Spain: 7 Rules of the game

Spain: 7 Rules of the game that I wish I had known before moving to Madrid

What are the rules of the game in Spain?

What are the rules of the game in Spain?

Spain is a brilliant country to live in and has wonderful people. Many people have a world-class quality of life and achieving this depends on how successful you are professionally. These are the rules of the game I wish I had known and come to terms with before I moved from London to Madrid.

Please note that these are broad opinions and the reality is much more diverse than I am able summarise here. Particularly, Spain is far from uniform in its approach and professional culture across its distinct regions and sectors.

1.  Relationships are absolutely fundamental

Relationships are everything to a professional in Spain. They are the universal medium for opinion, learning, introductions to other people and job opportunities.

They are continually cultivated through coffees, long lunches and mutual friends.

As someone new and different, people will probably be curious to know who you are.

It's who you know

It's who you know

2. Communication is "high-context"

Spain is generally a "high-context" culture. In Spain, your colleagues and counterparts are highly aware to the context and environment around you and use this to interpret and extrapolate what you are saying.

For this reason, the context of a conversation is just as important as what you are saying - who you are, where you're from, your motives, the emotions you might be expressing - i.e. everything you're not saying.

So, in Spain anything that you say may be interpreted in the context and framed within existing perceptions about you. Even if you say one thing, people may feel justified in interpreting something else.

The default assumption for any misunderstandings is that the listener has failed, not the speaker.

This is in contrast to "low-context" cultures, commonly found in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and in some cases the UK. In low context cultures, all depends on the literal meaning of the spoken and written word. Reading between the lines is done cautiously and if there are misunderstandings, the assumption is that the speaker has failed.

Context is everything

Context is everything

3. Authority is a little old-school

Hierarchies are important in Spain. Your boss is the one who decides whether you come, stay or go.

In many cases, employees reluctantly submit to the boss in terms of receiving instructions and taking responsibility.

The management of teams and individuals is not always world-class. People are normally managed from deadline to deadline rather than to performance goals.

Employees tend to be overworked; they have considerable grievances and this may actually lead to some level of micromanagement to extract their best.

Authority is earned incrementally through a hard and long slog through the ranks, favour with the boss and loyalty to the company and its people.


4. Trust is earned in different ways

In Anglo and Germanic cultures for example, it is really important to be an expert in a particular field. Expertise and experience is the a basis for earning credibility.

In Spain this is important, but there are other factors too:

  • Being a good person: "I can trust this person's values system"
  • Intimacy: "I feel comfortable discussing this confidential information"
  • Loyalty/fitting-in: "I feel comfortable this person is one of us and cares about what we care about". For many people in Spain, most of their significant relationships overlap: work, family, school, neighbours, faith are all connected.
  • Doing whatever it takes/not complaining: "I can trust this person's motives and ability to invest in relationships."

5. Punctuality

A different paradigm is also at play.

Life in Spain is full of relationships, opportunities and requirements that exist beyond your control.

Most people believe that they owe the greatest proportion of their time to the limited circle of people who belong to their in-group. So, if someone important is asking, timing could change at any minute.

You and your colleagues may make schedules and set deadlines with good intentions. But sometimes, as these changing external circumstances are beyond anyone’s control, things “just happen” and the deadline might get pushed back a little.

It's nothing personal if meetings don't start on time.

In general, spontaneity is embraced. Ambiguity and unpredictability is welcomed and used to optimise the outcome.

Punctuality in Spain and the reason it is what it is...

Punctuality in Spain and the reason it is what it is...

6. Focus on the task is MORE scattered

Precise timing sometimes is wishful thinking, and possibly arbitrary. Relationships are more important, and the day's objectives may be redefined by one conversation.

This leads to a broader focus than simply “getting things done”. They do get done, but more in their own time.

There may be competing demands for your time - multiple bosses, pressures from family and multiple channels of communication. It is probably safest when you prioritise by most recent request, hierarchy, emotions of the person asking, and the pecking order of your relationships.

This may mean you may have to do many things simultaneously and you may become easily distracted. Employees push back to their superiors with care once a relationship is well established.




7. The labour market works in mysterious ways

All of the above "rules of the game" have a considerable effect on the labour market more broadly:

  • With relationships being so important, the market has been described as "insider-outsider". It is advisable to continue expanding your networks until you know someone who can recommend your name to the decision makers. Either you're in the trusted circles, or you aren't. 
  • Large-scale unemployment: job seekers continually pepper recruiters with their cv, playing the statistics game. Unfortunately this means that it is more efficient for recruiters to use to their trust networks to find suitable candidates and many applications are ignored. This creates high levels of market friction and people with the right talents frequently get ignored.
Not entirely straightforward

Not entirely straightforward


Everyone is highly attune to the context in which they are communicating, and will re-intepret what you say against this.

People invest huge amounts of time in their relationships and their futures; and protecting their most important relationships may lead to some slippage in meeting times and deadlines and focus on the task at hand. Relationships drive an "insider-outsider" nature to the labour market, and this makes it chronically difficult for the unemployed to find suitable roles, despite their talents.

Junior employees end up enduring years of changing priorities, long hours and sub-optimal people management. All in all, professional life in Spain is far from the old stereotypes of "siesta" and "lazy workers".

Click here for more information on unemployment in Spain

Credits and further reading: Customs of the World, Prof. David Livermore

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