Pulling together: Cross national teamwork promises greater efficiency for doing business in Mexico

articles Business

Ilya Adler

These days it seems every company is adopting a team approach to doing business. While the concept is relatively new in the Western world, it is an old practice in Japan. But team-building, which requires that individuals think of themselves primarily as members of a group, rather than as individuals, is certainly a challenge to mainstream U.S. thinking and practices, as well as to the style prevailing in Mexico. Team-building in a Mexican/U.S. operation is a huge challenge, requiring major philosophical changes by its members.

In the U.S., the strongly held value of individualism puts up barriers to team thinking. Each person is accountable for his or her individual actions and performance, and generally not responsible for what others do. If someone makes a mistake, the logic goes, that individual should be punished, not his or her colleagues or boss. In successful teams, however, everyone feels responsible for everyone else, since they are (or should be) rewarded for what they accomplish as a team.

Mexico’s hierarchical tradition makes successful team-building very difficult. In hierarchical cultures, those in authority make all important decisions. In successful teams, on the other hand, decisions need to be made by the group, and team members therefore need to be empowered significantly. This requires that the traditional hierarchical style prevailing in Mexico be replaced with a more empowering environment. Although many argue that Mexicans “resist” assuming this role, those who have little power welcome the idea of shared responsibility and shared decision-making. In my experience, empowerment in Mexico fails because those at the top who hold the power rarely relinquish their authority, especially when it comes to making decisions. They may say they want to delegate responsibilities and grant functional authority, but in reality they are unwilling to do so.

There are other barriers to overcome in order to create a successful cross-national team. Team members need to trust one another, which in any setting is difficult to accomplish. But cross-culturally, trust itself is treated very differently. Whereas Mexicans find it difficult to trust someone they do not know well, in the U.S. being recognized or given credit for work performed is the basis for developing trust. At the same time, Americans find that the time needed by Mexicans to develop personal trust is too demanding and inefficient.

Another major difficulty lies in the logistics required to get the members of a cross-national team together. By definition, these teams are far apart, making communication among members problematic. In the early stages of team-building, members have to be with each other to develop their goals, their own working systems and their strategic planning, as well as to overcome the cultural challenges noted above.

This requires that resources be spent on running retreats and other meetings and on hiring experts to help in the process, until all team members adopt the new philosophy and feel totally comfortable with each other.

Obviously, this requires a financial commitment many companies are unwilling to make. But without that commitment, their teams are unlikely to coalesce and it’s back to “every man for himself.”

Published or Updated on: April 1, 1999 by Ilya Adler © 1999
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