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Cross Cultural Management Guide for Colombia

The tips offered below are for managers who want to learn more about the management style and business culture of Colombia.

It provides some useful information for managers who are relocating to the country for employment as well as those who may have Colombian employees in their global or multicultural teams.

Topics include:

  • Hierarchy
  • Respect
  • Leadership
  • Time
  • Communication style
  • Negotiation

Being a Manager in Colombia

The business set up in Colombia is very formal and management will be more successful if you bear in mind the importance of being courteous at all times.  Considerations include the need to:

  • Treat those in positions of authority with particular respect and deference.
  • It is better to err on the side of being overly formal rather than jeopardize a business relationship by being too informal and appearing flippant.
  • Spend time cultivating relationships and maintaining them once they are formed.
  • This is a country where "who you know" is often more important than "what you know".

The Role of a Manager

When working in Colombia, keep it in mind that each person has a very distinct role within the organization. You may find that:

  • People believe that their supervisors have been chosen because they have more experience than those they manage and it is inappropriate for them to consult with lower-ranking individuals when decision-making.
  • In Colombia, as in other hierarchical societies, managers may take a somewhat paternalistic attitude toward their employees.
  • They may demonstrate a concern for employees that goes beyond the workplace and strictly professional concerns.

Approach to Change

Colombia’s readiness for change is becoming more apparent although changes are still made slowly, requiring a considerable amount of thought, planning and evaluation:

  • Cultural sensitivity is important with Colombia’s attitude toward risk dramatically impacted by the negative ramifications of failure on both the individual and the group.

Approach to Time and Priorities

Deadlines and timescales are fluid in Colombia. This  means that:

  • Patience will play an essential part in successful management.
  • While timescales and deadlines need to be set well in advance and reiterated carefully, it should be understood that these will be viewed as flexible.
  • Global working means that some managers may have a greater appreciation of the need to enforce timescales and as such, agreed deadlines are more likely to be met.

Decision Making

Colombian business is rigidly hierarchical. As such:

  • For the most part, decisions are reached at the top of the company and passed down to managers to implement.
  • Managers are more autocratic than in many other countries.
  • They do not seek a consensus before making decisions, as they believe it would make them appear weak.
  • If a subordinate is not clear on how they should approach a given task, they will generally ask co-workers rather than their manager.
  • In general, the business climate is risk-averse.
  • Deadlines are not necessarily viewed as important or adhered to the way they might be in more time-conscious cultures. 
  • As such, if you need to receive information by a certain date, it is a good idea to follow up several times, in a persistent but polite manner.
  • You may even want to consider implementing an artificial deadline prior to the date on which the information is really needed. 
  • If a manager must counsel a subordinate about a performance problem, then it's essential it's done in private to protect the honour and reputation of the individual concerned
  • Positive feedback may be given publicly as it enhances the person’s status.

Boss or Team Player?

If you are working with people from Colombia, management will be more effective if you remember the role that hierarchy plays in teamwork and collaboration:

  • Traditionally, the supervisor is seen to hold that position because of superior knowledge and skills.
  • It would traditionally have been unthinkable for someone of a higher position to collaborate with someone from a lower status.
  • This is changing in younger generations, particularly those employed by multinational corporations.
  • If you would like to encourage participation it is important first to clearly establish a non-threatening work environment and communicate clearly that their participation is desired.
  • When meeting together and moderating ideas, it is important to qualify ideas that are raised in a gentle manner.
  • If someone is exposed and shamed, they may not participate again, and it will likely stem the flow of ideas and the participation of the entire group.
  • Praise should be given to the entire group as well, and not to individuals.

Communication and Negotiation Styles

Colombians typically have a preference for indirect communication.  As such you may find that:

  • People avoid saying what they really think if there is a risk of it causing offence or upset.
  • Anything you say should be communicated politely and with a concern for manners. 
  • Your arguments or criticisms - even if valid, will not be accepted if you communicate them insensitively. 
  • You may need to wrap your arguments up in positive messages to ensure they are listened to and considered.
  • Bear in mind the importance of relationships and prepare to be patient as time is spent developing those relationships.
  • Business meetings are slow and deliberate.
  • Colombians can be strong negotiators and drive hard bargains but you should remember to avoid “high-pressure” sales tactics; these can be viewed as confrontational.
  • Price is likely to form a strong underlying factor during negotiations, so be prepared to discuss price in detail and to justify your proposal. 

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