Eye of the beholder: Perceptions of Mexican job performance

articles Business

Ilya Adler

More often than not, when foreigners simply refuse to engage in the human aspects of the working world, they tend to see the more negative aspect of the Mexican experience.

When I talk with non-Mexican businesspeople about their experience with Mexican organizations or Mexicans, I hear extremely contrasting views. One executive who works in the car industry tells me that Mexican workers are known for their extremely high-quality output, and that the reputation of Mexican work is highly regarded in the industry. Accordingly, Mexico should be ready to compete on the basis of quality, not just cheap labor.

But I also hear the perennial negative view about the Mexican work tradition: unreliability, low quality control, informality in meeting deadlines, and so on. To many doing business with Mexico, the experience is often frustrating. “It’s only worth it because labor is cheap enough to compensate for the many disappointments in the process,” says one European executive I spoke to recently. How can such divergent perceptions be explained? Could it be that the perception of the “Mexican experience” is as uneven as their statements? Why is it then that the experience of working with Mexicans is so uneven?

Before attempting to answer what is indeed a complex issue, let me say that such unevenness is not restricted to any one category of people. Over the years, I have heard equally inconsistent appraisals of blue and white collar workers, top and entry-level management, and even of business owners.

No doubt, part of the explanation lies in the profound Mexican cultural view that work and the human experience are highly interconnected, as opposed to the more compartmentalized working style of the United States, Canada, and Europe. For example, in Mexico if someone does not like you, it will be reflected quickly in how well they will work with or for you.

By contrast, in other cultural orientations, the quality of the work will tend to be fairly steady, regardless of the personal pleasure derived from it. It seems the variation in perception is a reflection of a more integrated experience that does not separate work from other experiences. If it is true that Mexicans will often disappoint you, it is also true that if they feel respected and protected, they are likely to go the extra mile, in ways difficult to find elsewhere.

I never cease to be puzzled by the many experiences I have witnessed or heard of Mexican staff working long hours, weekends, and often with little financial compensation, in order to finish an important job. This is especially true when the project is of importance to a boss who is well-liked and respected.

But the other side of the coin is equally true. When Mexicans do not feel appreciated (especially when their dignity is not respected), they can easily become unreliable, unpredictable, or simply “lazy.”

Clearly, I am suggesting that the unevenness of the Mexican experience has something to do with the external stimuli provided. More often than not, when foreigners simply refuse to engage in the human aspects of the working world, they tend to see the more negative aspect of the Mexican experience. A few months ago, a frustrated Canadian who had been in Mexico for over a year told me his working philosophy: “I just want to get the work done. I neither have the time nor the inclination to get involved in all the personal stuff, which apparently Mexicans love to do!”

But the counter-perception is equally revealing. One Mexican executive working for a leading accounting firm tells me of his experiences working with U.S. fellow-managers: “They come here assuming we know nothing, and then assume we are simply machines. If they want a machine, let them hire a robot. I am a full person.”

If one thing can be concluded is that the “Mexican experience” can be guided or shaped. Spending a little time on the human side of the workplace will ensure the experience is a mostly positive one.

Published or Updated on: November 1, 1998 by Ilya Adler © 1998
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