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Business culture case study: German vs. Mexican thinking

Culture affects every aspect of business, particularly when dealing with affairs abroad or with international clients, but there are ways to mitigate blunders.



A project manager and top client can’t get along

I recently had a client come to me with a query about his construction & design firm. As a general contractor operating in multiple cities in the Southwest, he’s seen a lot of interesting client interactions, but this one in particular took the cake.

“My project manager and one of my best clients can’t get along. It’s going to cost me BIG,” he huffed over a lukewarm cup of coffee. He is relying on this client to, as most general contractors do, recommend his service to others in order to grow his book of business. As I asked him to explain key scenarios that have played out, I could see the cultural issues that were bubbling to the surface. While the overarching issue was communication, here are the two big offshoots that emerged from interactions between his Mexican-born project manager and his German-national client.

Issue one: gender roles

Germans, like Americans, have very loosely defined gender roles in modern society. Women wear pants, work in high-level positions, and some men even stay home on “paternity leave.” As such, there is no shock when men and women interact if a woman gives orders or suggestions to men. With a very conservative Mexican man with well-defined gender roles, the aforementioned are foreign concepts to him and would be cause for discomfort.

The project manager wanted to have interaction and take direction solely from the client’s husband. Once it was clear what the issue was, having a group status meeting, which included the husband, brought about a change in the project manager. Once he was able to see that the husband viewed this remodel as the wife’s project, the project manager was then able to see that she wasn’t trying to take over or control her husband, but in essence was driving her vision to fruition.

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Issue two: timing

In Germany, time is greatly valued, and punctuality is expected. Conversely, in most of Mexico, there exists a loose concept of time. While schedules can be made, it’s best to deal in the general instead of the specific. Plans are made around the day, not the hour, as is the case in America.

When the project manager explained that the remodeling project would take two weeks to complete, his clients were pleased. The problems arose when the clients misunderstood how the two weeks would play out. Instead of the project manager and team arriving 2-3 days a week, the clients assumed the team of workers would be there literally every day for at least 8 hours a day for two weeks.

As a result, the clients felt as if the team was taking advantage of them, and wasting their time. To reduce the diminishing trust, it was imperative to clear up this misunderstanding. A schedule to the day was outlined, and the clients felt at ease.

Now a success story

All in all, these missteps are surmountable. I’m happy to report that the project manager and client, while not best of friends, are able to work more smoothly together. As the project nears completion, early word-of-mouth recommendations are underway.

It’s important to keep in mind when engaged in multi-cultural interactions that you (the one providing the service) are the subject-matter expert. Remembering that fact, and balancing it with potential cultural differences, you can ensure the success of that relationship, and improve referrals.

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Written By

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

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