Brazil Won't Call
There is an expression in French that says “A train can often hide another train.” It's an expression that addresses the fact that railroad tracks in rural parts of France are often unprotected, and that after the first train has gone through a second one might come next, hidden, and hit you blindly. An American company contacted Valérie about a problem it was experiencing in Brazil, which made her think of that French saying.
In a nutshell, the managing director of the company’s Sao Paolo subsidiary had a bad attitude problem, according to the Vice President of International Operations. By the time Valérie was contacted, all they could think about was fire, fire, fire! The Vice President told Valérie that the Brazilian managing director was incompetent, uncooperative, and belligerent. There was no doubt in his mind that the managing director had to go.
Valérie was hired by the company to travel to Brazil and reassure the Brazilian staff that the problem would soon be solved. However, when Valérie arrived in Sao Paolo, she was confronted with a very different reality. Through several hours of personal interviews, Valérie learned that the managing director was actually considered an effective leader, highly respected by her staff and her industry colleagues in Brazil. It was also made clear that if the managing director was forced-out, many of her staff members would leave with her. It became apparent to Valérie that the real problem was cross-cultural misinterpretation.
After reviewing many email exchanges, Valérie also realized that the tone of the U.S. executives was easily interpreted as abrasive, disrespectful, and condescending. The Brazilian manager did not feel appreciated as a full-fledged partner who had something to contribute to the international growth of the company. As a result, her willingness and desire to cooperate turned into reluctant participation, which was misinterpreted by the U.S. executives as internal sabotage.
Upon her return, Valérie explained to the U.S. executives that forcing out the managing director would create havoc in the Brazilian office, leading to major losses of revenue and credibility in-country. In Valérie’s view, the approach had to be modified to create a climate that was more inclusive, more respectful, and more integrated. For example, conference calls with the Brazilian office could not take place every week at 3:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, forcing the Brazilians to stay after hours to participate. Also, hiring a regional manager for Latin America who spoke both Spanish and Portuguese (in addition to English) and who was at ease with Latin cultures was highly desirable. Finally, providing local managers some latitude with regard to hiring, marketing, and expense accounting in their own country was also recommended.
Valérie then conducted a class for the U.S. executives on how to recognize and approach different cultural perspectives. An equivalent training was conducted for the Brazilian office, teaching staff how to work with colleagues in the United States, where the business culture focuses mainly on transactions instead of relationships. Providing people with tools and assisting them in understanding their own cultural DNA went a long way. Dialog and respect between the offices improved. U.S. executives came to understand that treating people as part of the bottom line in Latin America would erode competence and enthusiasm.
Is your company experiencing similar problems? If so, pease, give us a call at 503-710-1234. We would welcome the opportunity to work with you.