Yes Sahib (Yes Boss)

Having spent almost a decade in South Asia, I am still not used to the “Sahib” culture. Maybe my Dutch egalitarian values are so deeply rooted that I still can’t get used to it, or maybe it is my aversion to being given a specific title of importance.

Some of my desi friends who are accustomed to being addressed as Sahib (or Begum Sahib for the female bosses that are out there) always say that addressing your boss as Sahib is simply a sign of respect. I do agree with them, displaying respect for senior members (in both senses of the word) in your organization is a sign of civility and professionalism. However, you can display respect in many different ways and in my view there are certain negatives associated with a Sahib culture.

So what are these negatives? First and foremost it puts a manager on an ‘undeserved’ pedestal, giving him a sense of authority that is not necessarily earned nor deserved. Secondly, it assumes that the other person is submissive and of lesser importance, causing a divide and creating artificial ‘clay layers’ in the organization.

I believe it is important is to be on a first name basis in the workplace. The way you are addressed in any work environment sets the tone of your relationship with your coworkers. As a senior manager or CEO, while there is always need for a level of respect, being on a first name basis has its equal benefits. Employees can be uncomfortable with the connotation of status that goes with the use of formal titles and sometimes feel more connected to their colleagues when those connotations are out of the way. It can be just as difficult for employees to adjust to this ‘first name basis’ atmosphere, but in the long run it can create an open and trusting workplace environment.

If you want to build a team based culture where everyone is stimulated to give their best no matter their designation or level, please ask your subordinate to stop calling you Sahib or Boss or Sir. Try going on a first name basis and see how that works for you. Changing workplace norms can be seemingly difficult at first, but without these changes there is no space for improvement.

– Paul Keijzer

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4 thoughts on “Yes Sahib (Yes Boss)

  1. Actually, 66 years before we were under queen crown. They changed our culture. They changed our values deeply rooted so we almost all use these words to show our loyalty.

  2. I appreciate the fact of “Tone” you have used, And I must say you have a very right observation about Sahib culture. I guess for going global one has to keep these things in mind, as its not just Pakistan. However the thing is, this thing has become more of a culture in Pakistan, even the members of senior management when returns back to their homeland like to be called with these traditional titles of Sahib, Sir or Boss.

    This all need the process of change management. I am sure you might have some ideas to cope up with this culture and like to hear how to start up with the process of changing this culture on all levels.

  3. Dear Paul,
    You hit the right nail. in my over 25 years professional career, except for one MNC (BATA), we never used the word boss or sahib for the seniors. Rather, we call them by their initials, e.g. SN, PK, etc.This Sahib culture is due to the British rule for over a century that makes Gora sahibs, and produced brown sahibs.
    Otherwise, the word Sahib, in its literal meanings is an Urdu substitute for for the word Mr. I normally call my juniors or service staff as sahib, rather than calling my senior colleagues as sahib or boss.
    Paul, ( on a personal note) can i have your email address?

  4. 🙂 I guess I understand what you mean! It is difficult to get used to this culture even for those Asians who believe in egalitarian values.

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