Building Trust and Relationships in Mexico
Why should I read this document?
Mexicans crave equanimity, harmony and connection. It is easy to oversee this because on the surface they may appear to be disengaged, aloof, and even master procrastinators. This document has been written by an interculturalist who lived and worked in Mexico for 20 years, followed by 10 years in its neighboring state of Texas.
If you wish to build mutually beneficial relationships, HOW you ask is important. Your Mexican counterpart is likely to not respond well to pressure.
Mexicans genuinely enjoy being of service to others. Be careful, though, not to give the impression that you are taking advantage of them.
Decision-making might take some time. Offer your support and nudge gently, while also allowing some space for drifting or rambling.
Take every opportunity to nurture a personal connection. Show appreciation, welcome physical contact, and share in the enjoyment of life (e.g. laughter, storytelling, eating together, sightseeing, etc.)
Practice patience and diplomacy. Offer a certain amount of structure to help guide discussions and processes, and make sure to avoid the trap of “my way or the highway”.
Mexico is a land of huge contrasts and paradoxes, arguably more so than most other countries in Latin America. Succeeding here relies to a great extent on one’s capacity to hold ambiguity and complexity with patience and compassion. When the tone and manner is conciliatory, relationships tend to flourish. When it is critical, combative and confrontational, relationships tend to become disingenuous and unproductive. In sum, the HOW is usually more important than the WHAT in the process of building trust.
Paradox of Hierarchy
With a PDI score of 81, Mexico is considered a hierarchical society. This means that people tend to accept a vertical command-and-control structure where everybody is expected to know their place and do what they are told. But this is true only up to a point. Mexicans do not always appreciate being told what to do, especially by a foreigner. And they have learned to master the art of quietly rebelling.
For instance, they may nod their head in agreement to delivering a task on a certain day, and then they do not. Mañana does not always mean “tomorrow”. Ahorita does not necessarily mean “right now”. That said, avoid assuming that these mechanisms always follow the same rules. Sometimes, your counterpart may be trying to test the boundaries or gauge how serious you really are about the job at hand, in order to prioritize their own workload.
Other times it may very well be that they are not entirely clear about what they need to do but are afraid of saying so. A good rule of thumb is to follow-up to make sure they understand the scope of work and what is expected of them. Offer your support by asking and answering questions, as well as guidance. Note that a little bit of hand-holding may be necessary, and it might actually yield great outcomes. Practice your listening skills, as well as your attunement.
Standing on Solid or Shaky Ground?
Mexico City was built on the foundations of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which had originally been built on top of a lake, in a region that has been highly vulnerable to seismic activity for millennia. When the tectonic plates shift here, the ground really shakes! You might consider this a central metaphor to how Mexicans feel about their place in the world. They live with the dichotomy of their ancestors having commanded a dominant civilization in North and Central America for centuries, only to be subdued by the Spanish invaders, and concede more than half of their territory to the United States later on. It is not a coincidence that Mexico scores 82 on uncertainty avoidance (UAI). There is always an underlying fear that someone will come and pull the rug from underneath their feet. And with good reason, wouldn’t you say? What would you do if you were in their shoes? One of the best things you can bring to the table is to offer reassurance and encouragement. Show them you are all part of the same team and that you’ve got their backs. Mexicans are incredibly resourceful, multitalented and creative. They will love you for seeing them for who they truly are.
Status vs. Fulfillment
What drives the materialistic and status-seeking mentality of Mexicans, given that it is a collectivist society (IDV 30)? The combination of a high PDI score (81), a high indulgence score (IRV 97) and a very short-term orientation (LTO 24) might help explain some of it at least. Mexicans tend to live on a mindset of instant gratification because, well, “who knows what will happen tomorrow” - Will I still have a job? Will I still have my land or house? Will I still be alive? One of the most common expressions used on a daily basis is quién sabe (“who knows …”). Another common one is si Dios quiere (“God willing”).
Showing off material well-being is, on the one hand, a coping mechanism to keep uncertainty at bay, and, on the other hand, a way of positioning oneself in the societal/corporate hierarchy. Behind this impulse is a strong survival instinct and a need to feel secure with whatever tools one has access to. Curiously enough, however, Mexicans derive much greater value from human connection than material achievement. This means that performing a task or achieving certain goals is important (including financial rewards), but these may not feel as rewarding to people unless there is also a sense of camaraderie, respect, belonging and recognition. Ironically, one of the problems is that such a mindset creates a high-context communication environment, which lends itself to misunderstandings and often stands in the way of healthy relationships. For a foreigner, this might be a psychological maze that is almost impossible to grasp, let alone navigate. But keep this in mind: If you wish to build trust and if you wish to establish meaningful and productive work relationships, make sure to tend to the relationship just as much as you tend to the task itself. This is not to say that you should ignore results, but rather make sure to invest some of your time and energy in showing that you care for those with whom you are working.
Robbie was an American expat who had been living in Mexico City for 5 years. He spoke some Spanish but wasn’t entirely fluent. He made up for it, however, with deep strategic thinking and strong leadership skills. For the most part, he had earned the respect of his co-workers, who were mostly Mexican. But being an introvert and very organized, he also tried to keep his work schedule efficient and waste as little time as possible.
Robbie worked in an advertising agency as VP of Client Services and was in charge of managing two of the agency’s most important accounts. His clients loved his commitment and trusted his advice and judgement almost blindly. Just weeks ahead of the annual agency performance review, he organized an internal meeting with the creative team to go over the new multi-media campaign that was to be presented to the client the following day. The campaign intended to introduce a major product launch, and the outcome of the presentation would likely have a big impact on the future of this important client relationship. There was a lot at stake, and Robbie felt quite a bit of pressure.
The creative team presented to him two options. The first campaign was really well designed and right on strategy. The second campaign also had great appeal but didn’t meet the brief requirements. Nevertheless, the VP of Creative Development, Alejandro, was adamant about recommending this one to the client. Alejandro was a seasoned ad executive who had won multiple international awards for his work. Members of his creative and digital team looked up to him and they were on board with his recommendation.
Robbie discussed the pros and cons of each campaign and celebrated the effort made by the team. He then said that he would normally be in alignment with presenting multiple options to the client, as long as all of them met the strategic requirements. He asked the team if it was possible to make adjustments to the second campaign, in order to comply with the brief. However, after brainstorming together for a few minutes everyone concluded that this wasn’t possible. But the creative team had worked hard on this idea and Alejandro insisted on presenting both options to the client. There was no time to develop a third one.
Robbie concluded the conversation by saying to Alejandro: “Look, I’m not going to stand in your way if you really want to walk into the client’s office and present your work. However, I have already expressed to you my concerns. And if the client turns to me in the middle of the meeting and asks what I think, I will unfortunately not be able to support your recommendation. I leave it up to you.”
What was Robbie’s standing in the work hierarchy in relation to Alejandro? Please explain.
How do you think Alejandro was looking at this situation? What was motivating him to behave the way he was behaving?
Assuming that Robbie was seeking the best possible outcome for all the parties involved, why do you think he said what he said at the end of the meeting? In other words, what cultural button(s) was he pressing, whether consciously or unconsciously?