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

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/

 

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“Mateship and Mutiny”… Three steps to building trust amongst cultures

Slide1 copyAn Italian lawyer travelling back home to Rome after a business trip in Japan, (let’s call her Elisabetta), thinks about the meetings she just held in Tokyo. Her gut feeling is that she wasn’t very successful but she can’t really place her finger on what went wrong. Why did she have the feeling that her Japanese business associates didn’t really consider her to be the most competent of lawyers?

Trainers will often tell you that when you work with somebody who has a different cultural background to yours you need to adapt. OK, great. That doesn’t sound too hard. I mean, how hard is it to learn how to use chopsticks in Japan, or to not use your left hand at the table in Qatar? We usually don’t mind adapting when the situation calls for changing a physical habit but if the adaptation calls for a change in behaviour that contradicts our deep down values and that is contrary to the way we were educated, contrary to what we believe to be the ‘right’ way of behaving, then it becomes almost agonising and sometimes comical.

Nobody had told Elisabetta that she needed to control her emotions during her business meetings in Japan. However, even if somebody had informed her, would she have felt comfortable behaving so unnaturally? Italians tend to wear their heart on their sleeves. If they’re happy they’ll smile and laugh with joy, if they’re angry they’ll grimace with frustration, if they’re confused their forehead will wrinkle in a puzzled frown, irrespective of whether they are in a business meeting or having lunch with the family. The Japanese say, “Only a dead fish has an open mouth,” and a true professional controls his/her feelings in a business meeting. Any loss of control is deemed unprofessional. So Elisabetta’s gut feeling was probably spot on. The meeting probably didn’t go down so well.

Being able to build trust with your clients, colleagues or service providers of different cultural backgrounds requires “code-switching” or adapting your communication techniques and ways of behaving.

Milton Bennet says that intercultural sensitivity is not natural and that ‘Adaptation means we need to consciously shift our perspective and intentionally alter our behaviour[1]. Therefore in order to become interculturally competent we need to deliberately work at certain skills that are not innate such as giving direct negative feedback to one of our very direct German subordinates even though we are the type of person who usually speaks very indirectly. It’s the kind of thought that gives you a stomach-ache just imagining the scene. The evening before an evaluation meeting, you stand in front of the mirror at home practising all the negative things you need to say and then you get to the meeting the next morning and pofff… it just doesn’t come out as you wanted. You couldn’t help but camouflage the negative points with niceties and flattery even though you really needed to tell the person in front of you that her delegation techniques are not working. So she walks away from the meeting thinking she’s had an extremely good year and that her management skills are great. So much for directness.

Step 1: Know yourself

The first step to becoming interculturally competent is not to know how the other culture functions, but rather to know yourself. You need to take a good look at yourself and ask yourself, “What are my preferred ways of communicating, what are my most common ways of behaving in meetings and in situations of conflict and how do I problem solve?”

What’s the use of a trainer telling you that you need to adapt if you don’t know what to adapt from?

Let’s take a concrete example. You’re the head of your department and you were brought up in an egalitarian society. During a meeting you would always consider asking the opinion of your expert subordinates before making an important decision because you know that their advice is likely to be vital. Now, go and sit in a meeting with colleagues who were brought up in a culture that does not veneer a subordinate’s opinion and you’ll likely come out of that meeting pulling your hair out, wondering, “Why are they all just agreeing with me, why didn’t anybody question the upcoming deadlines?” If you are used to debating in meetings and receiving assorted input, this kind of behaviour will frustrate you and worse you’ll likely start labelling your colleagues as incompetent, unreliable and just plain lazy.

Step 2: Learn about the values of the ‘other’ culture (or those you mostly do business with).

Working with people of other cultural backgrounds involves developing competences that we do not necessarily have naturally, such as learning to ‘read the air’ in Japan. If you’re classified as Kuuki Yomenai in Japan, it probably means that you cannot ‘read the air’, or you cannot decipher social situations, such as not understanding body language. The Japanese are usually non-conflictual and your Japanese service provider would not embarrass you or make you lose face by replying to a last minute outrageous request of yours with an outright ‘No’. He will likely say, “It would be very difficult.” Reading his body language you will hopefully understand that he is actually saying, ‘Are you insane, your request is completely out of the question!’ If you had ’read the air’ then you would quickly move on and find a new service provider. If you aren’t capable of reading the air and you’re an eternal optimist, then you’re probably still sitting around waiting for the difficult situation in Tokyo to be made possible.

Step 3: Code switching – adapting your style

So, if step 1 is knowing how you behave, for example, ‘as an egalitarian with indirect speech,’ and step 2 is understanding how the person in front of you behaves, then step 3 is to ‘code switch’ or adapt your behaviour and communication techniques to be more comprehensible to the person in opposite you.

If we consider our style of communicating and behaving as a code that is common amongst people who have a similar background to ours then it is natural that we don’t have to explain our behaviour to them, they will subconsciously understand without having to try and decipher it. For example, a Swiss manager in a meeting with Swiss subordinates will naturally ask for the consensus of his whole team before making a decision. This allows the Swiss team to feel they have participated in the decision-making process (all related to the deep down value of direct democracy in Switzerland). Any behaviour that the manager uses which differs to that would likely make the subordinates feel as though the manager is hiding something and that he is not quite trustworthy. If he doesn’t adapt he may lose the respect of his Swiss subordinates which in the long run could lead to rebellion.

So before you order that, ‘Doing Business in Australia’ handbook and learn how to talk about Aussie Rules football while sipping at a caffé latte at the Monday morning meetings, take a look in the mirror and inspect yourself closely at your next meetings.

[1] Milton Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”, Intercultural Press, 1993. 21-71.