Mexico – The Social Perspective

articles Business

Dr. Marc J. Ehrlich


One of the ways to soften personality shock is knowing what to expect from the Mexican. In this chapter special attention will he placed on helping the foreign executive understand the general differences between the Mexican and Anglo personalities. This should help clarify some of the more common work-related problems faced by the foreign executive within the Mexican work environment and help him learn how to avoid some of the more typical mistakes.

Most, if not all, Anglo executives coming for the first time to Mexico have considerable difficulty understanding the motivations and values of the Mexican worker. Many become exasperated as they cannot find the way to encourage their Mexican subordinates and colleagues to work according to “commonly-accepted” professional standards. As the executives frustrations increase, so too his attempts to change the Mexican’s professional style. At this point, the interpersonal gap between the foreign executive and Mexican worker becomes even greater and both parties begin to feel misunderstood.

The professional and interpersonal conflicts between the newly-arrived foreign executive and his Mexican counterpart result from specific social and managerial differences. Socio-cultural differences in work style and ways of relating on the job are especially troublesome as they operate unconsciously on the individual. Most do not know their behavior is reflecting a cultural value as they have always interacted with others who share similar values. It is only when confronted with different and equally valid ways of behaving does one realize that change cannot be forced upon someone, even if one believes that his way is the “right way” of getting things done.

In any discussion of cultural differences, it is important to emphasize what is referred to as “preponderance of belief.” This concept refers to generalizations about a culture and the people who share it. Obviously not everyone will reflect the stereotypes used to describe that group of people. One looks, however, for a preponderance of a certain set of characteristics in order to describe tendencies within the culture. Such descriptions allow for a reasonable explanation of why people act as they do, Based upon an understanding of what motivates others, it is hoped that one can learn to become sufficiently flexible so as to permit a smoother and more productive integration into the host culture.

Individuality vs. Individualism

The Mexican believes strongly in what could be defined roughly as “soul”. It is generally thought that each person is basically good and decent and that one’s dignity is unaffected by what he does. Mexicans tend to accept the inherent worth of friends and colleagues without demanding or expecting a specific performance or achievement. The Mexican’s soul imbues him with both mystique and mystery, making him curiously attractive and difficult to define.

The Anglo’s sense of individualism is based upon three basic premises: 1) people are basically the same, 2) people should be judged upon their merits, and 3) these merits, which are thought to include one’s inherent worth and character, are manifested through one’s behavior and achievements. In striking contrast to the Mexican’s sense of “soul”, the Anglo believes that one proves his integrity or dignity by what he does and how he does it. Parker (1987), writing about the Puritan ethic within the Anglo culture explained, “Work gives man moral dignity, and economic success gives him honor.” For the northern neighbors, the one who wins is obviously the “better person” while for the Mexican, one is “better” whether he wins or not.

Points of Conflict

For the Mexican, the Anglo’s tendency to judge a person for what they do and how efficiently they do it, simply misses the point. Such an attitude unfortunately reduces the person’s value to an impersonal standard and obviously reflects an arrogantly superficial attitude towards others. Given such an obvious lack of respect for the individual, there is little motivation to prove oneself or to go out of one’s way for the boss. From the foreign executives perspective, the Mexican’s apparent indifference to continually strive for greater and greater achievement is believed to reflect a basic laziness or lack of ambitiousness. In order to “teach” the Mexican subordinate the -value of hard work and “going the extra mile”, many foreign executives become harsh disciplinarians which only serves to promote increasingly more subtle forms of resistance.

Obedience to People vs. Obedience to Rules

Given the Anglo’s belief that all people are basically the same it follows logically that one would not look for any special favors or exemptions from the rules and regulations which govern social interactions. There is a strong belief in the saying, “No one is above the law.” In order to maintain the order and predictability that is so much a part of the Anglo culture, there is a deep respect for social rules and principles and an expectation that everyone will conform to policy. The “larger” system is valued strongly as it provides a structure and a sense of continuity that is comfortably independent of the people who work within it.

Rules, policies, and procedures are, at times, ignored by the Mexican worker in favor of adhering to the wishes of the person in charge or satisfying a co-workers personal needs. Given the belief in the uniqueness of each individual and the special value the individual’s soul has for the Mexican, it stands to reason that the person would he respected more than abstract principles or concepts. This attitude provides the Mexican with a deep sense of loyalty with those with whom he feels an emotional connection, while, for the same reason, makes for a shaky commitment to the organization.

Points of conflict.

For many Mexicans, the Anglo’s insistence on “playing by the rules” is often received with amused, yet, polite disregard. Some perfunctory attempts are made to play the game, yet, the Mexican’s heart is not really in it. Following rules and regulations is often considered to be the most inefficient way of getting things done. The foreign executives’ naive belief that the system” is predictable ind orderly only further strengthens the Mexican’s belief that the executive does not really know what he is doing. On the other hand, the apparent “half-hearted” efforts to follow company procedures or operating manuals is viewed as indicating the Mexican’s defiance, rebelliousness, or lack of commitment to the organization. This perception typically leads the Anglo to become irritated, impatient, and harsh with his Mexican counterpart who obviously is not part of the “team.”

Emphasis on Pleasing vs. Emphasis on the Facts

Another major source of conflict between the foreign executive and the Mexican worker stems from the different emphasis placed on pleasing and being objective. There is a strong tendency in the Mexican to shun open confrontation stemming from a fear of losing face and from having to confront disagreements. For many Mexicans the messenger and the bad news are often one and the same. As a result, negative or disappointing information is either withheld or modified so as to avoid offending or irritating the other person or, worse, being blamed for the bad news.

The author recently had an experience with a Mexican worker which demonstrated quite clearly the Mexican’s need to save-face. The tiled wall of a bathroom was being refurbished. It was decided that it was to be covered with stucco and then painted. When the worker was asked if the tiles were going to show through the stucco, he guaranteed that they would not. When the job was finished, the tiles were all too evident underneath a much too thin layer of stucco. When the worker was confronted with this problem, teasing him somewhat for the way it turned out, he quite seriously explained, “Se ve, pero no se nota” (You can see it but it doesn’t show). That response was the perfect way to avoid offending the boss, which he would have if he had denied what was clearly evident, and simultaneously avoid losing face by admitting that he had made a mistake.

The Anglo typically places a greater emphasis on stating the facts, regardless of the impact this has on the other’s feelings. Emotions have no place on the job. The Anglo values the facts, getting down to business quickly, and giving others objective and straight-forward feedback.

Points of Conflict.

This cultural difference is one of the most common sources of professional misunderstanding. The Mexican perceives the Anglo’s directness and objective approach to business as reflecting an insensitivity and cold heartedness more so than an efficient professional style. It is yet further evidence that the business-only foreign executive cannot be trusted completely and, as a result, does not “deserve one’s total commitment”. The foreign executive, who cannot seem to get a straight answer from his Mexican subordinate and colleague, perceives this difficulty as a reflection of the Mexican’s dishonesty, inefficiency, or unprofessional style. Through a variety of verbal and non-verbal cues, the foreign executive transmits his disapproval and criticalness, thereby provoking even greater distrust on the part of the Mexican.

Respect and Power vs. Respect and Fair Play

Within the Mexican society, there is a tendency to respect those who are the most powerful. Title, position, influence, and the ability to control others are usually sufficient to enforce obedience. Fear and respect go -hand-in-hand. The boss’s respectability is manifested by his maintaining a definite social distance, through an unwillingness to delegate, and by his ability to dominate others (by whatever means necessary). The Mexican tendency to instill absolute power in his leader emerges out of a -political, social, and religious history in which power was concentrated in one figure. From the time of the Aztecs, through the era of Porfilio Diaz (the Mexican president who had a 30-year reign), to the current power of the PRI and the, system of investing in the President the power of a virtual dictator (presidencialismo), the Mexican seems to prefer an authoritarian leader.

Fair play, shared responsibility, and playing by the rules are the ingredients of respect for the Anglo executive. Respect is earned, not given, by adherence to company policy, by maintaining an objective and somewhat impersonal managerial style, and by treating everyone as equally as possible. The ability of the executive to be “one of the guys” is believed to reflect his inherent respectability. He will often insist on being dealt with on a first-name basis and will work to break down social barriers between organizational levels. Within the Anglo political system, for instance, there is a strong tendency to personalize its leaders. Within the United States, especially, the public wants to literally get into the president’s bedroom, demanding as complete a personal disclosure as possible.

Points of Conflict.

The Anglo executive frequently perceives the Mexican’s submission to authority as indicating a lack of resolve and an inefficient professional passivity. He is often frustrated and irritated by the Mexican’s unwillingness to circumvent cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and believe–, it to be yet another indication of the Mexican’s resistance to change, inherently low motivation, and inability to assimilate-, technological improvements.

The Mexican will typically view the foreign executive’s insistence on fair play, desire to delegate, and the removal of social barriers as reflecting an inability to accept the power associated with his leadership. At times, it may even lead to believing that the foreign executive is not worthy of his position. This belief, in conduction with the distaste for direct confrontation, often leads to a passive-aggressive response to the foreign executive’s orders or requests (in the form of forgetting, procrastinating, or not following through).

Integration Strategies

Despite these and other cultural differences in the work place, multi-cultural companies manage to do business and do it successfully. It is unlikely that these interpersonal and professional conflicts will interfere significantly with the company’s performance. They are pervasive enough, however, to lead to considerable on-the-job stress with serious implications for the foreign executives mental health and professional performance.

The foreign executives who have been able to integrate successfully into the Mexican work environment are those who were able to see themselves and their work style from the perspective of the Mexican worker. These professionals were able to disengage somewhat from their habitual ways of working. More importantly, they were able to avoid unrealistic and uninformed expectations about their Mexican subordinates and colleagues. By recognizing the relativity of cultural values, these executives were able to engage the Mexican workers with respect and with an acceptance of the validity of their way of getting the job done.

More specifically, it is recommended that foreign executives make an effort in the following direction (please see Chapter 5 for a complete description of these sociocultural differences and other suggestions to ensure a positive professional and personal adaptation to Mexico):

  1. The best way to avoid unproductive conflict is to anticipate the nature of the conflicts one most likely will confront. It is essential that one understands that life and business in Mexico proceed according to different standards and differing rhythms. Before one criticizes the subordinates for not proceeding according to the plan, one must analyze if both the plan and deadlines were realistic and viable within the Mexican work environment.
  2. The foreign executives must be continually aware of pressures from headquarters to meet production goals, increase profit margins, and ensure quality control objectives. When under such pressure, it is more likely that the executives will adopt an even more authoritative and critical style of leadership. It is essential that the executives allow themselves sufficient flexibility and time so as to minimize the number of unproductive and unrealistic demands. It may also be necessary to provide the home office with more precise information about the nature of the Mexican work environment in order to ensure that production or profit difficulties are not interpreted solely as a reflection of the executive’s performance. At times, it will be important for the home-office executives to visit the Mexican operation in order to experience the nature of the Mexican work environment.
  3. The executives will need to pay close attention to the personal impact they have on the Mexican subordinate and colleague. It is unlikely that they will garnish support and loyalty as a result of their technical brilliance. They are more likely to influence positively the Mexican worker if attention is placed on the following:
    1. . Act politely without violating any existing and necessary social barriers. it is important for the executive to maintain as many of the social courtesies as possible (for example, greeting others as “Ingeniero” or “Licenciado”) as this creates the necessary social distance and serves as a sign of respect for the other’s professional status.
    2. Even if there is sufficient reason to reprimand a subordinate, do not embarrass him in public. Although this might give the executive a chance to “blow off steam,” it will create silent resentments and almost inevitably provoke a serious lack of cooperation- It is imperative that the executive have the patience to work through the Mexican’s cultural tendency to “save face” and avoid appearing incompetent. Focus more on the actions and behaviors which lead to the problem and not on the personal aspects of the worker.
    3. Make an attempt to speak in Spanish. Most Mexicans will appreciate the effort exerted to speak Spanish as it communicates the executives openness and flexibility to adjust to their environment. It also avoids the appearance of being overly ego-centric- and “bossy” by expecting everyone to speak English. It will be considerably more beneficial, from an interpersonal perspective, to appear somewhat foolish with incorrect Spanish than to be grammatically correct in English and socially removed from nationals. Learn and use as many idioms and informal phrases as possible.
    4. Allow for time to repeat instructions (even though they were “clearly” written out) and to continually check on what was previously agreed to (despite being “sure” that the agreement was obtained). It is essential that the executive remember that time is not always lineal in Mexico. Plans just do not proceed neatly. There is always something that occurs which delays deadlines and interferes with subordinates completing their jobs as previously established.
    5. . Ensure that there are various people within the organization that can be trusted to provide clear and direct information about how one’s department is functioning. Such information is, at times, hard to obtain. Do not take subordinates’ difficulty to “tell things as it is” as a reflection of professional incompetence or personal weakness. If the executive is not convinced or satisfied with the information provided, be sure to ask specific questions. Ask the questions calmly, carefully, and with a precise goal in mind. Avoid the appearance of trying to “catch” the other in a lie or with incorrect data.
  4. Avoid judging negatively a subordinate who is not willing to “go the extra mile” for the company. This may reflect the fact that the worker does not feel sufficiently identified with the company. Mexicans tend to be more responsive to the social and interpersonal network than to organizational policy.
Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Dr. Marc J. Ehrlich © 2008
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