Read an Excerpt
The Latino Flexibility Advantage in the Workplace
Excerpted from The Latino Advantage in the Workplace by Mariela Dabbah and Arturo Poiré ©2006
Flexibility is a broad term that could mean different things depending on the context. Here it is used to depict the ability to adapt to multiple and different situations-to be able to play different roles depending on the circumstances. In other words, flexibility is the ability to be able to adapt to a changing environment.
The United States is at the center of this process of high-speed change and Latinos can benefit greatly from it, because Latinos have skills and abilities that are essential to understanding, surviving, and even excelling in this changing environment. Growing up, most Latinos have had to learn multiple survival skills like translating for their parents or negotiating between their parents' cultural habits and the new ones they found in their adopted country. Knowing how to use them in your professional life can give you a great advantage.
Many Latinos were raised in complex environments in which they had to understand and deal on the one hand with the world of their parents or grandparents who grew up in Latin America, and on the other, with the world of their peers here in the U.S. Those who grew up in Latin America had to withstand constant instability in terms of governments, learn to survive through recurrent economic crises and inflation, and overcome the challenges of inadequate infrastructure. The economic aspect has certainly had a critical impact on every Latino's life, as this has historically been one of the main reasons people immigrate to America. Inflation, a key aspect of the economic dimension, has given Latinos a crash course in adapting to a changing environment. Seeing your income-the product of your hard work-depreciate every day forces you to constantly change all the decisions in your daily life.
In such contexts, being able to adapt is an imperative. Therefore, Latinos have developed specialized skills that are extremely valuable in the modern world. The challenge is to learn how to put them into action so that you have an edge in your professional life.
In the following example, you will see how interpreting for the adults in your family, a common skill for people who arrived in the U.S. at a young age, entails enormous flexibility, as you are dealing with two different cultures and are adapting to each one according to the situation.
Juana was 5 years old when her parents moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. When she started elementary school her mother did not speak a word of English, so Juana translated during the parent-teacher conferences. She also attended an after-school program to get help with homework. Juana had to explain to her parents how important her scheduled tests were and the fact that they could not take her out of school before the school year was over to join the family on their annual trip to the Island. She found herself always explaining how things worked in America. It was not easy to be her parents' teacher, and many times their confusion frustrated her, but she knew they relied on her to receive that information. When she grew up, Juana decided that she wanted to work in human resources, specializing in international transfers to the U.S. Without even thinking about it, Juana gravitated towards something with which she had a lot of experience-interpreting the American culture for recent immigrants.
Adaptability is clearly the easiest component of flexibility to grasp in terms of conceptual description. It is also the easiest to understand in connection to work. Big companies spend a lot of money each year teaching their employees how to cope with change. They hire training experts, change management consultants, and buy books and videos focusing on managing change and preparing employees for a changing world. Unfortunately, Latinos who have all these teachings embedded in their cultural DNA are seldom aware of them, so they too have to learn them on the job, just like everyone else.
Most likely, you or your parents experienced constant change in Latin America. Whether the value of the currency changed or any number of rules and regulations were modified overnight, the truth is that unpredictability was part of your upbringing or that of your parents. That sense of "you never know what can happen tomorrow" is still in you, and if you can recognize it, you will be able to apply it to your advantage at work. It will allow you to always be ready for any changes coming your way.
Certain behaviors reveal this attitude quite clearly. For example, you are likely to be more cautious about borrowing money, you have a tendency to prepare for the worse case scenario in every situation, you have trouble planning for the long term, or you still have a general distrust for the American system.
Does this mean that you are so prepared for change that you will not suffer during the next reorganization? Not really. What it does mean, however, is that you are likely to have more internal resources to survive than others.
The objective of this activity is to reflect on situations that you or your family have faced in the past. You will see how the strategies you used to cope with these situations can be easily applied to experiences encountered at work.
• Write down a life example that involved change for you or your family. (For instance, the last economic crisis, which forced some of your family members to move to the U.S. to live with you.)
• List the actions taken to adjust to this change.
• To what extent are these actions similar (and applicable) to the latest big change in the workplace (reorganization, job transition, etc.) that you or someone you know have gone through?
When it comes to adaptability, you should feel comfortable to show it as part of who you are. This is a vital trait in the modern world and it is one in which you have been trained intensively. However, when you talk about this trait during a job interview, you need to prepare examples that are applicable to the professional world.
It is possible to take adaptability to an extreme by becoming too malleable and accommodating. There is a phrase that summarizes very nicely what happens when you become too adaptable: "If you adapt too much, you can have trouble remembering who you are." Remember that it is who you are and everything that you have learned before that has made Latinos so successful in America. When you combine the nonconfrontational style of Latinos with your ability to adapt to almost any situation, you could end up with the short end of the stick. So be careful to avoid situations where you are taken advantage of. Analyze each situation carefully and try to break it down in smaller pieces. Evaluate if what you have is a real opportunity or one from which you need to push back.
Feeling discomfort is sometimes a trade-off for avoiding confrontation, one of Latinos' most prevalent characteristics, but putting up with discomfort for too long may derail your career-if not your life. It is crucial to learn how to manage the downside of your adaptability in order to make the best of this otherwise positive trait.
Usually when you hear the word creativity, you think of advertising and art. To some people it is such a mysterious concept that they think it is one of those skills that you cannot develop-you were either born with it or you were not. Both are misconceptions. There is much more to being creative than art or advertisement, and creativity is a skill that you can learn and develop. (In the case of Latinos raised in Latin America, for example, the environment forced them to be creative in order to survive.) The truth is that creativity is mainly about conceptualizing something that was not there before, whether it entails overcoming an obstacle, solving a problem, creating a new product or process, or just improving one that already exists. This section focuses on doing more with less, finding new ways of achieving results, and providing a new perspective in a changing environment that requires a creative solution.
If you grew up in Latin America, you learned how to find alternative and creative ways to get things done. Whether it had to do with scarce resources or deficient infrastructure, Latinos were forced to become masters at creating solutions to everyday problems. There is a saying in some Latin American countries that goes, lo atamos con alambre, which translates to something like, we'll fix it with duct tape. The idea behind this saying is you can employ a short-term (creative) solution to help you get out of a difficult situation. This does not mean being lazy and not going all the way to find the best possible solution, but being resourceful and maximizing your current resources when confronted with a challenge.
Have you ever heard your parents tell you stories about the water being shut down, and how they learned to always fill up the bath tub plus a couple of large pots for cooking before they left for work in the morning, just in case? Even today, there are people who keep a long piece of string with a hook tied to the end so they can lower down a key from the fifth floor when the electricity gets shut down and they cannot buzz people into their building.
This is not to say that there is no creativity in the U.S. just because it is a rich and organized country. In fact, if your daily problems are taken care of, if the basic infrastructure works as expected, then you have a lot more time to be creative at whatever you do.
The sophisticated infrastructure of the United States does make people more prone to take a lot for granted. It makes it easier and more efficient to follow the standards and even not to think too much about the chance that things may go wrong. When the East
Coast suffered a massive blackout in 2004, very few people had landline phones that were not cordless, so a lot of people were left disconnected for a day or two. Living in an efficient and organized country decreases the need for stretching our creativity muscles. It is very important that you do not lose your innate ability to create solutions, and that you learn how to present this added value to your employer so that you have an advantage over others.
The objective of this exercise is to analyze and learn from alternative ways of dealing with different sorts of challenges. (If you have lived all your life in the U.S., you should ask your parents and grandparents to help you with this activity.)
• Think of something you take for granted in the U.S. (for example, using the mail to pay your bills or even having a telephone line at home). Now think of that same process in your heritage country (or ask your family how they did it).
• List the differences and pay close attention to the creative ways they had to come up with in order to overcome the failure of the infrastructure or the scarcity of the resources. (For example, they used the phone at the pharmacy nearby, or the banks invented automatic debit in order to pay bills securely.)
If you cannot think of any examples, reflect on one of these:
• Complex bureaucracies
• Inadequate mail or phone service
• Unsafe taxi cabs
• Regular blackouts
• No air-conditioning
• Unstable banking systems
Now think of work-related situations or challenges that you have faced lately. Try to use some of the same approaches to address them. If you work for a small company (or a start-up), you are very familiar with resources being scarce. On the other hand, if you work for a big company, you most likely face long, bureaucratic processes that reduce efficiency. Do you see any connection with the types of problems or challenges described above?
Activating your creative self takes work and practice, but it is certainly worth it as the marketplace recognizes resourcefulness and creativity as key skills. There is a lot of money spent each year on training programs that focus on these topics. Often, the techniques they use to teach these skills are derived from experiences similar to what you or your family have gone through. For example, they put you in situations that force you to come up with alternatives to a problem. Self-confidence is needed to develop this skill. Remember that you can absolutely do it because you come from a family that has been doing it for years.
Play Different Roles
The importance of being able to play multiple roles in the modern workplace is closely linked to being creative. If you think about the job interview process, you will immediately understand this point. Regardless of what your occupation is, every time you go into a job interview, the prospective employer will try to gauge how well you operate in a team environment, how well you work with others, and how effective you are at creating and maintaining productive relationships at work. What people fail to realize is that teams change constantly and that on each new team, some aspect of the role you play on the team changes as well. This means that you are expected to work with many different types of people in different situations. Demonstrating your flexibility and creativity will help you establish your reputation as a valuable member of the organization who can play diverse roles when required. In other words, being able to play different roles is essential to a team setting-and a team setting is essential to almost any modern workplace.
There are several reasons why you are naturally good at playing different roles. For starters, you have been exposed to more changing environments (or at least to varied views of the world) than many of your non-Latino friends. Now put adaptability, creativity, and biculturalism together, and the result is someone who can view the world from someone else's perspective and approach problems from diverse points of view.
As with all of the skills and strengths discussed in this book, when applied in the appropriate mix, they provide you with a decisive advantage. However, there can always be certain problems when you use them in excess. At times, the ability to play multiple roles in a team environment can lead to an uncomfortable situation. Since you may be good at adapting and getting along, but maybe are not that good at confronting, you could end up in situations in which you are playing multiple roles, but not the ones you would rather play. The key to avoid this shortcoming lies in managing your desire to be accommodating and in being able to say no.
Generalist vs. Specialist
Closely connected to the pros and cons of being able to perform multiple roles is the issue of being a generalist or a specialist. In America, specialization is a highly valued trait-one that you need to develop if you wish to succeed in this market.
One of the challenges that Latinos face in the American system every day is that specialists are highly valued while generalists do not always get all the credit they deserve. The challenge for Latinos (especially those who were raised in Latin America) is that they have been brought up with a completely different emphasis, and they need to reframe their past job histories to highlight their experiences as specialists.
Withstanding Uncomfortable Situations
Another aspect of flexibility is resilience. If you are marketing yourself as being flexible, this has to include adverse situations-those that you would rather not be in if you could have your pick. How you handle yourself in uncomfortable situations often is the most telling way to determine how you will handle yourself in times of less stress or when things are going the way you would like.
Very often, your ability to adapt to changing environments and your relative comfort and endurance in adverse situations have trained you to postpone what you want, and sometimes also what you need. You hurt yourself when you put things off for too long, but how you handle yourself during your decision-making process can often determine how easy your transformation can be. Had Edgar, from the example, continued doing what he was doing, he would soon be in over his head and outside his skill set with the jobs his clients wanted him to do. Plus, he was not doing what he truly wanted to do. By offering solutions that utilized many of his innate traits, he was able to really start doing what he wanted to do without sabotaging his chance at success by handling the transition poorly.
Americans have the reputation of a people who are very assertive when fighting for what they want. Latinos, in contrast, have been taught to delay what they want and are satisfied with what is available. What you must learn is to listen to your inner voice and to distinguish your original objectives from what the environment is offering you.
Similarly, when getting assigned to projects and tasks in your current job, always keep in mind how those fit with your career plan and goals. It is wise to take a moment to reflect on the reasons for accepting a new assignment.