Working with People from Portugal

Written by Elaisa Telgt November 2013. Posted in Int. Skills, Working with people

Working with People from Portugal

The most common business structure in Portugal is vertically hierarchical, which means the person (CEO) at the top is the one with most authority. In middle-sized companies and very large firms, the family name and connections dominate the structure. More than in France, the CEO’s sons, nephews, cousins and close family friends will occupy the key positions.

Ricardo Rodrigues, professor at NOVA School of Business & Economics in Lisbon, has studied the organizational behavior in Portuguese companies. He believes it is typical of Portuguese employees for them to tell you who they are working for, in terms of who is their superior, rather than explaining what their job is actually about. This means you will not impress Portuguese people by actually explaining what your profession is. Even though the Portuguese employees respect their superiors, a Portuguese manager will avoid direct conflicts with staff members whenever possible. Yet when they do address them, their manners will be friendly, for they will take their subordinates’ personal problems into consideration.

Mr Jan-Willem van Schaijk, a senior manager at KPMG, one of the largest professional services companies in the world, is a Dutch expatriate who lives and works in Lisbon. He can be considered an expert in dealing with differences which he has encountered during his job experience of 12 years. During our interview he stated that it takes longer to execute tasks in Portugal, for bureaucracy is an unfortunate characteristic of that country. Declaring taxes in the Netherlands is an impeccable process, for it is clear when to fill in your tax return and when you will receive the assigned amount of money. Whereas, in Portugal, Mr van Shaijk and his expatriate partners were already convinced that it would take one to two years for their taxes to be arranged, for his Portuguese associate told him that it will take “some time”. Because of their experiences with dealing with the way Portuguese people work, they thought the definition of  “it will take some time” meant it would seriously take a lot of time, in terms of months or even years.

In order to get things done it is recommended to indicate the urgency of it. Mr van Schaijk learned that the hard way, for in the first week he started working and was asked to do an assignment and his assistant emphasised the urgency of it. Being a workaholic, he started working on it right away and spent a serious amount of time on it. He found out later that it was not that urgent at all and this is the Portuguese way to get work done.

Portuguese employees are not known for taking responsibility. If there is a case that has to be solved, a Portuguese worker would be more likely to tell a client that the case is being treated by a colleague rather than finding out what the case is about and answering the questions.  Mr Rodrigues of NOVA had several examples from which it can be concluded that a lot of employees mentioned a non-existing department that is dealing with a case. This lack of taking responsibility is found even in the biggest firms. At KMPG they implemented a system that solved this particular problem, for they numbered each case in order to have a complete overview of who is working on which case.  Even though KPMG has dealt with this problem, it is uncertain if other firms will follow in their footsteps. Moreover, Mr Rodrigues believes that the lack of taking responsibility is something that is well established in the norms and values of Portuguese culture and is not something that can be changed or dealt at a moment’s notice. The idea of taking responsibility for another's area of action is a relatively new concept. It is often said that the Portuguese are individualistic rather than co-operative in their approach and this does not go well with good teamwork.

In order to create a short cut for yourself and to get things done, a foundation of (good) personal relationships and mutual trust is needed. It is essential for the efficiency of your work. This will not be difficult, for the Portuguese begin the relationship assuming that trust exists between two parties. They communicate in a cheerful way, so it is relatively easy to establish a good ambience when working with them. Moreover, the way to address them is quite formal. “You” in Portugal can beO Senhor(A Senhora),tuorVocê,and these forms can be combined with either their first or second names or with titles such asProfessororEngenheiro.