Business and management books have a distinct appeal among their readers. The razor-sharp focus of the narrative, datapoints, and supporting arguments make for an engrossing read. And since the book is about organisational culture, it is particularly hard to put down. And if, like me, you’ve worked with both Indian and foreign-based multinational companies, then each word in Divya Khanna’s The Company We Keep: Insights into Indian Corporate Culture will speak to you.

An alumna of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, Khanna has worked with well-known advertising brands and has over two decades of experience. From lesser-observed interactions, she analyses behaviour and develops insights for several brands to leverage in their everyday work. And that’s precisely what she does with this book as well, which she has developed with the help of data and research provided by Quantum Consumer Solutions, results from online surveys conducted through SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn, and Google Forms, and expert advice from four consultants – Ashok Capoor, Kalyani Capoor, RR Nair, and Rohit Krishan Gulati. What one gets, as a result, is an interesting potpourri of ideas and issues facing both employees and employers.

To cover a gamut of topics, considerations, and pain points, the book is divided into four parts. The first three parts look at the 3 Cs: cultural undercurrents, compensation, and corporate lifecycle, and the last part allows the experts to reflect on a variety of issues from success and leadership to HR’s pet peeves and design thinking.

The corporate pressure cooker

To establish the point why she chose to write about organisational culture, she hits the bull’s eye when she notes that most professionals blame the “culture” for their “career lows”. And in a country where youth is as aspirational as they are in India, it makes for a compelling read. She piques curiosity about this intrinsic quality that helps businesses succeed. However, this book’s aim was not to showcase what sets apart the successful, leading organisations from those who fail and are lagging in the cultural aspect but its aim was to spotlight the voices and viewpoints of a diverse range of employees – from new hires and mid-senior professionals to veterans – for its readers to draw their own conclusions.

Khanna writes, “Since there is no common rule book, corporate culture tends to be highly variable across companies, sectors and even functional departments.” As it’s unique to each organisation, workplace culture not only explains the distinct “work and life choices” its employees are compelled to make, but it also helps ascertain whether it creates a “more humane, engaging, and productive” environment or promotes a toxic and an unhealthy workplace.

Interestingly, Khanna chooses to compare birth and corporate cultures and notes that rebelling in the former is “easier as it is somewhat cushioned by parental love. Corporate culture is more transactional, and the fear of ejection looms large. Not everyone is prepared to take the risks.” No matter how unsettling and unfair this analogy is, it does make one thing very clear: how high the stakes are determines how willing and empowered one will be to raise their voice.

Besides this, Khanna gets right how Indian corporates have their own “caste system” – the hierarchy people love and celebrate because it provides, especially the higher-ups, a sense of pride and entitlement that they may not be able to draw from anything else. Kalyani Capoor, one of the experts who makes immense contributions to this book and is also the author’s aunt, notes, “The more empowered you feel within, the less likely you are to misuse external power,” hinting at the complex individual traits that explain one’s actions.

There’s a discussion on the “pressure” at the workplace and how people love to feel pressurised and consider impossible deadlines to be a motivation to deliver more. But more than that the stress resulting from the same becomes a marker of pride for select professionals. Be it during coffee-table conversations or workplace gossip, one finds individuals feeling good about staying extra hours, working day and night, and taking pressure from all sides. What can explain this behaviour you may ask? Khanna calls it a “commitment demonstration, where we feel compelled to show that work is our number one priority”, underlining how “we are culturally conditioned to communicate less assertively with our seniors and more aggressively with our juniors” – a structure of abuse that helps the corporate “pressure cooker” to thrive.

But such stressors aren’t good for any party involved in any business transaction: neither the employees nor the employers. The telephonic interactions between Byju’s salespeople and their managers that went viral a few years ago come to mind. Both the language and the threat in them were telling of the kind of culture the EdTech firm still overlooks. However, in a status-driven society, these things become acceptable. What could help here then? Building “genuine personal relationships” can “offer good immunity against stressors at work”, says Kalyani Capoor in the book.

Bean bags at workplace

What I was waiting for the book to reveal was the gender divide in the workplace. There’s no denying that there’s a gender pay gap, that very few women make it to leadership positions, and that there’s a scepticism to hiring women in their early 30s because they may decide to get married and “raise a family” and soon go on “maternity leave”. In a patriarchal society, inside of the organisations mirror the inequality outside it and that sets up women for failure everywhere.

It’s when we discuss gender that this “culture at home” and organisational culture intersect. “Raat din ka farak (the difference between night and day)” as Khanna chooses to put it is an apt way to underline it. For the same, here’s something noteworthy she adds: “My father always encourages me to not limit my ambitions due to gender stereotypes, but his protectiveness dilutes his intent of empowerment. Our corporate culture is similar in attitude. While its intent is to remove the obstacles women face and protect their safety, it ends up imposing limitations on their progress by reinforcing society’s biases.”

The book then goes on to cement the fact that Indian corporates are mirroring Americanism, but that’s not how culture travels. One respondent, Omkar, puts it nicely: “They are imitating. Just bringing bean bags into office and having a cool environment does not give you the same structure.” Further, there are some topical insights, especially about how people have started to interact, and how workplaces have transformed post Covid-19. The competition has become stiffer, women are “seven times more likely to lose their jobs than men and eleven times more likely to not go back to work”, organisations have become more vigilant, and a certain distance that virtual setups were supposed to bridge has reappeared somehow.

While several leaders have become empathetic the book reveals, it shouldn’t be presented as a generalised finding. It’s interesting, though, that only Rohit Krishan Gulati, architect and design consultant, underlines the fact that Indian homes aren’t designed to help people work from home. Additionally, he highlights how workspaces are designed helps in creating an atmosphere that subtly defines its culture. These are valuable insights.

What’s not helpful is the fact that though Khanna shares LinkedIn and other survey results in the book, the demographics aren’t available, which makes all the difference when drawing inferences and insights from a set of data. Then sample sizes are small – a wider, diverse group of people could’ve been studied before taking the liberty to make select sweeping claims.

Then what this book misses entirely are two sets of people: Gen Z and queer people. While the first group of people, who according to Tinder’s findings are queerer than any generation ever before, are disrupting Indian workplaces more rapidly, the second group is missing from the author’s and experts’ imagination it seems. Though it’d be hard to digest, if the author must have noted that she hasn’t paid either attention to Gen Z entering the Indian corporates or the push to hire more queer people under the organisation’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, then it should have been pointed out anywhere in the book. That doesn’t happen though.

Moonlighting, flexible work hours, and non-traditional work modes (gig works, freelance, etc) are hot topics in today’s work environment. None of them find mention in the book. There’s plenty of discussion on expectation and perception management, but neither Kalyani Capoor who uses male gender pronouns while mentioning leaders nor RR Nair, HR consultant, who thinks if organisations have gone “too soft” on people during the most horrific of times, the pandemic, think of the perception they’re signalling. For the digital native population of today, language creates all the difference. Therefore, it cannot be used loosely, especially in a business book that could’ve really been a terrific one had it worked on getting the holistic view of things in the evolving Indian corporate landscape.

The Company We Keep: Insights Into Indian Corporate Culture, Divya Khanna, Penguin India.