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Business Culture: Decision Making

Cultural Context

In Spain, most businesses are set up in strong hierarchies, and the familial nature of Spanish business has affected decision-making processes even in the most global and modern firms. Visitors may have difficulties determining who the actual decision maker is, as some Spanish companies may have unseen patriarchal or matriarchal figures behind the helm, while in other organizations, the true decision maker is three or four levels down from the CEO or company president. The key to navigating through the decision-making process in Spain is to remain patient and flexible.

Overall, Spaniards are very thorough when it comes to negotiating and making decisions. This may make the process feel long and tedious for some, and many foreigners may feel very frustrated. However, showing anger or irritation will not serve you well. It's best to remember that one reason the process doesn't move as quickly as you may be used to is that most Spanish government departments are obstructive and bureaucratic in ways that can get in the way of multinational business deals. Also, while most Spaniards enjoy making decisions on their own, they often seek the support and approval from other colleagues and team members before making their final decisions.

Business visitors should plan to meet with their Spanish counterparts several times before any decisions are made. In fact, meetings rarely follow set agendas, and decisions are typically not made in them. Meetings are generally used for discussions and to exchange ideas. Visitors should be aware that meetings may seem chaotic compared to what they're used to, especially compared to those in the US or Northern European countries. In the end, Spaniards often make decisions based on how they feel about their counterparts on a personal level, rather than the figures of the deal.

Power Structures

The majority of Spanish businesses feature structured social hierarchies, but they do not always have clearly drawn lines of authority. Visitors may never actually meet the true decision maker, but Spaniards will expect visiting businesspeople to have negotiating power and the ability to make concessions. The actual jefe (boss), whoever s/he may be, has complete authority. Subordinates are required to follow orders, respect authority, and deal with any problems that may arise. Most proposals will have to make their way through many layers of bureaucracy and meetings before they arrive in front of the actual decision maker.

Key Contacts

Because many Spanish businesses have hierarchies that are unclear to outsiders, it is imperative that business visitors determine who actually has decision-making power in order to meet with that person as quickly as possible. At the same time, visitors will typically be dealing with intermediaries, and maintaining a good relationship with them is imperative. Therefore, it is important to cultivate relationships with everyone you meet. This may be a challenging task, as in Spain, you are only supposed to deal with people of a similar rank to your own. It is frowned upon for someone to spend a great deal of time and energy on someone who is of a lesser rank. Therefore, along with the main decision maker, visitors should learn how to quickly identify their equal-ranking counterparts at the beginning of the visit.

Communicating Styles

Many Spaniards will not directly state their opinions in meetings, so visitors should pay close attention to nonverbal clues. In general, Spaniards sometimes find it difficult to trust outsiders, and they do not like to publicly admit they are incorrect. Therefore, visitors should try to avoid confrontation or aggressive behavior.

Many Spaniards use hand gestures while they are speaking, and some become quite animated when speaking on a topic they are passionate about. The visitor should never confuse these behaviors with anger. If your Spanish counterpart has a genuine interest in the conversation topic, he or she will probably interrupt you. This is not considered rude, and you should not take it offensively. Most Spaniards prefer face-to-face meetings, rather than telephone or email communications. A large part of your communications will occur over dinners and lunches, as they are an extremely important part of Spanish business. Visitors are encouraged to remain calm, warm, and friendly during meetings and negotiations.

Implementing Agreements

While most Spaniards will not dwell on the details during negotiations, they will typically want a detail-oriented written contract at the end of the deal. However, you must reach an oral agreement first, and then bring in an attorney to help work out the fine points and details of the contract. Spaniards generally expect both parties to adhere to all the terms of a final agreement. However, even with a written agreement, fulfillment of the deal will depend on the continuation of the business relationship. Therefore, it should be a top priority to continue developing the relationship during all transaction phases. It is important that you stay involved with your Spanish contacts to ensure that what has been agreed upon is actually implemented.