When U.S. executives are sent to Mexico, they soon hear that Mexicans are “indirect” and “will not give you a straight answer, “especially if what needs to be communicated is unpleasant.” Thus, the generalized statement about the Mexican “vagueness” is often heard among foreigners residing in Mexico.
But vagueness is only in the eyes of the beholder. In any cross-cultural experience, vagueness exists simply because in every culture language is complemented by assumptions. No matter how specific language is, it is almost impossible to avoid those assumptions. The oft-repeated complaint that Mexicans frequently miss deadlines, and/or appear to behave without accountability can be attributed to an unawareness of such assumptions. Indeed, according to George Bowman, GE Mexico’s managing director of Electrical Distribution and Control, a key adjustment to be made by U.S. managers in Mexico is to demand accountability for results. “Your team will perform best when you set clearly defined targets, followed by regular progress checks,” Bowman says. “If you give clear direction and the required support, your employees will jump over walls for you.”
Along similar lines, Bowman also suggests attaching specific completion dates to assignments. In the absence of such dates, he finds Mexicans often simply wait to be called for information. With deadlines in place, Bowman has received assignments “before the requested date.”
But the question remains, why is it necessary to spell out both an expectation of accountability and well-defined deadlines? To answer this, we need to know what each participant is taking for granted.
In mainstream U.S. culture, accountability is simply assumed, and a request for information is assumed to require a quick response. It is not necessary to say anything; it is assumed.
But in Mexico, those are not normal assumptions. Accountability needs to be specified, because often the authoritarian tradition puts the burden of accountability on the boss. Thus, transferring accountability to a subordinate is never assumed, and needs to be spelled out. Even less clear in the Mexican business world is a request that has no specific deadline. From the Mexican perspective, this is an example of vagueness in communication. The Mexican experience is that bosses often request information and other tasks, only to forget about them. Without a specific time deadline, the request appears not to be that important, thus it is put on the back-burner. We all know what it means to write a report that no one reads, or to search for information that no one uses. Thus, without a specific time set, the request simply appears to be unimportant.
Another common frustration that Mexicans and other Latin Americans have with their U.S. managers is with regards to messages that Latins hear as promises, which are in fact statements of probabilities. For example, one Mexican manager was told that in order to be promoted he would need to get a college degree. After completing his college degree, he was disappointed that his promotion did not come through. “I worked hard for two years, and got it, but still no promotion. It was an empty promise!” he said. Of course, the “promise” was actually only a probability statement, meaning that getting a college degree was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.
Of the many challenges that the Mexico assignment brings to a manager, this is one of the more difficult to overcome. Learn to know when you are assuming, and don’t think that assumptions are universally understood. Giving specific instructions and rules, however obvious they may appear, is the surest way to avoid the trap of assumptions.
By Ilya Adler
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