, the effect is multiplied.
Hopefully this chapter has provided some enlightenment for training Indian audiences. Despite the country’s challenges and peculiarities, be assured that the experience will be extremely enriching, both personally and professionally. Enjoy the magic of Indian hospitality and intellect during training days. If there is any way I can be of help, reach out to me at email@example.com.
About the Author
Kedar Vashi is the director for learning and development for Coca-Cola’s Bottling Investment Group (BIG), where he oversees leadership development of more than 40,000 employees spread across 17 countries. His areas of expertise include leadership development, talent management, knowledge management, coaching and mentoring, and behavioral competency training. He is also a Global Master Facilitator for some of Coca-Cola’s topmost leadership development programs.
Prior to joining Coca-Cola, Kedar served as vice president for trainer development and delivery for Dale Carnegie Training’s Indian operations. He was also a Master Trainer and part of Dale Carnegie’s Global Delivery Team, and has trained participants from across the globe on some of the Dale Carnegie Leadership Modules.
Kedar is a very active member of the L&D community in India, passionately partnering with various forums for supporting its growth. In recognition of his long-standing contribution, he was named one of the Top Training & Development Professionals in India by the World HRD Congress in 2013, and received the Training Leadership Award from the Asia Pacific HRM Congress in 2015.
Chakraberty, S. 2017. “India Now Has 462 Million Internet Users.” Tech in Asia, January 26. www.techinasia.com/india-462-million-internet-users-79-traffic-mobile.
GSMA. 2016. The Mobile Economy India 2016. London: GSMA. www.gsma.com/mobileeconomy/india.
Mehta, I. 2016. “India Jumps From 114 To 105 In Internet Speed Ranking, Still Lowest in Asia-Pacific.” Huffington Post, December 23. www.huffingtonpost.in/2016/12/23/india-jumps-from-114-to-105-in-internet-speed-ranking-still-low_a_21640732.
Peterson, E.R., C.R. McCaffrey, and A. Sillman. n.d. “Where Are the Global Millennials?” A.T. Kearney Global Business Policy Council. www.atkearney.com/web/global-business-policy-council/article?/a/where-are-the-global-millennials-.