By Mariah E. deForest
Executive summarySpecial 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Long experience in training Hispanics for supervision in many different plants and industries suggests that six elements are necessary to train Hispanic foremen.
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.