Do you have business partners in Mexico? Are you a manager with Mexican employees? Or do you work in other contexts with people from Mexican backgrounds? Then dive into this blog post and discover many useful insights into the business culture, communication and management styles in Mexico.
How important are personal relationships, rank and titles in the Mexican business community?
What can you do as a manager to minimize misunderstandings and optimize results when collaborating with Mexican employees?
What subjects should you avoid discussing with your Mexican business contacts?
These and plenty more questions are addressed below by Janus Skøt, our intercultural consultant, trainer and specialist on Mexico and Latin America.
Danish-born Janus lived in Mexico from 2013 to 2020 while General Manager of a subsidiary of a Danish-based, global company. He has more than 15 years of experience in business operations that span national borders and has collaborated with colleagues, employees and business partners across four continents.
In the context of C3, Janus provides cultural training for organizations, employees and families who will be working in or with contacts in Mexico and Latin America. In addition to wide-ranging practical experience, he draws on knowledge gained from his leadership training at London Business School and his Master of Science in Business Administration and B.A. in International Business and Modern Languages with Spanish.
Today, Janus lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with his family.
Personal relationships are the very foundation of good collaboration when doing business in Mexico.
Generally, trust levels are relatively low at the first few meetings. You will need to spend time building up strong trusting relationships with your Mexican business contacts. So, count on scheduling time for creating strong relationships. It is definitely time well spent in the long run!
You inspire trust in relationships typically through socializing and personal involvement. Expect to meet your business partners or other business contacts several times over e.g., coffee and dinners often lasting hours. Only then can you create a trusting relationship with each other.
That can take some planning. Not only on the day itself but the day after because it is not unusual for a fair amount of alcohol to flow. Not that you always drink a lot at business dinners in Mexico, but it can happen. The important point about personal relationships is that you come, and that you engage in socializing.
Be aware that as Mexican society is relatively hierarchical, rank and titles hold great importance. This also colors the business culture.
Specifically, this means that when meeting a person you don’t already know, often you signal your position by presenting yourself with your job title or education first, then your name. If, for example, you are an engineer, you usually present yourself as “Ingeniero” and then say your name – just to underline your good education.
At work, personal relationships also play a large role. Typically, the working day starts with you and your colleagues greeting each other in a friendly way, e.g., by shaking hands. It’s not at all unusual for you and a couple of colleagues to start the day by grabbing a cup of coffee together before turning on your computers. Though, that means you work that much longer at the other end of the working day.
In that way, there is often a greater overlap between working and taking time off than there is in the Nordics, for example, and many Mexicans therefore stay relatively late at work.
Communication is often indirect in Mexican society, which reflects the importance of hierarchies and relationships.
In Mexico, as an employee, you will typically not want to risk disappointing your boss or wrecking your good relationship by e.g., saying ‘No’ directly when asked if you can finish a task on time.
So, managers should follow up regularly and ask more specifically about deadlines, etc. Asking open questions is a good idea as your employees cannot make do with answering just “Yes” or “No”. For instance, you can ask: “How far have you come?” or “How are you getting on with subtask 3?” (which might be the last point on a list of tasks).
So, instead of being critical when asking questions, maintain a critical mindset and make your own assessment of what was said. Not just what is said directly, but what is said between the lines.
Indirect communication also means that a manager with Mexican employees typically does not get straight to the point but takes the time needed to discuss the matter and probably takes an extra cup of coffee on such occasions.
If you and a group of your employees take part in a large meeting together, your employees will usually expect you as their manager to take the lead. If, at a meeting like this, you ask your employees for input, most of them will prefer to stay silent – to avoid the risk of losing face or showing you, their manager, in a bad light.
You can easily use large meetings like this to communicate information throughout the organization. But if you want to get input from your Mexican employees, holding meetings for smaller groups or talking with your employees one to one works better.
Also note that Mexico has a relatively high level of risk. Many employees have no social safety net to help if, for example, they lose their job or fall sick. And that impacts on your role as their manager.
So, in terms of teamwork and knowledge sharing, a lot may be at stake for individual employees. “Should I let my colleague know as much as I do?” or “Is it risky for me to share this with someone?”
As a manager, it is therefore extra important that you keep an everyday focus on growing trust in your Mexican team by cultivating personal relationship with your employees. That can help to get the flow of information moving better.
This lack of a social safety net means that, to some extent, your company is expected to help when employees find themselves in difficult situations. Many employees have no one else to turn to.
Mexican employees therefore often find it natural to tell their managers about personal difficulties. An employee at a small company might ask a manager: “My son needs an eye test because he has bad vision. Is that something my company could help with a little, because unfortunately my own health insurance simply won’t cover it?”
Mexican society is generally very formal. For example, Spanish has two options for saying ‘you’: tú (informal) and usted (more respectful). And you would normally use usted when speaking to people you don’t know very well.
This formality is reflected in dress codes. More people wear ties and freshly polished shoes there than you see in very informal societies such as Denmark.
Also, when arriving at a business dinner, it would seem strange if you just wave, say “Hi” and sit down at the table. You should greet people a little more formally. And there is some etiquette about the order and how you should greet other people.
Women are usually greeted first and then men, starting with the person with the highest title or status. Typically, you give women a single kiss on the cheek, and men often shake hands. If two men know each other a bit better, it’s quite normal to shake hands and pat each other twice on the back or shoulder at the same time.
Language breaks down barriers, which brings us back to the importance of personal relationships. It’s not necessary to be fluent in either written or spoken Spanish but if you can use basic words and phrases, it will help strengthen your relationships with others.
Many things in everyday life will be easier, and you will usually get respect and have more influence when you can speak the language and thereby have closer relationships with colleagues and business partners.
Moving further down the levels of the organization, or when working with Mexican customers and suppliers, you must be ready to learn Spanish at a slightly higher level as you will meet many people with only limited knowledge of English.
Sometimes I am asked whether there are any subjects you should avoid discussing with your Mexican business contacts.
Generally speaking, the stronger the relationship, the more things you can talk about with your business contacts.
Most Mexicans are open and can talk about just about everything and laugh about most subjects. Even “The Day of the Dead” (Día de Muertos), which is one of the most important holidays in Mexico. This is the day when many Mexicans’ dead friends and family members are remembered – often in an informal way, and where it is not unusual to share funny anecdotes about dead loved ones.
But at your first business meetings, avoid subjects linked to religion, corruption, crime etc.
In terms of humor, Mexicans generally laugh quite a lot and are open-minded.
However, making fun of or putting yourself down is not seen in a good light. That is associated with the hierarchy and importance of positioning yourself in Mexican society. If your own cultural background looks kindly on using subtle irony and ‘self-irony’ at work, be very careful about using that kind of humor in Mexico!
Mexico, with its 1,972,550 km2, is a geographically very diverse country. There are deserts, mountains and beaches. To the north there is a rich country – USA – and to the south, a country with far fewer resources, Guatemala.
There are also major differences within Mexico’s borders between the north and the south. For example, Northern Mexico is more heavily influenced by the USA than the rest of the country. Living and working in Mexico City is also very different to living in one of the large industrial cities near the border to America. And the weather and food differ from north to south.
With a population of over 120 million, 99% of whom speak Spanish, and with 68 recognized, original languages that are spoken by millions of Mexicans, in terms of language, Mexican society encompasses striking differences.
There are various social groups, including mestizos, who are people of European and indigenous heritage in Mexico. And then there are huge differences between the rich and poor, and access to schools and education.
So, on a range of parameters, major variations exist across the country. This geographic, demographic and socio-economic diversity must be respected when doing business in Mexico.
There can be differences between generations as well as cultures within industries and organizations. On top of that, naturally, we all have our own personal styles and preferences that we bring to the business community.
In other words, use the points from this blog post as background knowledge when doing business in Mexico – but always be ready to adjust and adapt that knowledge if you feel your experiences with specific Mexican colleagues, employees or business partners point in another direction.
Also remember to take your “cultural self-understanding” along in your baggage. Because, as we say at C3 Consulting, all cultural understanding begins with self-understanding! If you need inspiration on how to refine your cultural sense of self, then watch our video blog post here.
Want to learn more about how to ensure good collaboration with Mexican employees, colleagues and business partners? Read about our country-specific cultural training here or contact us to hear how we can match your needs for Mexican cultural training.
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