23 Jul 2015 19:32 IST

Building bridges with a NEEDLE

How to use a ‘needle’ point to pull together diverse people at the workplace

“Yenakku Tamizh nalla theriyum” When I heard this sentence, meaning “I know Tamil well,” I almost fell off my chair, as the speaker was Neetu Singh, famous Bollywood leading lady of my generation and mother of current-day heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor. I had hardly imagined her speaking a south Indian language. And without an accent too!

For ages now, the IT hubs of our country — Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad especially — have been attracting people from all parts of India. Various other sectors have followed suit, including the automobile industry in Tamil Nadu and the manufacturing industry around Delhi.

Universities and colleges are similar melting pots of students drawn from all around India. But the question is, do the various groups ‘melt’ and ‘meld’ into one composite whole, or do people tend to look for others from their own specific backgrounds, and stick together?

I’m afraid the latter is more common.

Corporates today are moaning about regional diversity in their workplaces, which, they complain, is leading to divided team spirit. Why should that be so?

I thought I would share with you a tool that I call NEEDLE, to thread together diverse Indian teams.

N: Note the lingo

Language is a great leveller. When someone learns another person’s language, even if it’s only a few words, he or she is paying a subtle compliment to the other person. Like Neetu Singh was doing. And it always builds a bridge — instantly! Let’s learn at least half-a-dozen phrases in the mother tongues of our colleagues. The Internet is a great place to start. If you get the pronunciation wrong at first, don’t worry — when your colleague corrects you, it will be an icebreaker for the two of you.

E: Embrace each other’s ethnicity

For that we need to get to know one another better, geographically and culturally. For many people in the north, anyone hailing from anywhere south of the Vindhya mountains is a ‘Madrasi.’ They must realise that the Madras Presidency (which stretched from the Vindhyas to the southernmost tip of the peninsula), ended with the British rule. The area now comprises many States, each with its own ethnic identity.

Similarly, people in the South broadly classify those coming from the North as ‘Hindi kara’ or Hindi-speaking people. They are unable to see the difference between, say, a Gujarati and a Bengali, or a Bihari and an Odiya.

This is similar to the tweets calling former Miss America 2013, Nina Davuluri, who is of Indian origin, an Arab. It’s not just Americans who need to get their world geography right. We Indians need to get our own country’s geography right too! When we take the trouble to place a person in their true geographic and cultural context, we build connections with them.

E: Eat the food

Cuisine is at the centre of every ethnic group. One sure way for team members to connect is to share food. Have small class parties or team get-togethers. Cook the specialties of your region, and ask others to bring their traditional food too. Lunch breaks will not only be fun and filling, but they’ll also tell you a lot about each other. Be open to developing new tastes and the craving for “your own” will vanish slowly.

D: Defer to the mindset

Each region has its own way of thinking, which dictates behaviour and communication. The story of autorickshaw drivers from four different parts of India and how they respond to a request for a ride during lunch hour is a good illustration.

The Chennai one just might agree. The Kolkata guy will bluntly ask: “Hey can’t you see its lunch hour and I am eating?” The Delhi one will ask for double tariff and, if you agree, will pack up his lunch midway and drive you. The Mumbai man will engage you in conversation about this that and the other as he continues eating and, by the time the conversation is over, he would have finished his lunch. He will then drive you!

If we understand the difference in the mindsets of people from different locations, we’ll be better able to understand them and accept them all as part of the same team.

L: Leverage similarity

Once we see the few differences among ourselves, a funny thing happens — we begin to see far more similarities! We realise that Pongal and Baisakhi are both harvest festivals, that payasam and kheer are different words for roughly the same kind of dessert and that the same five-and-a-half metres of cloth we call a saree can be draped in many different ways. Slowly, we get to find and replace the ‘them’ with ‘us.’ We realise that we are all one.

E: Empathise

The realisation of our oneness will help us empathise with each other and become inclusive. And, hey presto, Team India is born! Not just for the sake of beating Pakistan on the cricket field, but on campus and in corporate offices too.

Yes, the diversity of our country makes it an effort for us to adapt internally. It can be done though, with the help of this NEEDLE. For prospective global Indian managers, this is an imperative first step.

Our experience and expertise in adapting to pan-Indian colleagues and forging Team India will fortify us when we’re called upon to work with an international team. And, what is more, when we find the unity in our diversity, no force on planet Earth, leave alone an economic downturn, can shake us.

Let’s start building intra-Indian bridges today! Neetu Singh certainly did.