Inclusion: It can be as simple as Listening

A few years ago, the company I was working for sent me off to Brazil to lead a small team of 4 Brazilian women, all with different work and life experiences. The most experienced was the manager who was about 35 and the least experienced was an assistant who was about 24 years old.

After a few months with the team, I thought it was time to analyse how things were moving forward. Had I built trust with my team? Had they built trust with one another? Was our communication clear? I asked myself all these questions, and more,  and I was fairly content with my answers and gave myself a pat on the back. Boy was I wrong! About a week later, one of my team members, (let’s call her Lia), basically told me how incompetent I was at dealing with Brazilians.  Let me tell you what happened.

 Lia and I headed to Sao Paolo for an important meeting. I had 90 minutes to convince a university professor to allow about 100 of his students to do a paid internship with our company.   Seems simple right? Well, I thought it was going to be simple. I’d had several similar meetings before, in different countries, and until then I had been successful with my request. I knew the subject matter of the meeting very well, and I thought I knew what the outcome was going to be.  Consequently, I entered the meeting on “Autopilot”. Mistake #1. I didn’t pick up on little signals and body language that the professor was sharing throughout the discussion to show his disinterest. Therefore, I wasn’t flexible enough to change my mode of communication or my persuasion techniques.

At the end of the 90 minutes, Lia and I walked out of the meeting, our heads down, unsuccessful. The professor was not going to allow his students to join our project. Lia and I stepped into the taxi that was taking us back to the airport. I was speechless and in shock at how badly the meeting had just gone. After a few minutes, I turned to Lia and asked, “What just happened in there?” She looked at me and suddenly burst into tears. She was crying and yelling through her sobs, “Tania, you haven’t been listening to me!!!” I’ve been telling you for months that you cannot do things here your way, you have to do it the Brazilian way!” “What? What do you mean you’ve been telling me for months?” “Well, to start with, about one month ago in our team meeting, I said A, B and C. Three weeks ago, I said, X,Y and Z and last week I repeated A, B and C, but you just ignore what I say!”

Ooooooh…What a disaster. Lia had been giving me feedback about how to be more efficient with my Brazilian counterparts, but I hadn’t “heard” her feedback.  I hadn’t heard it because I didn’t know how to adapt my listening techniques to her communication methods. For Lia, hierarchy was important and I was her Manager. Therefore, she found it difficult to speak to me directly, she didn’t want to seem disrespectful,  which means her feedback was very indirect, so indirect that I didn’t understand it. It just went straight over my head.

 In Lia’s eyes, the fact that I didn’t modify my communication according to her suggestions, meant that I was not interested in her opinion or in her ideas, therefore she believed I didn’t trust her. This was all mistaken of course, but that was her perspective.  What’s more, I realised that I was probably about to lose the respect and trust from the rest of my team unless I made some changes quickly.

 I hadn’t understood Lia because I had only been listening with my ears and because I was convinced that my method of getting things done was the right one.  Lia was putting far more than just words into the message she was delivering. In fact, the words she used were of little significance. Most of the significance came from her body language and the subtle hints she was giving me while smiling.  Did I think that because she smiled while giving me the hints that they were not so important or not serious? For me a smile typically means agreement. Did I not go out to lunch with her often enough and share in personal chatter enough? Maybe that would have created a level of trust with her that could have helped her open up to me differently, or in a way that I would have understood. If I had done more personal sharing, maybe I would have learnt more about her communication techniques and learnt what was feedback and what wasn’t.

 When we work in culturally diverse teams, each one of us has a very different mindset and a different way of  seeing the world and therefore of behaving and communicating. What is respectful behaviour in one culture can seem very disrespectful in another. If we want to be inclusive and bring out the best of each one of our colleagues, irrespective of their background, we need to learn what the perspective of each one of our teammates is.  We cannot assume that just because Corporate Culture says, “This is the way we do things around here,” that each individual is going to be comfortable following that path. Inclusion means taking the time, making time, to get to know who you’re working with even though you think that lunch time chit chat or coffee machine chit chat takes you away from reaching your deadlines.

Take a look at the Chinese character below, Ting, (which means to listen). We can learn a lot about listening from our Chinese colleagues. “Ting”, is made up of 4 smaller characters, each one a component of what we should use to listen; our ears, our eyes, undivided attention and an open heart.

The Samba Drums are Rumbling – Working effectively with Brazilians

Christ, symbol of Rio de Janeiro, standing on top of Corcovado Hill, overlooking Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

With just over 100 days to the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games many people are getting ready to head down to Rio de Janeiro. Some for work, some for play and some for a bit of both. Most of us picture ourselves playing (or rather watching) futvolei on the beach sipping at fresh coconut water when we think of a long term project in Rio de Janeiro. So why is it that so many foreigners working in Brazil call HQ once a week with alarming stories about unmet deadlines and Brazilian colleagues who don’t do what they say they would do. The most common quips I’ve heard foreigners use when speaking of their Brazilian colleagues and suppliers is , ‘They’re fake,’ ‘They’re not committed to work,’ or the classic, ‘They never reach deadlines’. After a few weeks of making such remarks the person resigns themselves to the fact that they’re going to have a hard time getting their project accomplished but they don’t usually take the time to look into why they are interpreting the Brazilian work methods in this manner. Have you ever asked yourself what impression your Brazilian counterparts have of you? Little do we know what negative adjectives they may be using to describe our behaviour while we’re jumping up and down getting upset about a deadline that is not being met. I recently asked a former Brazilian colleague of mine what the most common adjectives Brazilians usually utter about foreigners. She came up with, ‘They’re inflexible, always stressed, and they usually feel that things should be done their way (the foreign way). How can we avoid these negative depictions and enjoy the merge of cultures?

These criticisms (on both sides) often come up in moments of frustration. When we’re relaxed and have time to consider why the people around us are behaving a certain way we usually find an explanation, but that still doesn’t help us achieve our goals and reach our deadlines. We need to go one step further. We need to consider what we have to change in our methods to be more effective when working with culturally diverse people who have different techniques to ours.

The three points I mention below are only an introduction. I shall not endeavour to write more in such a post, the aim of which is to help those of you heading to Rio de Janeiro enjoy the XXXI Olympiad.

Brazil is incredibly vast and has a huge population of over 207 million[1]) made up not only of natives but also a mixture of immigrants mainly from Japan, Germany, Spain, the Middle East, Italy and of course Portugal. It’s therefore hard to say that there is one common way of behaving, of managing teams and of communicating. Paolistas in the south will tell you that they are different to the Cariocas from Rio, who in turn say they are different to the North Easterners, and so it is. Consequently I shall try to stick to a few characteristics that most of the country has in common, with an emphasis on Carioca behaviour; we have to start somewhere.

“How is your grandmother’s hip replacement coming along?”      

If you ask a group of Brazilian individuals what their number one cultural value is, it is likely to be, ‘smiling’.  In order to be successful in Brazil the one most important word to remember is, relationship. There is little you can achieve unless you take the time and make the effort to get to know your partners, colleagues and service providers personally before going ahead and making any requests or explaining how something should be done.

Imagine this scene: You’ve been sitting at your computer all morning. Your tummy starts to grumble and you realize it’s lunchtime. You mention to your colleagues sitting beside you that you’re going out to get a sandwich. You pick up your sandwich take it back to your desk and decide to continue working while nibbling at the sandwich. My dear reader, that is mistake number 1 in Brazil. Relationships are a vital part to getting any job done and therefore having lunch with your colleagues and getting to know about their families, their spouses, children, grandmother, aunts, uncles, their cats’ and dogs’ names and their hobbies is a vital part of learning to do business in Brazil. The work sphere and the private sphere are mingled into one. If you are leading a group of Brazilian employees make sure you show your interest in their private lives. Brazilians generally prefer to build a relationship of trust and confidence with the people they do business with. Once they trust you, it will be instinctive for them to want to help you reach your objectives. If your service provider offers you a cafezinho before getting down to work don’t even contemplate refusing, irrespective of how many coffees you may already have had that day. The offer to share a coffee is not just to make sure you feel welcome, but it is a chance for them to get to know you a little bit better before deciding whether they would like to work with you. If you’re working on a big long-term project, take the time for the two hour lunches and don’t talk business over lunch; pull out your phone and share your photos of your nephews, nieces and puppy dogs too.

“I’m sure she said it would be here on Thursday.”

One of the most difficult issues that foreigners in Brazil tend to deal with is having to read between the Brazilian lines. How do you make a decision when you cannot tell if your interlocutor is saying yes or no to your request or when your subordinates don’t open up and debate your ideas. Think about the relationship element we mentioned, add the fact that Brazil is a harmonious culture not wanting to offend anybody (remember the smile) and add a colonial history where the big farmers were boss. It is rare to hear a Brazilian out rightly say, ‘No’. It doesn’t matter how ludicrous he or she finds your request or the fact that a government official in Brasilia cannot possibly get the fifty work permits you requested for Thursday on time for all your staff members to arrive in the country, they will rarely use the word, ‘No’. Instead you’ll often hear ‘vamos ver’ (we’ll see), or, ‘Thursday could be possible’, when in fact Thursday is actually out of the question. So on Thursday afternoon you’re looking at your watch every 20 minutes waiting to receive the fifty work permits for the staff members arriving in the country the next day. You call the official angrily telling her she said they’d be there on Thursday, your blood pressure starts to rise and then the frustrating negative comments start to pour out. Little do you realize that your Brazilian government official had actually said. ‘No’, you just didn’t hear it, or rather you didn’t pick up on it. When making requests or explaining how you would like something to be done, try to pick up on the gestures and facial expressions the person opposite you feels she is openly using. You will learn to read the, ‘No’ and not fall into the mistake of waiting for something that was never intended to arrive.

‘O jeitinho Brasileiro’

I’m going to finish on an optimistic note. Brazilians are generally extremely optimistic, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’, or in Brazilian terms, ‘o jeitinho Brasileiro’. You’ve probably heard of it or even seen it done. There is so much admin and bureaucracy to get through in Brazil, that even the Brazilians complain about it knowing very well that all this red tape deters everybody from accomplishing their goals and reaching deadlines promptly. Therefore Brazilians become very creative when having to find solutions to get around red tape and generally in terms of problem solving. They are adventurous and will look for new opportunities to find new ideas. Often they will not even tell you that there is a problem to solve because they’re proud to be able to solve it for themselves using their flexibility. The fact of not knowing there was a problem often leaves foreigners surprised and feeling that the Brazilian is trying to hide some bigger problem. Often they won’t tell you of the problem if they think you’re not the kind of person who accepts bending rules. Rules are not always followed to a T and you may not always want to know how the issue was solved, but low and behold, your event will start on time as per plan, even if it’s a last minute patch up. The backstage may look little untidy but the stage will be as sparkling as the sea at Copacabana beach on a fresh midweek morning with the sunrise beaming over Sugarloaf.

[1] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/brazil-population/