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The Bad Rap of South Asian Engineers: 3 Steps to Fix Cultural Issues with Outsourced Talent

“You have to give Indian engineers exact instructions. They don’t think independently.”

I've heard this countless times from senior engineers in the US who manage teams in India. The complaint is about South Asian engineers being diligent as long as they are provided very detailed instructions on exactly what needs to be done. I grew up in Pakistan, my adulthood has been spent in the US, and I’ve built international teams with a large South Asian presence. It’s surprising to me that it needs to be said in this day and age, but there is no difference in talent among any of the many places my team members have come from.

I can understand some of the sentiment, though. It’s not about talent or innate ability. It’s about differences in culture, or more precisely, the different cultural contexts in which we expect our teams to operate. These cultural differences are fairly well-studied. South Asian cultures tend to have a strong deference to hierarchy, where respect for authority and following directives are deeply ingrained. This is different from the US culture of utmost individualism, personal initiative, and autonomy.

In South Asia, the underlying cultural insight isn’t that South Asian engineers can’t think independently. It’s that in their context, they may not be aware they’re allowed to. It may even have been discouraged as a sign of irreverence for their senior’s authority.

People don’t leave their cultures behind when they join your team. And maybe they shouldn’t. At Flux7, we took our learning from living and working in the US and blended it with our understanding of what it’s like to grow up in South Asia to create a very high-performing team that was better off for its diversity.

So today, I’m sharing the insights that drove our actions and the practical steps you can take to build your own highly effective offshore team.

Building Your Own Cultural Context

There are three components that build the cultural context of an individual in the workplace. The first is a personal culture - their own characteristics, as developed within the crucible of their life, such as their ethnicity, familial ties, and educational background. The second is their national culture, formed by the shared heritage, history, experiences, and values of their country. The third is corporate culture, created by the values, mission, vision and shared beliefs of the organization they are a part of.

You can’t really control the first two, but the third is entirely within your control. As a leader, it is your responsibility to build an organizational context that sets your team up for success. While it may seem like an extra effort, it’s your core role as a leader to enable your teams to be effective and that includes building an environment where they can be the best contributors.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Create Psychological Safety

Create an environment where team members feel safe to express their thoughts and opinions without fear of retribution. Psychological safety encourages independent thinking and innovation, and evidence shows it's one of the most influential indicators of highly effective teams. We've discussed this in more detail in our article on building a dream team through psychological safety.

2. Be Explicit In Your Expectations

Be clear and explicit about your expectations. Let your team members know that they are expected to share their opinions and contribute ideas. Sometimes, you might need to call on individuals directly to encourage participation. This helps break the norm of deference and fosters a culture of initiative.

3. Welcome Accountability Yourself

Remember, as a leader, you are human and prone to mistakes. There will be times when you unintentionally damage the psychological safety or fail to live up to the expectations you’ve set. It’s important to acknowledge these moments and allow your team to hold you accountable. This demonstrates a commitment to the principles you preach and builds trust within the team.

Ultimately, the more consistently this commitment is demonstrated, the stronger the impact on your organizational culture. Remember that it takes time — and reinforcement — for people to genuinely trust in an environment's safety. Accountability is key to earning that trust.

Wrapping Up

When working across cultures, it's imperative that we recognize and overcome our mutual biases to create a new cultural context. While the South Asian example is specific, the principles are not just about this one context. As a leader, you build your organization’s culture. When managing a team from different cultures, you must be deliberate in the shared culture you nurture to bridge the gap. Achieving that mutual understanding is what will truly help you leverage the power of differences.

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