Essential Business

The empathy of management

 In Consultancy

A psychotherapist, counsellor and professional coach, Clara Pracana is the clinical director of the Lisbon Clinic of Psychotherapy and Counselling. A full member of the Portuguese Association for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and invited professor at the Instituto Superior Miguel Torga, she was the former CEO of Group Relations Nederland, CEO of Tottafactor SA and Tottaleasing SA. A published author, Clara worked as a psychotherapist at the psychiatric hospital Miguel Bombarda until its closure. She says that the old paternalistic management style of unquestioning obedience simply won’t wash with the millennials and that while Portugal has made advances in recognising and finding solutions to psychological issues in the workplace, there is still a long way to go. 

At the English-speaking Lisbon Clinic of Psychotherapy and Counselling (Lisbon CPC), one demand that is growing is executive and professional coaching.

Its clinical director, Clara Pracana, says that coaching is different yet linked to psychotherapy. Problems and conflicts that arise in the workplace may be down to misunderstandings or corporate or international cultural differences, which is why the focus of sessions is often conducted in English.

“Let’s say you have a problem with your boss or a conflict with your peers in the workplace, or you don’t know how to progress in your career; then coaching is more directed at a specific problem in the professional area,” the psychologist explains.

“Often clients come because of a problem with their boss, which is very common, and we discover that the issue is part of a repetitive pattern, often a difficulty with dealing with authority, which causes them to either react aggressively or shutdown,” she adds.

Coaching helps individuals to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses and decide on a course of action best suited to their professional goals.

“Clients may need a coach when they think their career needs a boost, have new responsibilities, find they are having trouble managing relationships at work, are having leadership difficulties, are not coping with stress, feel their job is in danger or are caught in the middle of a merger or acquisition where company cultures collide,” says Clara Pracana.

“What we do is provide an environment for focused conversations for individual growth, purposeful action and sustained improvement, but it’s not always easy to distinguish whether the problem is with the boss or the staff and often, as we dig further, it becomes apparent that the problems are caused by lack of understanding caused by different cultural mindsets.”

Clara Pracana points out that many foreigners, especially from Northern Europe, find it hard to understand why the Portuguese are often late, procrastinate on decisions or delay, cancel and keep rescheduling meetings.

“Portuguese managers are often very conservative and rigid, while employees are frightened to take initiatives or decisions, especially in medium- to small-size firms.  It’s not very professional or contemporary. It’s the style of the paternalistic boss, often involving the sons and the brothers and nephews, so it becomes very nepotistic regardless of the competence of the person to fulfil the job.”

The psychoanalyst says that many bosses shouldn’t be exercising their functions as they “don’t have the tools or know-how to manage people”.

According to needs, Lisbon CPC offers three types of coaching. Executive coaching, which develops fast-trackers and high-performing leaders. Often executives need an objective, a neutral sounding-board to discuss challenges, opportunities and perspectives. The coaching process allows executives and managers to step away from their day-to-day routine and effectively design a strategy on how to reach beyond where they are currently.

Professional development coaching, similar to executive coaching, is offered at all levels of an organisation, and career development coaching for individuals needing or wanting to move from their current position use their strengths, recognise their weaknesses and identify a suitable course of action.

Cultural differences

The Lisbon Clinic of Psychology and Counselling has had clients from the UK, US, Germany, New Zealand, Finland, Poland, Serbia, Sweden, Norway and South Africa who, for one reason or another, have had difficulties adapting to the Portuguese business culture.

And each different nationality interacting with the Portuguese culture, style and mindset presents its own set of challenges.

“Americans are often direct and brash, say what they think, and Portuguese colleagues can find that rude and bossy. I had a client married to a Portuguese man who had problems making friends and it turned out that she didn’t like giving “beijinhos” (the customary greeting with kisses on the cheek) and was written off as cold, distant and unfriendly. They even thought she was acting superior. Once she changed that mindset, things improved.”

Then there are the Finns and Nordics, who are very results-oriented, honest and no-nonsense. They complain about the time the Portuguese waste over trivia, the endless meetings and taking ages to get to the point and down to business.

One problem faced by foreign professionals working in Portugal and with Portuguese staff is what she terms the ‘fuzzy’ or unclear working boundaries and deadlines.

“The meetings when nobody arrives on time, when discussions go round and round in circles, and misunderstandings about what bosses want because they are not direct can all cause problems and stress which we help clients resolve.”

On the other hand, managers and directors, too, seek out the services of the Lisbon Clinic of Psychotherapy and Counselling.

“Sometimes it’s a personality and ego problem, but there are also many cultural issues – and these are huge – and one of the things we have to establish is what is cultural and what is personal and down to the individual,” she says.

Management experience

Clara Pracana says her experience setting up and managing a factoring and leasing subsidiary for the Portuguese bank Totta (now Banco Santander Totta) helped her to understand corporate culture and psychological scenarios within the workplace and interactions between senior management and their teams.

“To be a successful business coach, you need to have experience working for and managing large corporate entities as conflicts arise between department heads, staff and colleagues on a daily basis, and these need resolution,” she explains.

“When I arrived at Totta as a director, Totta had experienced a merger 20 years prior (Banco Totta  & Açores and Mundial Confiança and Banco Pinto & Sotto Mayor, later acquired by Santander from 1997).

“Twenty years later, the staff, who by then were in their 50s, still behaved and worked the way they did in the past. It took a whole generation to change the mindset among the older staff members. It was a huge drama, one that you couldn’t imagine in an American, British or German financial institution.”

Getting into psychology 

After years working in the Portuguese corporate financial sector, Clara Pracana came to the conclusion that economics and finances are not so difficult to understand. It’s people. “Finance, banking, marketing, business studies, management, you can learn them. But people? You don’t have a prescription or handbook for them. Why? Because everyone is different,” she explains, adding that in management and at a department level, “there really are some crazy people”.

“One unstable person can really infect the whole department, while certain bosses can often suffer from a lack of empathy. From one point of view, if you start thinking about everyone’s problems and are too empathetic, you’d never get anything done. So, sometimes cold, detached and even ruthless qualities are necessary for the overall good of the company, but times and ideas are changing and emotional intelligence is gaining the upper hand,” the psychologist explains.

Empathy and changing styles at work

Clara Pracana says that “emotional skills are very important” and that management styles today are not the same as they were 10 years ago. “I don’t think the manager with narcissistic personality disorder will do well in the next 20 years. The millennials generation is already demanding a management culture that recognises them for who they are, with emotional tools that are more open to innovation and creativity, emotional intelligence rather than just the numerical results demanded by a domineering boss.

“When I started out in the 1980s, there was bland authority, it was extremely hierarchical and male-dominated. Today, I think a good manager must persuade and cajole, inspire and encourage, instead of bullying and answering the question ‘why?’ with ‘because I’m the boss and I say so’. Today you have to captivate people and build trust, treat people with respect. It’s what I always tried to do throughout my career at the bank,” she concludes.


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