For many people, including a great number of Mexicans, the notion of Mexican team work might seem like an oxymoron. I have attended a number of presentations in Mexico on cross-cultural themes, and the constant message is that Mexicans are not good at teamwork. Similarly, the adult students on the Masters in Business Administration course I teach, tell me that, by and large, teamwork in Mexico is terrible.
I notice, though, that often on the same Masters course, the students do good work in teams. Also, businesses like Toyota in Mexico have been very successful in inculcating their team-oriented culture in their branches throughout Mexico. I often say to friends that the cleanest place for a picnic in Guadalajara is the sparkling floors of the Toyota workshop in the Dalton distributorship.
(As an aside, I used to think, based on my experiences as a RAV4 owner in Guadalajara and Cuernavaca, that Toyota had been extraordinarily and universally successful in Mexico, but a recent experience in Colima shows me they still have same way to go in inculcating the Japanese service-oriented culture in Mexicans. Maybe, on reflection, this is not such bad thing, after all, that Mexicans refuse to be overrun by Japanese business philosophies. Though, as a client expecting a good service, it can be frustrating.)
However, returning to the theme of teamwork, my normal experience of working in Mexico is that it can be very problematic to get anything organized, especially if it is a more complicated matter than simply telling someone to do something based on a superior position in the hierarchy. A substantial reason for this is the lack of real cooperation and team-work. This is also connected to other aspects of Mexican culture, like chronic unpunctuality, which do not facilitate the easy making of common commitments.
This question of Mexicans and team work has interested me greatly since I started working here four years ago. I began to formulate my own ideas about this, and also to talk to my students about why they thought team work was so difficult in Mexico. The main reasons for the lack of teamwork that I have, with help from my students, now formulated include the following:
- Mexicans are very individualistic and everyone wants to go in their own direction.
- Many Mexicans tell me their is much envy in their culture. They are fond of recounting what seems to have become an archetypal story in Mexico, that compares Mexican people to a bucket of crabs. Each time that a crab is about to pull itself up and escape from the bucket, the other crabs pull it back.
- In groups, Mexicans typically do not have the habit of giving over their attention in a sustained, disciplined way to whoever might be talking at the time; people are typically chatting on the side, answering or making calls on their mobiles, getting up to make coffee etc. Unlike English culture, this behaviour does not appear to be at all rude or disrespectful.
- As a general rule, it seems to me that Mexicans, especially Mexican men, like to talk a lot, and listen a lot less.
- On the theme of Mexican men, the macho culture does not lend itself to creating more equal working relationships and genuine partnerships, which are essential for good teamwork. (See a previous post for a good example of this)
- In addition, as I have commented in this blog before, Mexico is one of the countries in the world with the highest index for power distance, which means that, at best, most people are reluctant to express a different opinion than their boss and, at worst, always conform to what their boss is saying, even when they disagree and/or know that their boss is wrong.
- This question of obedience to, and perpetuation of status differences, is very important. I remember listening to Piers Ibbotson, (an ex-Director of the Royal Shakespeare company now working with businesses), talking about the need in theater rehearsals to create an environment in which the views of all the actors could be considered. In the theater, a number of games and techniques are deliberately used in rehearsals to help, at least for the moment to suspend these differences in status. This means, in practice, that the contribution of the person playing the spear carrier could be as valid as that of the famous actors playing the leading roles. Piers believes from experience of directing plays that this suspension of status difference is crucial to give the play vitality and originality. After the rehearsals, of course, these status differences are re-established, and the stars retire to their individual dressing-rooms, whilst the extras make do with whatever might be available. The point here, is that for Mexicans it is extremely difficult to suspend these status differences. Nearly all the conferences, workshops and meetings I attend in Mexico are designed to perpetuate rather than suspend these differences. This is not a good way of generating innovation and learning.
- Linked to this question of hierarchy and authority is the whole history and culture of Mexico, which, especially since the Spanish conquest, has been based on relations of dominance and exploitation.
In the last two days, I have had the opportunity to observe at close-hand Mexican team work. The university where I work part-time has been a key player together with the local government and an important local civil society organization in creating a forum to promote integrated rural development. The principal aim of this forum was to create networks and strategic alliances between the different people and organisations active in local regional development.
I, along with three other colleagues, were asked to function as observers of the event, and particularly of the work that was carried out in five smaller “mesas de trabajo”, which translates literally as “tables of work” i.e. work groups. These groups were based on five key sectors in the local economy of livestock farming, fish farming, crop farming, forestry, and tourism.
Having the opportunity to observe one of these groups (that of people involved in the tourism sector) working in two sessions, was very informative, and has helped me further develop and refine my ideas about teamwork and Mexicans.
The first session where about 20 people had to introduce themselves and present an issue they were currently facing together with a proposed solution (if they had one) went well. There was a natural interest to listen to people in the same area of work talk about the issues they were facing and peoples’ level of attention and listening ability was good. Towards the end of the session, some people, given the opportunity for a platform, talked at great length, but generally there was a shared discipline and commitment to hear everyone, and the level of distraction (phones and chatting) was not high.
The second session was more demanding. Here participants had to agree on a project or projects that they would take forward as a group and work on together. This session was not made easier by having at least four new members and missing a number of people from the first session. Here, I began to observe more closely and understand better what makes teamwork so difficult in this culture.
- First, I noticed that when people presented idea or opinions, other members of the group rarely asked questions or tried to understand, clarify and deepen what the other person was saying. To use a different, more theoretical language, in the terms of Peter Senge, there was a lot of advocacy and little inquiry.
- Secondly, people rarely built on and developed the ideas of what went before. That is not to say that the contributions were disconnected in a kind of schizoid way, but more that people did not make explicit the links and connections (if there were any) between what they were saying and what the previous contributions had been.
- I realised that the net effect of the two points above was to make highly problematic the creation of a shared frame of reference or vision, within which each person could pursue their own interests – in doing this within a common framework, the contribution of each would be potentially additive and synergistic. This would result in greater integration and coordination, which is typically lacking in Mexican organizations.
In addition to this detailed observation of what happened in the conference work groups, I noticed there were important aspects of the organisation of the conference which impeded the creation of networks and teamwork. I think, though, that this will have to be the theme of another post.