Communities & Groups
Publications & Resources
Career Center

How to train across cultures

By Mariah E. deForest

Executive summary
Special training can help transition foreign-born Hispanic workers into the ranks of supervision. Paying attention to differences in culture and leadership style can yield benefits that will benefit U.S. businesses for years to come as the country becomes more demographically Latino.

Many Spanish-speaking employees – who today make up about 25 percent of the U.S. work force in manufacturing, warehousing and construction, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Hispanic Research Institute – are supervised ineffectively. As a result, these Spanish-speaking workers are not as productive as they can, and want, to be.

The rapidly increasing number of foreign-born Hispanics in American industry has created a critical need for bilingual supervisors who not only speak Spanish but know how to manage a diverse work force. One stumbling block to promoting good foreign-born Hispanic workers into supervision has been the lack of English fluency. Another, less visible consideration has been Latin American culture itself, brought from native countries, a culture that carries with it a different style, outlook and set of assumptions. How best to turn good Hispanic workers into able supervisors? How best to empower them to participate fully in achieving company goals?

The fact that Spanish-speaking employees may be outstanding workers with great attendance records doesn’t necessarily qualify them to be good supervisors any more than it does U.S. workers – as many plant managers have discovered.

U.S.-born supervisors often are ineffective – and sometimes exacerbate problems – with employees who don’t speak English. They can grow impatient, believing that foreign-born Hispanics should learn English quickly and conform to mainstream customs. But acquiring English is no easy task for immigrants from south of the border, where schooling for the working and agricultural classes usually ends at the sixth grade.

While many of the foreign-born Hispanic employees who speak serviceable English are eager for opportunity and promotion, their instincts about managing are inherited from their cultural traditions. Decades of experience, including much in Mexico, have shown that Latin management style can be surprisingly different from that of the United States. That’s why the typical U.S. supervisory training program does not fully resonate with foreign-born Hispanic foremen.

Investing in low cost, low quality training aimed at the dominant culture is a false economy. Generic courses rarely produce measurable, ongoing improvements in supervisory performance. What’s needed to help foreign-born Hispanics advance to supervisory positions is training that targets cultural impediments to successful job performance as well as promoting cultural strengths.

Common practice/communications

Many companies have experienced the drawbacks associated with using bilingual employees to convey instructions to Spanish-speakers. Often, the translations are more impressionistic than accurate. And what’s more, little if any useful communication flows back from the workers to the supervisors.

One-way communication is a poor way to engage workers anywhere, and questionable translations can fail to convey critical company and safety information. For example, one time a plant manager in a cut-and-sew textile operation in San Francisco gathered all the Spanish-speaking workers into a general meeting to announce a compromise offered to the union during contract negotiations. He often used his most proficient bilingual employee to interpret his remarks.

Unfortunately, the worker translated the English “compromise” into the Spanish “compromiso,” which means “firm commitment,” indicating the manager’s “firm commitment” to a wage freeze. Thus the negotiations with the union were thrown into an uproar. Another time, a supervisor, trying to be affable, asked a worker to translate “I love your language” to one of the assembly line employees. Because the words have several meanings, the comment was translated as, “I want your tongue.” Needless to say, the poor employee was startled and embarrassed.

Companies with better bilingual communications often try to have a Spanish-speaker in the personnel office so that employee concerns are heard and interpreted correctly.

Cultural differences

To refer to “cultural differences” is not to stereotype nationalities or revert to old labels or pigeonholes. Earnestly seeking to understand different cultural points of view will help prevent serious lapses in communication as well as inadvertent missteps. Being alert to cultural differences is what “cultural sensitivity” means. We want to recognize where differences exist so as to seek common ground. Mutual understanding in the workplace is the sine qua non of fruitful job performance.

Orientation (Latin styles)

Latin-style supervisors tend to manage subordinates closely, expect willing obedience and often consider verbal input to be back talk from employees. Foreign-born supervisors seem instinctively to react to employee complaints as challenges to their authority. In the old country, it’s considered unnecessary, even weak, to have to explain yourself or your orders. To explain amounts to not having the right to give orders, not to be the boss. This is another area where all supervisors need to accept that employee complaints are not challenges to their authority and accept that the supervisor’s role is to illuminate, not smother, employee requests for information.

Managers in many types of manufacturing assume that the ideal U.S.-style management techniques are valued around the globe. But “participative-style” management is not universal, not typical in Latin countries and thus not common among Latino-born supervisors in the U.S. While an important aim of training is to expose American management style to Mexican-origin foremen, just insisting that they be more participative or talk to your employees doesn’t work.

Latino mindset

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there were 25.2 million Hispanics in the work force in 2008 (see Figure 1), of which 13.1 million were foreign-born. Of those, 54 percent were from Mexico, more than from any other country. When native Mexicans become supervisors, they naturally think of supervision in their own cultural terms.

In Mexico, a supervisor belongs to the rank of “empleado de confianza,” meaning an employee is in a trusted, personal relationship with the boss. That’s why traditionally, whatever a supervisor says on the floor there is regarded as coming straight from the owner. This is a different concept from the U.S. “exempt” or “salaried” supervisory classification, where a supervisor derives authority from his position in the organization’s impersonal hierarchy.

Another aspect of leadership in Latin America is the cult of “personalismo.” This refers to the importance of a leader’s personal strength in gaining followers, and the term describes the tendency to follow a leader due to the force of his personality. In business, “personalismo” refers to the mindset that a boss’s authority springs from personally representing the employer on the factory floor. So it is important to address the concept of “personalismo” in training targeted at foreign-born supervisors. It’s very helpful to emphasize that in U.S.-style management, respect for a supervisor is ideally conceived as being earned by trustworthy and knowledgeable actions rather than deriving from a close personal relationship with the owner.

There are differences as well in notions of just what constitutes the supervisor’s job. Latin-born supervisors work to solve problems in their own departments but appear to hesitate to “step on the toes” of their peers and others. For example, often both foreign-born supervisors and hourly employees will avoid calling attention to poor quality coming from a preceding department due to the reluctance to “meddle.” Foreign-born Latino supervisors typically see their principal role as carrying out their boss’s directions to the best of their ability. In Mexico, it is considered unseemly and insubordinate to act independently, query instructions or to take up an issue with a peer supervisor, even though the matter may affect them both.

This social taboo against “interference” sometimes results in a low level of interaction among first-generation Hispanics on the factory floor. Training that is culturally attuned will emphasize to such supervisors that going beyond regular duties to solve problems is an important part of the job – an idea that authorizes and justifies peer consultation.

Take the initiative

All supervisors must learn that their job is proactive and not merely to follow the plant manager’s orders. For Hispanics, it’s important to learn that what is called “overstepping your bounds” in a Latin country is called “initiative” here, and it is welcomed by upper management. Overcoming this common social prohibition requires modeling and continual reinforcement. When newcomers learn the techniques of modern problem solving and become adept at employing the fishbone analysis technique, for example, the training session becomes a living example of how to discuss common problems. And by authorizing mutual problem solving, Hispanic supervisors are empowered to collaborate on achieving company goals.

In short, Latino supervisors as well as any others must learn that they are managers who are accountable for obtaining certain results, results that include the morale of the work force, rather than simply pushing the work through.

The American difference

U.S.-style industrial supervisors ideally relate to their employees as facilitators in getting the job done, employing two-way communication and interaction. Present-day American-style management training encourages supervisors not only to allow workers to have a say, but to recognize suggestions, answer questions and be informative. In other words, engage in participative management, not “If I want you to know, I’ll tell you.” Supervisors are encouraged to admit when they don’t have answers and to be willing to respond to the workers and get an answer. A U.S. supervisor’s role ideally includes dealing with gripes and grievances, getting input on decisions before they are final, and making the compromises needed to forge a “team” feeling among the workers. This also includes explaining to workers how to do the job; keeping track of how it’s being done; checking tolerances, inventory levels or tracking orders; and being a source of information and control.

But traditional foreign-born Hispanic supervisors often are not comfortable with this ideal of U.S.-style management. U.S.-style management rarely stands on ceremony, sees nothing wrong with (nonunion) managers getting their hands dirty occasionally or with being on a first-name basis with subordinates. Traditionally, Latin culture tends to be more formal; it’s customary in the old country for authority figures to maintain a distance (“guardar las distancias”) with subordinates. On the other hand, Hispanic workers are greatly appreciative if their supervisor lends a hand. Especially in Mexico, this sort of supervisory “unbending” gains enthusiastic employee cooperation.

Effective training

Long experience in training Hispanics for supervision in many different plants and industries suggests that six elements are necessary to train Hispanic foremen.

  1. Set benchmarks. Successful formalized supervisory training will be reflected in improvement in departmental performance in productivity, quality and on-time shipments. So before training starts, trainers should establish average departmental performance benchmarks for comparison with after-training departmental performance. That will help evaluate the effectiveness of the training.
  2. Use in-plant examples. Instruction by the case study method tends to work best. Cases based on illustrations from workplace interviews and observation will document relevant examples so that training is customized to the specific company and industrial process. The trainer should spend several days in the plant, observing and interviewing an adequate cross-section of employees in order to gather the case materials. Supervisors can identify with the problems through discussion of the real-life examples. Using case studies of employee production and quality problems concretely illustrates to supervisors the benefits of seeking information from the hourly work force and teaches the what-and-how of resolving typical problems.

    Practical cases are the best way to teach important supervisory concepts such as the importance of obtaining employee cooperation, of the consequences of failing to give proper directions, or of the consequences of failing to listen to employee complaints.

    Illustrate the idea of the importance of listening to employees with some case examples.

    For example, in a rubber inner tube plant in Mexico, tiny air bubbles in the rubber were causing terrible problems with failures in the field. No one could figure out the cause. Eventually, the plant had to stop production entirely to prevent further losses, a significant cost. Finally, interviews with the final inspectors/packers revealed that they were given cotton gloves to protect their fingers from the hot rubber when squeezing the inner tubes to detect any bubbles. But employees complained that the gloves wouldn’t let them feel the bubbles. Eureka. The problem was solved by adding more cooling time to the curing process so final inspectors wouldn’t have to wear gloves. Management and the supervisor involved learned the hard way to listen to the workers.

    From case examples of employee blunders, manufacturing supervisors can best internalize the lesson that the primary function of discipline is correction, not punishment. Discipline is a way to educate the worker on how to improve and function better. This lesson can be explained so that it’s acceptable to authority-minded individuals of any nationality by emphasizing that what is wanted is employee cooperation, not tarring and feathering.

    A Los Angeles plant undergoing supervisory training posed a hypothetical role-play situation to four pairs of Hispanic-origin supervisors. The supervisors took turns playing the roles of supervisor and employee in a simulated disciplinary meeting case. Instead of punishing the employee for walking around the floor, the supervisor was supposed to discover, through questioning, that the employee was looking for an Allen wrench that the supervisor should have been responsible for. But in every simulation, the man playing the role of supervisor fired the man acting as the employee – just because the employee tried to tell his side of the story. The task was for the new foreign-born supervisors to learn that employee explanations are not impertinent back talk, but rather the royal road to problem analysis. It turned out that native tendencies are hard to overcome, and new behaviors require practice.
  3. Planning and collaboration. Training for all supervisors, regardless of their language and origin, should include instruction in planning. The supervisor’s job is more than pushing today’s production through the department. Effective training emphasizes how to plan for inter-departmental workflow. Supervisors must watch for schedule snags, anticipate employee problems and still meet management’s production schedules. And training must include the how-to’s of peer cooperation: specific techniques of dealing with other supervisors, production schedulers, engineers and inventory-control personnel without losing face or authority. As explained above, an important area for Latin supervisors is feeling free to address mutual work problems with other supervisors.

    All this can be taught, but not by lectures and not overnight. Effective training should include all the tools of true-to-life case examples, simulations, videos and homework. Supervisors should have homework: They should apply each lesson to actual situations on the floor and report the results to each other at the next training session. A close connection between learning and practice best ensures that the lessons will be carried out on the plant floor.
  4. Using the authoritarian mode. Another important object of supervisory training should be to promote the constructive exercise of authority as opposed to following the old strongman political model. By showing and explaining production tasks to workers instead of just barking orders, the supervisor will engage the workers, using power in a positive way.  

    Supervisors can be redirected to interacting with employees and being helpful. Modeling the authority figure as teacher or father naturally will involve taking employees into account. And incorporating the concept of “personalismo” – strong, charismatic personal relations – will present a fine opportunity for positive employee motivation. Experience in Mexico has taught that Latin-style motivation tends to be personal. Workers there respond most to face-to-face contact with the supervisor or owner.

    What about bridging the gap between North American and Latin American styles of motivation? It is very useful to expose the foreign-born supervisor to a psychological approach to employee motivation. Exposing the new supervisors to, for example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and role-playing various related motivational techniques (even behaviorist theory) can open the door to an important new way of thinking.
  5. Focus on goals. The best way to combine cultures so that dissimilarities lose importance – and to help Hispanics successfully supervise all ethnic groups – is to focus training on achieving company goals.

    Goals can be emphasized by elucidating the elements of getting there by stressing the steps in the process. Focusing in on what the company and department are trying to accomplish encourages workplace teamwork and creates the opportunity for mutual acceptance.
  6. Speak frankly. Finally, to help foreign-born Hispanic supervisors learn how to manage – not merely follow instructions – they need regular, weekly one-on-one conferences with their direct boss. Discussions should be frank, and supervisors should be encouraged to bring up their and their employees’ problems. The importance of this type of meeting is that it reinforces the training and provides an impressive role model to “authoritative-style” supervisors on how to listen to subordinates. If the plant manager can do it without losing face, surely they can, too.

    Latinos, the fastest growing segment of the American population, will reach about 35 percent of the work force by 2020. In some geographic areas, Hispanic work forces will be as much as 75 percent. Manufacturers with effectively trained bilingual supervisors surely will be ahead of the competition.

Mariah E. deForest is executive vice president of Imberman and deForest Inc., a management consulting firm in Evanston, Ill. She has a master’s degree in anthropology from Hunter College. deForest specializes in employee relations, productivity improvement and strike-avoidance in companies with predominantly Spanish-speaking work forces. She has spent many years in Mexico and consults American companies operating in Mexico regarding Mexican business culture, labor law and employee relations.

Print: Share: