During one of my recent leadership workshops with Spanish speaking supervisors, I assigned a skills exercise task. I divided the group into two teams, each had their own separate tables about three feet from each other. I held two small zip lock bags which contained pieces of a puzzle and held them high for the teams to see. I instructed the two teams to assemble the puzzle. However, during the puzzle assembly they could not speak to each other, they could only use hand signals and; they were not shown in advance what the final picture looked like.
Each team went into competition mode and enthusiastically began the exercise by gathering all the edge pieces and forming the border of the puzzle. It was interesting to see that despite the handicap of not being able to speak to each other, the hand signals made them keener to each other’s needs and suggestions of where the individual pieces should be placed. Both teams behaved much the same way until they ran out of pieces.
What they didn’t know was that each team was given half of the same puzzle. The first team that finished assembling half of the puzzle congratulated themselves and sat back in the satisfaction of having completed the task. The other team was still working frantically on completing their puzzle. The members of the first team would periodically look at me searching for a sign of approval at their ability to beat their opposing team. Periodically, someone would look at the other team and notice the similarity of patterns in the puzzle pieces. Finally, one person would point to the other table and attempt to let the others know that there’s something more to this exercise than they expected. After several attempts, one by one was made to realize that the puzzle pieces were two halves of the same puzzle. They then proceeded to connect both halves of the puzzle. Mission accomplished!
In the debriefing, I asked them:
Question: “Why did you assume that your task was finished when you saw that the puzzle was incomplete? And why didn’t you gesture and communicate to each other that you didn’t have enough pieces to complete the puzzle?”
Answer: “We were following your instructions. You told us to complete the puzzle and we completed the puzzle with the pieces given”
Question: “Since the other team was also involved in the same exercise, why did it take so long for you to look around the room to see what they were doing?”
Answer: “We didn’t think we could ask questions”
Question: “What made you think you couldn’t ask questions?”
This is one of the most glaring examples that reflect the everyday working relationships of Hispanic supervisors and their American managers. In the first generation Hispanic culture, asking questions means you don’t get it, it reflects a lack of understanding or intelligence. It causes embarrassment and it’s therefore better not to ask questions even when you don’t have all the facts. In the American culture, when you don’t ask questions, it’s assumed that you know.
I’ve often asked first generation Hispanic employees why they refuse to ask questions when they need additional clarification. Ironically, they feel that they will be ridiculed and embarrassed more from their Hispanic coworkers than from their American managers!
As team leaders, it’s vital to bring out the best in each of our team members. A good place to start is to encourage the Spanish speaking supervisors that the road to self- improvement lies in the willingness to have a learning mindset and; the most efficient method of achieving this lofty goal is to simply ask questions!