“Marie” has been traveling frequently between clients in Tucson and nearby Phoenix, Arizona, USA. She works with mid-sized expanding technology companies and has for many years around the globe. But Marie confessed to me that lately she is struck by the lack of interest in and understanding of Mexican markets that sit just minutes or hours from a company’s door on the other side of the U.S.-Mexican border. These company leaders seemed locked in a limiting assumption that Mexicans are all poor, uneducated and certainly could not afford American technologies.
For anyone wondering, Mexico is the 15th largest economy in the world as ranked by the IMF, United Nations and World Bank. It’s GDP per Capita is $17,000, which is above the median country by $5,000 (IMF 2014). Every year more Mexican professionals join the workforce in fields like computer science, engineering, and business. And Arizona’s share of this lucrative export market in both B2C and B2B industries is disproportionately low especially considering it’s a state bordering Mexico.
Now before any of us should start judging these or any professionals about their world business knowledge, I think it is critical to start with the following truth:
We are all operating with an imperfect set of information formed by what we have learned and then understood within the context of our cultural framework.
No one can be a true Know-It-All because it is just not possible to learn all that can be learned. Nobody really likes people who act like they Know-It-All, because it’s incredibly annoying. But we can manage ignorance in those we work with and especially in ourselves to the benefit of all. Here are a few key tips:
How to Handle Wrong Assumptions in Others
When I last lived abroad, I heard plenty of stereotypes about Americans. We live in skyscrapers. We watch TV all day long. We all wear cowboy hats and boots. And we eat McDonald’s hamburgers every day. These all sound ridiculous and narrow to anyone who has lived in the U.S.. Luckily these stereotypes are all fairly harmless. If you heard someone say that all Dutch people live in windmills or wear wooden shoes, you would probably react with a chuckle. But a word of caution… no one likes to have their limiting assumptions exposed. We all have these assumptions and risk losing face. Here’s how to help others while staying professional:
- Ask Questions About the Assumption
Instead, consider asking questions around the false assumption.
“Have you visited the U.S.? Did you see more apartments than houses where you visited?”
“Do we as a company know the size of the Mexican market for our products or industry? Could we find out?”
Open-ended questions like these allow the person to rethink their statement and its underlying assumptions. It lets them have the chance to evolve past the assumption based on some new information or additional research. This is particularly important and sensitive when the faulty assumption is coming from your boss, investor, or client.
- Provide Published Data Supporting the Myth Bust
While some assumptions are trivial, others may be significantly limiting the growth of your company. If there is a chance that you may have a Mexican-size market nearby that is currently underserved, then gathering data and opinions about this opportunity can help to build interest to internal stakeholders.
- Ask Permission to Take it Further
Once it’s been established that the assumption is false, now there is a brief window of time to reframe understanding around the clearer picture. I like to also change pronouns from “you” didn’t understand this before to “we” didn’t understand the implications. But now that we do, we can take full advantage of this new understanding to excel further as a company.
Confronting Our Own Limits
To become better global business professionals, we need to constantly be challenging our own limitations. I would encourage you to:
- Read magazines, newspapers and other media from a variety of sources that are likely to share contrary points of view. A local newspaper can be supplemented with The Economist Magazine or a translated online version of another country’s main newspaper. Even exposure once a month will quickly show the variety of points of view on a single subject.
- Put yourself in new situations where you will meet people from different backgrounds. Travel is a great way to do this. So are local ethnic meetup group events.
- When new information challenges your previous assumptions, stop to think through all of the implications. Let your understanding of the world grow just a little bigger in that moment.
I think most of us in the field of international trade run into this false assumptions issue much more often than we would like to admit (certainly to our clients and bosses). The goal is to help clients be more globally competitive. That starts with the clearest possible understanding of the global environments in which companies operate.
Wishing you success in all of your global markets!