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A Fond Adios: Contrasts in Spanish and American Worker Attitudes


Santa Maria Del Mar, Barcelona, December 2012

On my recent visit to Spain I wondered whether their economic crisis was experienced in a similar way as ours in the U.S.A. Do they brood, agonize, politicize and otherwise try to make short order of economic woes like a bad hair day or misbegotten business venture? Whereas we are more or less hard wired to believe “tomorrow is another day “and who knows what that might bring (we convert that to a positive with a sheer exuberance that has no bounds) the Spaniards, like their immovable mountains and enduring monolithic vestiges of the Romans, Visigoths and Moors, take an unblinking attitude that tomorrow will probably be much like today and one might eventually make a move if that is the propitious thing to do, but there is time to sort this all out.


For me, one of the great paradoxes of Spain is that while Spaniards may be anarchic in nature (never follow a rule if you can help it) it remains one of the most civil places on earth. Over the years, I have found the people to be undemonstrative but always generous in conduct. My reading has informed my deeper sense of their diverse cultural heritage and the weight of this complex history on their psyche. Our drive from Madrid to Cuenca to Valencia and back up to Barcelona by way of Tortosa, with a few day trips to outlying areas, gave me a chance to look into the eyes of many a working person in the service industry. As an HR and organization consultant, this glimpse of life interested me very much.


According to a few news articles we read while in Spain, the paradors, a national system of hotels, most of which are converted from historic sites such as monasteries, castles or palaces, and places in which we frequently stay, are in a state of disarray due to austerity measures. According to the reports, construction has stopped on new sites, a number are being closed and layoffs of many employees are imminent. I cast studied gazes on the staff as they communicated with us at our various stops. We engaged a few about the situation, but they were nonchalant and unrevealing. I thought I detected weariness, a stolid courtesy. Leaflets handed to us by a few labor protesters outside one of the paradors were informative, but even then, the interlopers were more apologetic than insistent when they asked us to stop. When we indicated we were Americans, they smiled brightly and bid us a fond adios!


If statistics and experts are correct, we are in a far better economic situation than Spain right now. Let’s just say, for the time being. The people there, as far as I could tell, are bearing up remarkably well, but I could not help but feel, everywhere I went, that people were working way below their potential. This is not so unlike our situation here, but something, is different. What is it?


I came back from this trip with a renewed sense of mission for my profession; with a need to punctuate the message that just as our larger lives require purpose, our work must resonate with an accompanying sense of moving forward, individually and collectively. If in fact, we Americans are hard wired with boundless optimism, we should not squander this, or let it blind us to the reality of the long road ahead. If our inherent gift, whether it be a by-product of our still relative young age as a nation, or something in the crafting of our polity, is that we believe in the possibility of living up to our potential, then indeed, the onus is on us, as managers, HR professionals, entrepreneurs, and leaders of every kind to make it happen for ourselves and in the lives of others.

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