Why Indians work: a cultural values perspective.

AuthorSharma, Supriya


The 'meaning-making-machines' that humans are (Ulrich & Ulrich, 2010), we look for inherent meaning in all that we do, including work. Working serves functions to an individual other than the apparent economic one (Morse & Weiss, 1955). Meaning of work (MOW) has been understood from the perspective of sources of meaning, and examining mechanisms through which individuals make meaning (Rosso, Dekas, & Wrzesniewski, 2010). However, most of this literature is developed in a western, colonial context (Rosso et al., 2010 for composition of MOW literature). How Indians experience work has largely remained an unexplored territory. While domains such as motivation, leadership, commitment have been studied in an Indian context etc., what work means to an Indian, has largely remained unexplored (Panda & Gupta, 2007).

India presents a context that is different from western societies (Gopalan & Stahl, 1998; Pio, 2007). Cross-cultural comparisons have found that work related attitudes and behavior of Indians are different from residents of other countries (eg. Giacomin et al., 2011; Jackson, 2001; Kwantes, 2009; Varma, Srinivas & Stroh, 2005; Viswesvaran & Despande, 1998). Therefore, application of theories and frameworks developed in a Western context in India is questionable (Gopalan & Stahl, 1998; Mariappanadar, 2005). Since work experiences are linked with cultural values (Schwartz, 1999), frameworks of MOW that are relevant in India need to be developed drawing from Indian values, tradition and culture.

One country needs not signify one culture and cultural diversity in a country needs to be accounted for in theoretical development (Schwartz, 1999).While differences between Indian and Western cultures are largely accepted, India's cultural diversity finds patchy presence in theoretical development (notable exceptions being Panda & Gupta, 2004; Sinha, Gupta, Singh, Srinivas, & Vijaykumar, 2001). This study is an attempt towards incorporating India's cultural diversity in the development of a MOW framework.

Keeping in perspective the need for understanding MOW while incorporating cultural diversity in theoretical development, this study broadly aims to make two contributions. First, it proposes an introductory classification for MOW relevant in an Indian context. Second, this study argues towards linking the proposed MOW classification with individual cultural values. Such a linkage may aid in constructing a MOW framework that incorporates the cultural plurality and diversity in India.

MOW in India

MOW stands for what work signifies for an individual; it involves interpretation by an individual as to what roles does work play in his/her life (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003). Literature documents sources, mechanisms, and outcomes of MOW (Rosso et al., 2010). However, like most management literature, much of this work has been developed in a Western or capitalism oriented value system--its applicability to an Indian context is questionable (Gopinath, 1998).

MOW frameworks and concepts from extant (mainly Western literature) may not be applicable to Indians. In India, MOW is more than what a person accomplishes in his/her job (Heuer, 2006). Work is detached from and not considered central to the being of an individual (Chatterjee, 2009; Cross, 2009; Gopinath, 1998). This work detachment hypothesis is contrary to values and beliefs of the West, where work occupies a central position in an individual's life (Snir & Harpaz, 2006). Therefore, concepts such as work centrality and personal engagement (Kahn, 1990) that occupy a large domain of extant managerial psychology literature may be ill-suited to an Indian context.

Indians are predisposed to complexity (Chatterjee, 2009), with their values and behaviors showing great variation and divergence. Under influence of multinationals and modernization, managerial mindset in India is believed to be changing, with inclinations towards adoption of Western or capitalist values and practices (Chatterjee & Pearson, 2006). However, influence of Western values does not imply abandonment of traditional Indian values (Tripathi, 1990). Indian managers are believed to retain a strong orientation towards "an ancient but continuously living and evolving civilization", which allows them to accept change easily (Chatterjee & Heuer, 2006). Integration of capitalist ideology and Indian traditions creates multiple frames that guide managerial actions (Chatterjee & Pearson, 2006). Through 'cross-vergence', managers are able to bring together multiple competing values and belief systems, without modifying either (Gopalan & Dixon, 1996).Cross-vergence enables Indians to hold divergent values arranged in different layers; each value becoming salient in different situations (Chatterjee & Pearson, 2000). Behavior is also largely dependent on contextual and individual factors and it is expected to vary according to desh (location), kal (time) and patra (actor; Sinha & Kanungo, 1997).

A recent survey published by the newspaper Hindustan Times, reveals some trends in how Indians experience work. 52% of Indians do not enjoy their work and about 50% did not believe in taking responsibility of their work outcomes, including errors made. Fear of unemployment after the recent recession was cited as an important reason for not letting go of current jobs and "going through the motions". Respondents considered workplace as a ground for developing relationships, where 'friends' work as replacements in another's absence. Respondents also preferred to stay after office hours for benefits such as free food and commute. People also expressed feeling guilty after taking a holiday. Owing to this guilt, people worked harder once back from the holiday and pushed themselves at work, often resulting in better performance ratings (Maqsood, 2013).

Limited empirical evidence, and Indian philosophical and sociological texts, bring forth three broad meanings.

Work as Duty

Traditionally, work has been viewed as duty in India (Biswas, 2009; Sinha & Sinha, 1990). A sense of duty, and not increasing material needs, is considered the primary motive for action (Gopinath, 1998). Texts such as Bhagwad Gita and Mahabharata introduce Dharma or righteous duty as a guiding principle for work in India (Gopinath, 1998; Saha, 1992). Karma, or the belief that the outcomes of one's actions is the consequence of deeds in this life and previous lives, emphasizes the importance of duties to an individual (Pio, 2007). Duty, however, is not toward work per se, even though the quality of work matters (Chatterjee & Pearson, 2006). Duty is towards fulfilling one's responsibilities towards family or one's higher purpose (Sinha & Sinha, 1990). Work is conceptualized as a composite of duties or debts (rin), that an individual must fulfill through work (Chatterjee, 2009). Per haps, Indians feel guilty after a holiday because they conceptualize work as a duty, and taking a holiday from the higher duty is unacceptable.

Occupation is a part of an individual's higher purpose. Every individual is assumed to be born with a purpose and he/ she expected to fulfill that destined purpose in his/her lifetime (Saha, 1992). Employees expect organizations to guide them see a purpose in their work and enable them achieve that higher purpose (Cappelli, Singh, Singh &amp...

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