Culture Clash: Repatriation to India

Dr Shiva Aayadurai (from the NY Times article)
Dr Shiva Ayyadurai (from the NY Times article)

The New York Times ran an interesting article over the weekend entitled “Some Indians Find it Tough to Go Home Again.” This article reports that more than 34% of repats found it difficult to return to India. While I found this article illustrated some very useful cultural perspectives, I had some real challenges with the lead into the story.

The Times cites the case of Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, an extremely talented scientist and entrepreneur who has a variety of impressive degrees from MIT in the US. He was offered a position at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a government agency that reports to the Ministry of Science. Apparently, Dr. Ayyadurai left Mumbai at the age of 7 and vowed to “return to help his country.” The article does not state whether he had worked in India for any length of time prior to his position at CSIR, except for a Fulbright experience just prior to the CSIR offer.  The Times states that after 4 months of not receiving feedback or little response from his boss, he forwarded a copy of a proposed business plan/report with his recommendations and impressions of the CSIR to the Council’s scientists, presumably without seeking clearance from his boss to do so. Within days of this action, his email at work was shut down and he was soon told that the offer to hire him was no longer being extended.  The article claims that he then shared his report with journalists and wrote a letter of complaint about his situation to the Prime Minister.

This is where I begin to have a serious problem with this article.  I find it astonishing that Dr. Ayyadurai, such an incredibly brilliant man, approached his role at CSIR without an understanding of the importance of hierarchy in India.  He lived nearly his entire life in the US, was trained in top US universities and had little to no experience working in India, yet no one along the way informed him that India is an incredibly hierarchical society? Did he not realize that distributing a report to the organization that actually criticized the CSIR’s leadership would result in a tremendous backlash?  This immediately sounded a bit too “Jerry McGuire” for me. (“Jerry McGuire” is a film in which Tom Cruise plays a sports agent who writes and distributes a report about his industry that quickly gets him fired.)

I recognize that there are some deeply heated conversations on the internet about this case and the perception of inefficiency in the Indian government;  clearly I don’t know all of the facts. Different news sources state that Dr. Ayyadurai’s boss, Mr. Brahmachari, claims that he never offered a full-time position to Dr. Ayyadurai and that he was instead a contract worker who demanded much higher sum of money than CSIR would ultimately want to spend. He stated that Dr. Ayyadurai broke rules related to decision making in the organization and that resulted in the termination of his “consultancy.”

This case is an unique reminder of the importance of cross-cultural training. With some understanding of his “birth culture,” would it not have been possible for Dr. Ayyadurai to discuss the challenges of the lack of communication from his boss with a trusted local friend or colleague?  Could someone not have illustrated that the lack of a reply WAS indeed a reply? How many times have those of us who have worked in teams with Indian nationals and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) experienced ‘the unspoken no’ either through avoidance, a verbal response of “maybe” or even a “yes” that is thrown out there to avoid the loss of face? Perhaps Dr. Ayyadurai considered these and still chose to move ahead and share his findings with the masses in an effort to stir up a dialogue about the perceived need to change?  I cannot say for sure.

Having searched the internet about this particular case, I think the best cultural advice comes from an anonymous person who simply stated on a blog, “…An individual cannot just do things his or her way (in India). That will not be acceptable even in the United States or Canada.  Dr. Ayyadurai cannot flash his MIT degrees and attempt to take over the functioning of the CSIR…(he) has to get in and learn the system, get established and find out how to make himself useful. Only then can he expect to do ‘earth shattering things’.”

The  tale of Dr. Ayyadurai reminded me of the language we hear from many Peace Corps volunteers in the early days of their assignments abroad:  I’m going to country X to “help”, I’m going to determine what needs to be “changed” to make things more efficient and “better.”  The way the NY Times positions Dr. Ayyadurai’s situation, I’m not at all surprised that he was part of the 34% that had a difficult time. Going to a country to set an agenda with the intention of “helping” is often a recipe for disaster. Nevertheless, had he been in the US and written a report  that deeply criticized his employing organization’s leadership and sent it to teams on the ground, he should have also expected to be deeply reprimanded, if not fired.

For me, this article was a strong reminder of the importance of observation before encouraging change in a “new, old culture”.  It speaks to the need for style switching and the value of finding a trusted cultural guide on the ground, even if the ground is your country of birth.  It reminds me of the need to carefully consider the desire to “help” and how that can be interpreted.

How do reader’s interpret this NY Times article?  I’m particularly curious about Indian perspectives.  I do hope to hear from you!