Spanish business culture – theory vs reality

There are lots of theories designed to measure and describe business cultures. One of them is Geert Hofstede’s cultural compass. This rates countries based on 6 different attributes, and is designed to explain what a culture is like. But how accurate is it? How much does it really tell us about day-to-day dealings? Here I’ve looked at the values the Geert Hofstede model has ascribed to Spain, and evaluated them based on my own experience of Spanish business culture.

Business culture in Spain – Hofstede’s cultural compass

Power distance

Geert Hofstede scores Spain highly (57) on this aspect. This means that people do not generally question authority, and accept their place in hierarchy.

I don’t know if I agree. For one, what about the indignados movement in Spain? How does this apply to Spanish business culture? For better or for worse, in large cities in Spain North American business models are just as fashionable as cupcakes, swing dance and gintonics. In Barcelona, start-ups and playing ping-pong with your boss is increasingly the norm. This means a more equal power balance is in demand from the younger generation. Some might say that this is superficial. Offices in Spain today will all describe themselves as having a flat hierarchy to attract talent, but once you’ve got the job you’re still expected to follow suit. But surely something similar is true of most places?

Individualism

In summary, Geert Hofstede says that Spain is Collectivist compared to other European countries, but Individualist compared to most of the rest of the world. The means that Spanish people can easily get on with people who are not from Europe, but might see other Europeans as “aggressive and blunt”. In terms of Spanish business culture, it also means that people are good at working together.

The idea of Spaniards describing other Europeans as “agressive and blunt” is surprising to me. Wherever the truth of the matter lies, I frequently hear Spaniards describing themselves as “muy directos”. In my experience, the comment about teamwork in Spanish business culture is accurate. I find Spanish culture to be very inclusive – one of the lovely things about when I worked in summer schools was how tolerant most of the children were of each other. The same applies to business – normally, even the more eclectic members of the office will be tolerated and included.

Masculinity

Spain scores 42 here, making it a “feminine” country. According to Hofstefe, consensus and getting along are valued, whereas competitiveness is not. Hofstede comments that in Spain “children are educated in search of harmony”. In Spanish business culture, managers like to solicit input from their reports, and politicians seek “participation of all the minorities”.

There are many aspects of this sentence which do not match up to my experience. Although Spanish children I’ve known have often been inclusive, many people are not afraid to speak their minds. I definitely disagree that managers like to consult subordinates – this has not been true in my experience of Spanish business culture. In terms of politics, I’d also point out that the Spanish government includes the autonomous regions less than, for example, the UK includes Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In terms of business culture in Spain, you shouldn’t feel any need to give special attention to caring and consensus. That said, wherever you work it’s wise to care for your clients.

Uncertainty avoidance

Hofstede rates Spain very highly (86) for uncertainty avoidance. He comments that “People like to have rules for everything… There is great concern for changing, ambiguous and undefined situations”. He points to a survey where 75% of young people in Spain v 17% of young people in the USA expressed interest in working in the civil service as evidence (the civil service being highly stable).

I think Hofstede’s example here is unfair. In the worst of Spain’s crisis, over 50% of young people were unemployed. In such circumstances, it’s natural that a “job for life” would sound attractive to most people. That said, the idea that “People like to have rules for everything” rings true – see my section on tax in Spain for the self-employed if you need more convincing about this aspect of business culture in Spain! I would also agree with the point about ambiguous and undefined situations. In a business context, I note that people are more likely to stick to established models than take risks. In terms of Spanish business culture, you might want to keep some of your more original ideas to yourself until you’ve tested them. Or (as I do :)) accept people’s surprise, and build a name for yourself as an innovator.

Long term orientation

Spain scores 48 here – they are almost average. Despite this, Hofstede asserts that the Spanish live in the present: “Spain is the country that has given the meaning of ‘fiesta’ to the world”.

Ok, can we lose the “fiesta” label already please? It’s just not true in certain parts of Spain. However, I’d agree with the overall sentiment. Spanish businesses I know look to combine long-term strategies with ways to get by in the short-term. I have sometimes found the balance swings a bit too far to “getting by”. So helping define a long-term vision has been a way I can add value.

Indulgence

Spain scores relatively low here (44), meaning that according to Hofstede people do not indulge. This also makes people have a “tendency to cynicism and pessimism”. It means that people put work emphasis on work than free time and do not indulge themselves.

What happened to giving the meaning of “fiesta” to the world? There are so many great ways to indulge in Spain – mojitos, open-air concerts, tapas – how could you resist? In terms of Spain’s business culture, it’s one of the few countries I know where staying for a coffee after lunch instead of running to a meeting is an advantage (it allows you to network). Work-life balance is also, in my experience, valued more highly here than elsewhere. I’d also disagree with the idea that Spaniards are cynical and pessimistic, both in Spanish business culture and personally.

Spanish business culture – conclusion

Geert Hofstede’s models might reflect the country average, but they don’t describe my experience. As much as this is conditioned by the business culture of Spain, it is even more conditioned by the sector and circles I move in. I mix mostly with modern, liberal Spaniards, interested in trends and technology. Countries are large and complex. You really can’t generalise.

Also, while I don’t fit with all the values in Spanish business culture, this doesn’t put me at a disadvantage. Actually, a fresh perspective has often allowed me to add value and come up with solutions no-one else thought of. In order to do this, it’s important to be able to understand – and tolerate – other points of view.

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