European J. International Management, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2012 265
Copyright © 2012 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
Between unity and diversity: historical and cultural
foundations of Brazilian management
Grenoble Ecole de Management,
12 Rue Pierre Semard,
38000 Grenoble, France
Insper Institute for Education and Research,
300 Rua Quatá, Moema,
São Paulo, SP 04546-042, Brazil
Abstract: The paper overviews key themes in Brazilian managerial styles,
discussing cultural practices documented in the literature. I argue that these
practices are organised around the theoretical axes of (a) unity versus
heterogeneity and (b) local versus global. After discussing these axes, the paper
explains their historical emergence on the basis of Brazilian relations with the
exterior, relations marked by heterogeneous interests and ethnic, geographical
and linguistic diversity. I argue that on the basis of this history, there developed
within Brazil a managerial style that combines a hierarchy-enhancing deference
to authority with a space for innovative creativity in order to buffer internal
ambiguities, a combination that seems counter-intuitive to traditional management
theories but is adaptive given Brazil’s unique historical context.
Keywords: culture; Brazil; Latin America; local management.
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Islam, G. (2012)
‘Between unity and diversity: historical and cultural foundations of
Brazilian management’, European J. International Management, Vol. 6, No. 3,
Biographical notes: Gazi Islam is Associate Professor of Business
Administration at Grenoble Ecole de Management and Insper Institute of
Education and Research, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses
in leadership and organisational behaviour, negotiations, and international
management. He completed his PhD in Organisational Behaviour at Tulane
University, where his research focused on organisational identity, voice, and
power relations. His current research interests include the organisational
antecedents and consequences of identity, and the relations between identity,
group dynamics and the production of group and organisational cultures. In
addition, he attempts to link identity and organisational culture to wider issues
of national culture, ideology, and civil society.
Over the past two decades, Brazil has increasingly established itself as one of the world’s
foremost emerging economies. As the 8th largest economy in the world and largest in
South America (World Bank, 2009), Brazil is among the world’s leading producers of
266 G. Islam
key commodities, as well as a pioneer in areas such as ethanol production and genetically
modified crops. As one of the members of the BRICS group of emerging economies
(O’Neil, 2001), Brazil is poised to become a major player in the 21st century. As a home
country of multinational corporations (MNCs), internationally recognised companies
such as Embraer, JBS-Friboi and AmBev are among the dominant forces in their
Despite the growing importance of Brazil as an economic power and a source for
international MNCs (e.g. Muritiba, 2012), very little work has been internationally
published, in comparison with other BRICS countries, with regards to the dynamics of
Brazilian management practices (e.g. Mesquita, 2008). Extant literature tends to focus on
specific sectors (e.g. Mesquita et al., 2007), and while large-scale international studies, such
as Hofstede (1980) and the GLOBE project (House et al., 2004) have included Brazil,
their generality has precluded an in-depth assessment of the unique contextual factors
that contribute to the formulation of contemporary Brazilian managerial perspectives.
At the same time, a wealth of literature in the social sciences has studied the
particular mix of historical, cultural, ethnic and political factors that constitute the
Brazilian way of life (e.g. DaMatta, 1991; Holanda, 1996). Although some of this work
has been integrated into the management literature (e.g. Amado and Brasil, 1991; Duarte,
2006), very little integration has been done to draw out the managerial implications of the
Brazilian social, cultural and historical context. Understanding these implications
becomes increasingly important with the growing integration of Brazil within the world
economy, both in terms of foreign investments in Brazil, and in terms of the growing
presence of Brazilian companies abroad.
The aim of the current paper is to give an overview of Brazilian managerial
tendencies in light of the country’s unique historical and cultural roots. I will argue that
Brazilian MNCs inherit many of their predominant tendencies from organisational
aspects of Brazilian bureaucratic structures, structures which developed early in Brazil’s
colonisation by the Portuguese, then were refined and changed through independence,
republicanism, crisis and democratic renewal. Rather than rely on typological
categorisations based on cross-cultural taxonomies (e.g. Hofstede, 1980), I will attempt
to trace the macro-level circumstances in which the current management of Brazilian
The argument of the paper unfolds as follows: First, I will give a brief overview of
broad themes in Brazilian managerial styles, introducing some key cultural practices well
documented in Brazilian managerial styles, such as the jeitinho or ‘little way’ (Barbosa,
1992), an interpersonal and improvisational style documented in Brazilian businesses
(Duarte, 2006), the gambiarra, or ‘creative fix’ (e.g. Amado and Brasil, 1991) and the
style of the homem cordial or ‘cordial man’ (Holanda, 1996). I will present Brazilian
managerial styles as centrally organised around two important conceptual axes, that of
unity versus heterogeneity, and that of local versus global.
Next, after introducing these key dimensions, I will attempt to explain the emergence
of these axes in terms of the historical legacy of Brazilian trade with the exterior.
Beginning with the early colonial period, Brazilian trade was marked by heterogeneous
interests, and organisations functioned in the midst of great ethnic, geographical, and
linguistic diversity (e.g. Alcadipani and Crubellate, 2003). Inheriting a highly formalised
regulatory system from the Portuguese (Amado and Brasil, 1991) and a dazzling
diversity of local constituencies owing to the geographical size and demographic
diversity of the country, this heterogeneity continued after independence, in the Imperial
Cultural foundations of Brazilian management 267
and Republican epochs. Throughout the 20th century, Brazil has vacillated from attempts
to centralise decision making and consolidate the regulatory environment of the country,
and to take advantage of the creative possibilities inherent in its variegated climate and
culture (e.g. Martins, 2000).
Third, the fundamental cultural practices mentioned above are then explained as ways
of negotiating these dual tendencies of formality and diversity. It is argued that such
developments lead to a complex Brazilian managerial style marked by both a high
deference to formal authority, and a tendency to creative improvisation and innovation, a
combination counter-intuitive to traditional managerial theories.
Finally, it is argued that this combination has allowed Brazilian MNCs to adopt
‘Northern’1 managerial practices without losing a sense of their own authenticity, because
of the self-consciously appropriative and recombinative nature of the Brazilian tradition.
This insight concludes the paper by suggesting how the Brazilian example provides an
interesting angle to the local-global debates prevalent in the globalisation literature (e.g.
Kearney, 1995). As a local culture that has from its inception reconfigured externally
originating political and social practices, Brazil’s most unique cultural expressions are
also its most borrowed. In a world marked by increasing cross-border interaction, such an
approach to cultural hybridity is both theoretically and practically useful.
2 Exploring Brazilian management
As a preliminary note, we may observe that within the global business administration
literature, analyses of Brazilian managerial styles are quite rare (e.g. Mesquita, 2008),
although Brazil has made important strides on the world stage (The Economist, 2009;
World Bank, 2009). The work that does exist often relies on etic (or universal), general
categorical schemes such as Hofstede’s dimensions (e.g. O’Keefe and O’Keefe, 2004), or
uses Brazilian businesses as samples for generalisable propositions, rather than examining
the particularistic characteristics of Brazilian firms (e.g. Mesquita et al., 2007). Similarly,
economically oriented work tends to use econometric indicators, rather than examining
the cultural, historical and symbolic aspects of Brazilian society (e.g. Griesse, 2007).
A nascent domestic literature discussing Brazilian MNCs has attempted to
characterise the growth in MNCs from Brazil, addressing important issues such as
organisational effects of Brazilian infrastructural, political, legislative and juridical
idiosyncracies (e.g. Borini et al., 2010). However, most such work takes the form of case
studies of Brazil’s success stories, such as Odebrecht, Petrobras, Embraer, or Natura
(Oliveira, 2007; Stal, 2010). In addition, these qualitative studies are most commonly
published in Portuguese for domestic audiences, and rarely appear in top international
journals. In addition, virtually nothing in terms of generalisable propositions about
Brazilian MNCs exists to date, possibly because of the newness of the international
emergence of Brazilian firms into the international limelight, as well as traditions of
Brazilian business scholarship which emphasise in depth interpretive approaches and
over large sample quantitative research (e.g. Vieira and Caldas, 2006).
While the incipient work described above attempts to characterise Brazilian ways of
setting up and operating MNCs at the firm level though case studies and company
narratives, little work in the behavioural and social sciences has as yet traced the
managerial and interpersonal styles that Brazilian managers exhibit, whether at home or
in international subsidiaries. Some important exceptions involve Duarte’s (2006) work on
268 G. Islam
the Brazilian jeitinho, a style of problem solving based on personalism and finding
creative ways to work around bureaucratic rules, and Lenartowics and Roth’s (2001)
work on Brazilian subcultures. Thus, it is argued, while such studies have included
Brazilian data, they have underplayed the historical specificity of the Brazilian
environment, and have missed opportunities to draw important lessons from this
increasingly important but neglected site. In particular, this paper introduces two key
dimensions along which Brazil can offer lessons, and which summarise areas of interest
to culture researchers, the homogeneity-heterogeneity axis and the global-local axis. The
former refers to the combination of centralising, authoritarian projects in Brazil alongside
its continued social and cultural diversity, while the latter refers to attempts to find an
‘authentic’ Brazilian style of organising while at the same time drawing heavily on
Northern traditions of managerial thought and practice.
2.1 Heterogeneity or unity?
As Brazilianists have long pointed out (e.g. DaMatta, 1984; DaMatta, 1995; Ribero,
1995), the particularity of Brazil does not reside in a historically homogeneous and deep-
rooted essence of the Brazilian people, but precisely in the lack of such a homogeneous
essence (e.g. DaMatta, 1995). The Brazilian population emerged out of a complex
miscegenation of Portuguese, African, and Indigenous populations at its inception
(Ribeiro, 1995). Later, waves of German, Italian, and Japanese immigration added
further cultural complexity to the Brazilian social environment (Meade, 2004).
Overlaid upon the ethnic diversity of the country are geographic and economic
variations that exacerbate differences and proliferate diversity in styles of living and
working. As the fifth largest country in the world (Meade, 2004), the continental
proportions of the country also contain a large diversity of climactic and geographical
differences, from the desertified Northeast region, to the dense Amazonian forest, to the
swampy Pantanal region. Economic differences between these regions are extreme, with
the majority of economic wealth concentrated in the industrial south (Angell, 2008). In
fact, although recent years have seen an increased focus on addressing inequality (e.g.
Bianchi and Braga, 2005), Brazil still displays one of the highest economic inequalities in
the world. Measure of economic inequality referred to as gini indicators, which measure
wealth concentration (on a scale of 0–1, with 1 being total concentration of wealth)
reached values over .60 in the 1990s, and are consistently over .50 (World Bank, 2008).
Given this geographic, cultural, racial and economic diversity, making sense of
Brazilian managerial behaviour is inherently challenging. Some existing work, for
example, has shown significant regional differences in work values across regions in
Brazil (Lenartowics and Roth, 2001). Lenartowics and Roth found significant differences
in work related values such as risk aversion and the importance for achievement across
regions in the south of Brazil (comparing Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Minas Gerais
regions). Such differences influenced performance across regions, even though the entire
sample was from the south of the country. A complete representation including Northern
and North-Eastern regions would surely further increase observed regional differences.
On the other hand, despite this diversity, many aspects of Brazil seem surprisingly
unified. For example, compared to countries with high demographic diversity (e.g.
India), the linguistic homogeneity of Brazil is notable. In addition, despite its relatively
greater levels of social inequality and crime in comparison with its neighbours, there has
Cultural foundations of Brazilian management 269
been relatively little social unrest or political revolution in Brazil (Gouveia et al., 2002).
Many of the essential features of Brazilian society remain rooted in its early institutions,
and one of the country’s mysteries is how it has remained so socially constant in the face
of so many social ills. In the words of DaMatta (1995, p.276):
“What is startling in the Brazilian case is not the existence of contradictions
and cynicism, but the enormous tolerance of the system. To understand this
tolerance would create the capacity to break through the duality and its web of
Indeed, some have argued that many daily Brazilian rituals are aimed at smoothing social
relations at the interpersonal level, while reinforcing hierarchical systems at the social
level (e.g. Barbosa, 1992; Hess, 1995). Thus while superficial accounts of Brazil might
view it though the Carnival lens of ‘anything goes’, the ritual enactment of diversity and
difference may mask deeper cultural currents that remain stable, including stable class
and social relations that are not affected by such rituals of diversity (DaMatta, 1995).
Many authors have similarly argued that underneath its apparent diversity, Brazil
does have a unified culture, although such unity might be difficult to pick up at the level
of cultural traits or characteristics. For example, DaMatta (1995) argues that Brazilian
(and other Latin American) cultures are more characterised by relational ties rather than
constituent characteristics, such that rather than study Brazilian culture though ‘values’, it
should be studied at the level of the ‘encounter’. This difference, according to the
analysis, emerges from the fact that Brazilian culture does not imagine itself as a ‘people’
with a single essence, but as the outcome of an ‘encounter’ between civilisations, and
thus emphasise flexibility with regards to the other, rather than the expression of internal
It may not be necessary to go beyond trait descriptions to find some level of unity in
Brazilian culture however; even at the level of traits, tendencies exist at the national level
(Hofstede, 1980; House et al., 2004). Although the study of Lenartowics and Roth (2001)
focused on regional differences, it also noted that such within group differences do not
exclude national traits, but rather complement them. O’keefe and O’keefe (2004), in
addition, used national-level indicator’s [Hofstede’s (1980) dimensions] to compare
Brazilian managers with their US counterparts. In this comparison, Brazil was relatively
collectivistic, with high power distance compared to the US Brazilian managers,
relatively lower levels of trait masculinity, and high uncertainty avoidance. Such trait
descriptions seem to fall in line with Hofstede’s (1980) own findings and are consistent
with more recent descriptions from the GLOBE leadership study (House et al., 2004).
Although such trait descriptions do not give a ‘thick’ view of culture (Geertz, 1973),
they do tend to corroborate, or at least are coherent with, qualitative descriptions of
Brazilian culture such as those of DaMatta (1984), Barbosa (1992), or others. For
example, the coexistence of a highly bureaucratised formal sector, marked by rigid
authority relations and a highly personalistic informal sector, meant to smooth over
interpersonal conflict, do seem consistent with a country scoring high on Hofstede’s
dimensions of power distance and femininity. Thus both quantitative, trait-based methods
and qualitative methods seem to be indicating some regular tendencies among Brazilian
managers underlying the seeming heterogeneity of the culture.
270 G. Islam
2.2 Local or global?
A second important dimension to consider when examining Brazilian managerial
behaviour is the global context in which such behaviour is acquired and tested. Just as it
cannot be assumed that managerial behaviour within one Brazilian locale can be
generalised to the country as a whole, it would also be myopic to attribute managerial
behaviour to a specifically Brazilian culture independent of the global context of
managerial norms and education. As in many Latin American countries (e.g. Ibarra-
Colado, 2006), managerial expertise often draws on US or European business norms as
benchmarks, adopting managerial practices from the North which may or may not align
with the home culture. In the Brazilian case, many scholars have noted the heavy
borrowing of Northern managerial techniques as models in their own productive
endeavours (Caldas and Wood, 1997; Wood and Caldas, 1998; Wood and Caldas, 2002).
In addition, Brazilian business education originated in, and has remained, heavily tied to
Northern models, with the public education system drawn from European influences, and
private education linked directly to US support and investment (e.g. Fischer, 1984).
Textbooks are often translations of texts used in the USA, and are often distributed
through international subsidiaries of US publishing houses. Although a thriving Brazilian
business literature exists, its methods and theory are often drawn from Northern models
(e.g. Carrieri and Rodrigues, 2001). In this context, it would be difficult to directly draw
consequences about national culture from observing managerial knowledge and practices,
since such knowledge and practices are often the result of complex negotiations between
cultures, and appropriations of foreign practices, rather than simple expressions of the
At the same time, some have noted that the spread of originally Northern social and
cultural institutions is not a process of homogenous adoption, but rather an adaptation of
those very institutions to fit with pre-existing local ways of life (Sahlins, 1994). In this
view, cultures select and reject elements of managerial practices based on the extent to
which such practices can be made intelligible to local actors, and can be used to reinforce
pre-existing power relations. As mixture occurs, new forms of intelligibility and new
power relations may arise, demonstrating not conformity to foreign influences, but
expressing hybrid cultures that are marked by unpredictable remixes of local and foreign
features (e.g. Chu and Wood, 2008)
Such an insight is relevant to the ‘styles’ of capitalism literature (e.g. Dunphy, 1987;
Hall and Soskice, 2001), which argues that countries within the global economy adapt
culture-specific ways of adapting to markets, and that local cultures resist homogenisation
and by their creative adaptation of capitalist institutions, they put a local stamp on these
institutions (Hall and Soskice, 2001). Thus, rather than studying how emerging nations
are similar or different from the traditionally studied business cultures of the USA and
Europe, scholars should focus on the unique ways in which those nations creatively
appropriate and modify those cultures in a local context.
In the Brazilian case, such an examination of creative appropriation is particularly
interesting, because as discussed above, notions of ‘encounter’ and ‘mixture’ are central
to the Brazilian ethos (DaMatta, 1995). As Mignolo (2001) observes with regards to
Latin American nations, the role of European culture was more radically constitutive of
national identity than it was in other regions of the world. This point is particularly true
for Brazil, whose indigenous peoples (as opposed to Mexico, Bolivia, or Peru, for
example) were less organised in terms of imperial structures than in other regions of the
Cultural foundations of Brazilian management 271
continent, and which was itself for a short time the seat of the Portuguese empire. The
current borders in Latin America were almost entirely dependent on the Iberian
administrative structure, and thus the reigning forms of governance became strongly
imprinted on Latin American nations. As in other Latin American countries, the
European cultural matrix also became a strong locus for Brazilian self-identity, and
remains so to this day (e.g. Ribeiro, 1995).
In this context, it makes little sense to ask whether Brazilian borrowings of foreign
managerial practices are ‘authentic’ representations of Brazilian culture, when Brazilian
culture is fundamentally based on notions of mixture and borrowing. Indeed, the
perspective of DaMatta described above seems to imply that the very notion of an
‘authentic’ essence goes against the grain of Brazilian self-perceptions, which focus on
encounter and negotiation between ways of life. Along this line, it is important to note
Wood and Caldas’ (2002) warning not to read foreign borrowings at face value. According
to them, such borrowings take on different meanings when they are implemented in
Brazilian firms, and take on different social functions in Brazil than they would in their
countries of origin. For example, Caldas and Wood (1997) point out instances where
managerial practices are adopted for their symbolic rather than their instrumental value.
Such practices, such as ISO certifications or other best practices, may be adopted ‘for the
English to see’, to use a popular Brazilian saying. That is, the adoption of foreign
practices confers institutional legitimacy to managers who use them, and gives the
impression that the firm is up to date with the state of the art in global industry.
Having summarised briefly two important general topic dimensions in which the
Brazilian case can prove illuminating, it remains to specify the micro-level practices in
which these aspects of Brazilian culture are instantiated within the world of work. As
Amado and Brasil (1991) point out, such practices can serve as ‘hermeneutic keys’ which
reflect deeper truths about the social organisation of the workplace. Following their
approach, to ‘unlock’ the social significance of such behaviours, we must first understand
the historical background against which they develop, in order to see how specific
practices arose as adaptations to the formal and informal structures within Brazil. It is to
this background that I now turn.
3 Brazilian management in historical perspective
Many theorists have noted that individuals act largely based on internalised schema that,
upon analysis, reveal underlying social and historical structures, although the existence of
these structures may not be overly represented in the actors consciousness (e.g. Schein,
1980; DiMaggio, 1997). Lubatkin et al. (2005), for example, analyse corporate
governance behaviours as rooted in the institutional development of a country, and use
such historical differences to explain cross-cultural variation between the USA, France,
and Sweden. Such historical-institutional differences, which Lubatkin et al. term ‘level 1’
institutions, do not negate the importance of different value systems and cultural attitudes
[as, for example, in Hofstede (1980), or the Globe Project (House et al., 2004)], but
rather complement such approaches by treating value differences as symptoms of
systemic differences in historical-institutional frameworks across countries (see also
272 G. Islam
North, 1990). Following this approach, I will attempt to explore aspects of the ‘level 1’
context in Brazil that may shed light on the ways in which Brazilian managers deal with
challenges in the workplace.
First, it is important to note the importance of the colonial legacy among thinkers of
Brazilian national and organisational culture (Amado and Brasil, 1991; Ribeiro, 1995;
Freitas, 1997). Specifically, the fact of Portuguese colonialism, as opposed to British or
French, weighs heavily on these analyses (Freitas, 1997). As a coastal country on the
periphery of Europe, subjected itself to centuries of Moorish occupation, Portugal already
represented a complex mix of different cultures, particularly those of Africa, an aspect
which some see as important for establishing its colonial tendencies toward mixture and
the subsequent Brazilian eschewal of ‘essential’, intrinsic, or racial identities (Freire,
1966; Amado and Brasil, 1991; Freitas, 1997).
Institutionally, Portugal was faced with the dilemma of being a small and distant
country attempting to control a large expanse of territory with a small colonial
population. It managed this difficulty by dividing up and allocating vast territories to
donatorios, or land holders (Meade, 2004), whose holdings gave them interests in
managing and controlling the territory. This privileged group of colonial landholders was
referred to as the estamento, a term of social segmentation that sits somewhere between
notions of class, caste, and bureaucracy (Faoro, 1958). Estamentos differ from castes
because they are not couched within religious or cosmological conceptions; in fact, many
of the early Brazilian landholders were openly opposed by the Church (Meade, 2004).
The concept differs from class, in that it is not purely an economic stratification, but is
based on the political establishment of social hierarchies (Faoro, 1958; Amado and
Brasil, 1991). Although political, however, estamentos differ from bureaucracies in that
they were not based in a rationalistic concept of legitimate authority (e.g. Weber, 1958),
but rather on the discretion of the Portuguese court. Rather than being founded on
universalistic conceptions of citizenship, these structures resisted the consolidation of
citizenship within the territory (Carvalho, 1987), and threatened to import a type of
colonial order that resembled European feudalism (Meade, 2004).
The imposition of a strict legal order on the colony, coupled with the effective
difficulty in enforcing such an order, led to an interesting situation whereby actors
searched for creative ways of subtly subverting formal structures (Rosenn, 1971; Ramos,
1983). According to some (e.g. Amado and Brasil, 1991), Brazilian administrative
behaviour owes many of its current aspects to this behavioural adaptation. Secondary
mediators arose in order to bridge the immense gap between law and civil society,
leading to a flexible view of social regulations based on personalistic relationships and
case by case exigencies. In the words of Campos (1966, p.29, in Amado and Brasil,
1991) such mediators:
“…patch up the gap between the law and the fact, making possible the
impossible, legal the illegal, and fair the unfair. They grant flexibility to a
formal and rigid law with excessive logical strictures”.
Thus, rather than taking an overly legalistic view of such flexible arrangements as
elements of corruption, once seen in their socio-historical context, they come to appear as
ways to make possible an unworkable system. That such opportunities to use flexibility
benefit the powerful and those with dense social connections goes without saying, but
such spaces also may provide a buffer between formal structures created undemocratically,
and the people who would be otherwise be subject to such structures (e.g. Barbosa, 1992;
Cultural foundations of Brazilian management 273
Duarte, 2006). Such adaptive behaviours also may explain the common finding that
Brazilians tend to place high importance on social relationship and personalistic ties (e.g.
Bertero, 1980; Prates and Barros, 1997).
The circumstances surrounding the unique passage of Brazil from colony to
independent state, rather than overturning these older aspects of the society, worked to
consolidate them in a new national aristocracy. Threatened by the Napoleonic conquests
of the early 19th century, the Portuguese royal family moved the governmental
administration to Rio de Janeiro, effectively transforming Brazil into the seat of the
Portuguese empire. Upon its return to Portugal, the Portuguese king, Joao VI, urged his
son, Don Pedro, to return to Portugal, but the latter refused, declaring himself emperor of
the new Brazilian state. Although this act was disobedient, it had none of the republican
fervour and revolutionary violence of the Bolivarian movement that liberated the rest of
South America. Brazil would not become a republic until the end of the century, and the
new ruler was the son of the Portuguese king. Under these conditions, the prevailing social
structure was under little pressure to democratise. In fact, the most fervent opponents of
the move were the native merchants who saw, under the new empire, the ascendance of
the Portuguese born aristocracy to top administrative positions in the new state (Meade,
2004). Effectively, the new state had internalised the colonial administrative structure
and heavily top down and authoritarian system, a structure which many Brazilian
administrators have seen in national business organisations (e.g. Spink, 1997).
Over the 19th century, Brazil maintained a dependent role on outside merchants, in
particular the British, to market its growing commodity exports, first cotton, then later,
coffee (Lobo, 1978). Over half the Brazilian coffee trade at one point was controlled by
British intermediaries, who then pushed for their increased role in the development of
internal infrastructure products over local competitors, thus inhibiting a locally emergent
capitalist class (Albert, 1988). Thus early industrial developments in Brazil were already
subject to exposure to British ideas about economic organisation and trade, with elite
Brazilians acting as intermediaries. According to some scholars (e.g. Caldas, 1997), 19th
century Brazilian culture was heavily influenced by British social and industrial norms.
The Brazilian ambivalence with regards to the local versus global roots of managerial
practice should be seen in the light of this intermediary role at the inception of Brazilian
It may be noted that the earlier point made about the imposition of imperial
administrative structures on a diverse population speaks to the first conceptual axis
mentioned above, that of unity versus plurality. The breach between coexisting formal
and informal ways of life may be seen as an attempt to preserve diversity in the face of a
formal system that stressed absolute authority. The latter point, however, regarding
industrialisation via internal versus external sources speaks to the local versus global
dimension regarding the sources of managerial practices. Both of these dimensions
become central to understanding these practices as they developed in the Republican era
of Brazil around the turn of the 20th century.
The initial Brazilian Republic was formed in 1889 not from a democratic uprising,
but from a military takeover. However, discontent with rule from a distant capital and the
need to take into account diverse stakeholders led to a constitution which was essentially
a compromise between authoritarian and liberal views (Meade, 2004). However, because
of restrictive policies such as literacy tests, only a small minority of citizens were able to
realistically participate in the formal public sphere (Bethell, 2000). Thus, the stark
274 G. Islam
distinction between private and public spheres continued. Rather than a slow but
progressive move toward democratisation, throughout the 20th century, Brazil cycled in
between more democratic and more authoritarian regimes (e.g. Segrillo, 2005).
This period was marked by an ideological quandary as to the development of a
national identity. Some scholars have described Brazil as having ‘muddled references’
(Martins, 2000); while intellectuals and leaders searched for distinctive essential features
of the Brazilian ‘people’, the very notion of essentialism and nation that underlay this
search was imported from nationalistic philosophies imported from abroad (Martins,
2000). In a telling example, the modernist ‘anthropophagic’ movement of the 1920s
(Andrade, 1972; Andrade, 1990) rejected European rationalism and civilisation in favour
of a sensual, tropical conception of Brazil emphasising its African and Indigenous roots;
yet works of this period were heavily influenced by French surrealism, psychoanalysis,
and other European ideas (Rolnick, 1998). More recently, Brazilian organisational
scholars have applied this idea to organisations, positing ‘anthropophagic organisation’
as a characteristic of Brazilian firms which both draw on foreign know-how and
reconfigure and remix this know-how in unexpected ways unique to the local setting
(Wood and Caldas, 1998; Wood and Caldas, 2002).
This sketch of the Brazilian historical backdrop, although very brief, can allow us to
make sense of certain behaviours typical in contemporary organisational life. To
summarise, key themes include the wide space between formal and informal social
structures, the struggle to survive within a dense and unresponsive bureaucracy though
personal ties, the preservation of social hierarchy alongside the cyclical attempts at
democratisation and participation, and the ambivalent views of foreign influences vis-à-
vis national culture. We now turn to how these themes become represented in cultural
tendencies, values and practices in Brazil.
4 Unpacking some aspects of managerial practice
4.1 The individual and the person
As described above, the wide gap between formal and informal systems in Brazil created
practical difficulties for administrators. In his institutional analysis of Brazil, Rosenn
(1971) wondered how the administrative bureaucracy, with its top-heavy regulations,
managed to function at all. This practical difficulty gave rise to adaptive behaviours on
the part of social actors. Perhaps the most well known analysis of how these structures
became internalised in the minds of social actors was given by DaMatta (1991), in his
distinction between the individual and the person in Brazilian culture. Individuality,
according to DaMatta, refers to the formal conception of the person under the law.
Individuals are equal and anonymous under the law, and are regulated by bureaucratic
rules. Personhood, on the other hand, refers to the socially embedded actor, with a unique
personality, necessities, and set of social relationships. The formal-informal gap becomes
subjectively experienced as a gap between individuality and personhood.
In a well-known example, DaMatta (1991) describes a common encounter between a
traffic policeman, representing the universality of the legal code, and a driver who is
caught breaking the law. When asked for his papers, the driver responds “Do you know
who you are talking to?” Rather than simple deviance, this response transfers the driver
from the domain of generalised legal subjectivity to the domain of personhood, complicating
Cultural foundations of Brazilian management 275
the application of the law by the threat of informal personalistic repercussions for the
policeman. The credibility of this threat can short-circuit the application of rules, and the
driver remains free as a ‘person’, not being caught up into the realm of ‘individual’.
This analysis is important when placed against the context of US legal perspectives,
in which rules are often viewed as guarantors of individual rights (e.g. Primus, 1999).
Rather than an ideal to be reached, DaMatta describes individuality as a state of
anonymity and danger to be avoided. In this context, actors will be more likely to use
bureaucratic rules to block, rather than enable, action (for a discussion of coercive versus
enabling functions of rules, see Adler and Borys, 1996).
This inversion of the functions of institutionalisation can have paradoxical
consequences. Following Prates and Barros (1997), resolving organisational problems
such as corruption by tightening regulation can paradoxically augment the tendency
toward informality, where actors rely more heavily on social relations in the face of an
unrelenting administration. Alternatively, de-institutionalisation can paradoxically erode
social bonds formed in response to formal rules. In a striking historical case, Joaquim
Nabuco, one of the key proponents for the abolition of slavery in Brazil, once wrote that
his missed the former slaves (Nabuco, 1949, p.231). Clearly, he was not referring to the
institution of slavery, but of the personal patrocinial and affective bonds between slave
and master than had become replaced by formalistic ties characterising industrial free
labour. As Holanda (1996) describes, these informal ties become embodied in the figure
of the homem cordial, or cordial man, a gentle and accommodating yet paternalistic
figure who at once is a social enabler and defender of hierarchy.
While deeply rooted in the agrarian historical foundations of Brazil, some organisational
scholars of Brazil (e.g. Freitas, 1997; Duarte, 2006) argue that this mix of formal regulation
and informal social enabling remains central in contemporary Brazilian organisations.
Freitas (1997) suggests that in many ways, the contemporary organisational boss re-enacts
the role of the master of the manor, trading personal loyalty for extra-bureaucratic
favours. Thus Brazilian organisations may be considered to embody a ‘double system’,
whereby interpersonal outcomes may differ greatly depending on the register in which
they are being enacted.
4.2 Rituals of inversion and impermanence
An intuitive difficulty in such a double system is how to transition back and forth
between formal and informal levels within the administrative system. Where symbolic
organisational transitions are common, organisations tend to mark such transitions
though ritual, ceremony, or other cultural forms (e.g. Trice and Beyer, 1984). Accordingly,
DaMatta (1995) specifies three central types of ritual in Brazil: Civic rites, that reinforce
and legitimate status quo formal structures, other worldly rituals that transcend and give
respite from daily social struggles, and rituals of inversion, such as Carnival, which allow
informal norms and personal desires to be enacted temporarily on the public stage in
order to ‘let off steam’ and prevent social fragmentation.
With regards to navigating between the formal and informal, rituals of inversion can
shed some light on how such navigations are achieved. These rituals, while inverting
organisational norms, must not overtly challenge the social structure, remaining transitory
276 G. Islam
Perhaps the most famous of these rituals is the common quotidian ritual of the
jeitinho, or ‘little way’ (e.g. Barbosa, 1992; Duarte, 2006). Duarte (2006), surveying the
various treatments of the jeitinho, finds it diversely described as a ‘para-legal institution’
(Campos, 1966), an ‘institutional by-pass’ (Rosenn, 1971), a ‘way of being’ (Torres,
1983), a source of empowerment (Abreu et al., 1982) and a form of ‘social navigation’
(DaMatta, 1984). Consistent with all of these conceptions, my characterisation of the
jeitinho as a ritual of inversion highlights its role in switching back and forth from
individualistic to personalistic social spheres.
The jetinho is essentially the use of personalistic ties to temporarily bypass formal
rules, for example, by giving informal IOUs when funds are unavailable or by moving to
the front of the line because of personal connections, for example. It is based on personal
niceness or simpatia (Barbosa, 1992), because people know that formal systems often
produce inefficient results and are prepared to make exceptions, leading to a cordial and
informal social style (Holanda, 1996). In addition, offering someone a jeitinho may be
part of a generalised exchange mechanism, whereby one would expect that, when the
need arises, members of the community would be willing to bend the rules for one’s own
sake (Barbosa, 1992; Duarte, 2006). Thus, the administrative order is temporarily
inverted in order to consolidate the interpersonal order.
Key to the functioning of this inversion is the diminuitive ‘inho’ part of the jeitinho.
The favour is to be small, subtle, and temporary, and should not overtly criticise the
formal order, but rather, by promoting harmony at the interpersonal and functional level,
actually reinforces the hierarchical order by diffusing social discontent (Barbosa, 1995).
The jeitinho presupposes a static and unchangeable order; otherwise, why not try to
change the rules? The personalistic space consolidates the formal, and vice versa.
A second behavioural artefact is the gambiarra, or quick improvisational fix, which
has received less scholarly attention than the jeitinho but is similar in its origins and
aspects (Boufleur, 2006). Examples of gambiarras at work would be gluing together a
worn out piece of equipment rather than ordering a new one, or scribbling a name on a
guest list rather than typing it in the system. The gambiarra represents flexibility and
improvisation, but also a hesitation to work within the established rules. Gambiarras are
generally meant to be tentative, make-do solutions until future formal solutions are
found, although it may be questionable to what extent these future solutions actually
occur (Amado and Brasil, 1991). Interestingly, while in Brazil gambiarra refers to an
improvised solution, in Portugal the term refers to a light extension, used to illuminate
hidden areas. The parallel will not be elaborated here, but is worth contemplating.
Both the jeitinho and the gambiarra have in common the transitory and short-term
nature of their application; although often repeated, they are not meant to promote long-
term change but occur in the immediate time perspective horizon. This aspect fits nicely
with the small existing empirical literature on time perception in Brazil. For example,
Levine et al. (1980) found that, compared with the USA, Brazilian tended to have more
flexible definitions of timeliness, reported time in more general terms (e.g. five o’clock
versus two minutes past five), were less likely to attribute lateness to personal failure,
and were less likely to hold negative judgements of people who arrive late to
appointments. On a more theoretical level, DaMatta (in Amado and Brasil, 1991) posits
that the individual-person distinction translates into a time division among Brazilians,
whereby formal time, like that of the USA, is linear and progressive, whereas personal
time or time at home is cyclical; at work, Brazilians tend to vacillate between the two
forms of time through daily rituals such as coffee breaks (cafezinhos, note again the
‘inho’), an important part of organisational life (Amado and Brasil, 1991).
Cultural foundations of Brazilian management 277
4.3 The national and the foreign
As mentioned above, the figure of the foreign has played an important role in the
construction of a Brazilian self-image (e.g. Caldas, 1997; Motta et al., 2001). In many
ways, the distinction national-foreign may be overlaid upon the informal-formal
dimension, since many of the formal structures used in contemporary organisations are
foreign in origin (Caldas, 1997; Wood and Caldas, 2002). Rather than simply originating
abroad, some have argued that these systems helped to construct an image of Brazil that
was outside of its reality, and that everyday actors struggled to conform to (Caldas, 1997;
Motta et al., 2001), further distancing the formal from the informal.
The sense of the superiority of the foreign was reinforced through the educational
system (Fischer, 1984), and the national academic production (Sento-Se, 2005).
According to Sento-Se, a driving question in the Brazilian social sciences has been ‘What
do we lack to become modern’ (Sento-Se, 2005, p.16). Studies on the lack of education
(the first universities in Brazil emerged much later than in the rest of the continent)
reinforced this tendency. Many corporations send expatriates abroad in order to be
socialised in business norms from the USA and Europe, as a condition for success in
Brazil (Caldas and Wood, 1997). More recently, Brazilian elites have viewed modernity
as fundamentally a post-national phenomenon, seeing development as essentially
externally driven, rather than a national project (Sento-Se, 2005). Wood (1997) argues
that Brazilian culture, from its colonial past, searches for a guide, a populist and paternal
streak that predisposes the culture to authoritarian leadership.
However, as in the formal-informal dimension, things are more complex than simply
an idealisation of the North. As Caldas and Wood (1997) argue, Brazilian firms seek and
adopt Northern administrative systems and technologies less in the logic of instrumental
rationality, but as a symbolic status and legitimacy marker. These authors warn that
organisational analyses in Brazil often go awry because they take at face value the
convergence of Brazilian firms with those of the rest of the world, taking the façade for
the reality. Rather, it is argued, Northern administrative techniques take their place
among the canons and structures that make up the formal discourses of administration.
Underneath, however, these techniques are rewired and remixed (according to the logic
of gambiarra) to meet the diversity of organisational peculiarities that characterise the
Brazilian reality. Wood and Caldas (2002, 1998) term this process ‘organisational
anthropophagy’, an echo back to the modernist movement described earlier in this paper,
and ultimately, an illusion to the original encounter of the Portuguese with the indigenous
people of Brazil.
Beyond an interesting and piquant metaphor for intercultural appropriation and
dialogue, the notion of anthropophagy constitutes an interesting social theoretic concept
that Brazil can offer to the general study of organisational behaviour. In fact,
athnropophagy has been described as one of the most interesting and original theoretical
concepts to come out of Latin America more generally (Viveiros de Castro, in Cocco,
2009). This is because, in an age of increasing multicultural mixture and self-conscious
identity, anthropophagy becomes a middle road between the extremes of cultural
essentialism and isolation and cultural assimilation and homogeneity. As some have
suggested (e.g. DaMatta, 1995), the Brazilian approach to multicultural relations may
give Northern countries a glimpse of their future, and offer a solution to the problem of
living together in a multicultural world.
278 G. Islam
In this paper, I have outlined some of the cultural foundations of Brazilian administrative
behaviour, attempting to move beyond essentialistic trait approaches by describing
behavioural aspects as adaptive within a social and historical context. It is hoped that
such a foray can add idiographic density to the important nomothetic work done in cross-
cultural psychology and organisational behaviour, and serve as one more piece to the
‘Brazilian Puzzle’ (Hess and DaMatta, 1995).
More work needs to be done, both conceptually and empirically, to attempt to draw
parallels and distinctions between Brazil and other emerging economies which may
exhibit similar managerial phenomena. For example, I have discussed the jeitinho as a
particularly Brazilian way of problem solving using interpersonal connections and
avoiding formal rules. However, Duarte (2006) points out that many other scholars have
cited other countries’ equivalents of such behaviours, for example the vizyatha in Russia,
and speed money in India or the backsheesh in Egypt (Cavalcanti, 1991), among several
other examples offered by Duarte (2006). Thus, issues of flexibility between the formal
and informal may be a more general aspect of emerging economies. Duarte (2006) argues
that the jeitinho is unique in that it has reached the status of a social norm expected of all,
rather than a taboo and corrupt practice. Such subtle distinctions require careful case by
case analysis and comparisons between countries.
Thus, as was suggested in several places, the exposition above should be of interest
not only to the Brazilianist scholars or managers working with Brazilians. Rather, the
Brazilian context, as one marked by post-colonial dilemmas such as highly concentrated
urban development and high social inequality, multicultural negotiations, and tensions
between a dynamic and flexible informal environment and a rigid formal system, exhibits
features key to understanding the contemporary global environment, even where Brazil
differs in the ways it approaches the environment. If, as DaMatta (1995) suggests, Brazil
can serve as a mirror to the North, then theorising about Brazil becomes especially
urgent. This paper has attempted to demonstrate paths that may be followed in future
research projects. Similarly to Brazil itself, uncertainly combines with high expectations
in seeing such future projects come to fruition.
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1 I use the term ‘Northern’ to describe managerial techniques and knowledge imported
generally from the USA or Europe, in the sense that some authors describe ‘Western’ or
‘Modern’ economic institutions. Although the term is not essentially a geographic but rather a
societal marker, I use the term ‘Northern’ because (a) terms of economic status such as
‘Modern’ or ‘Developed’ may connote superiority and (b) terms such as ‘Western’ would be
geographically inaccurate in the case of Brazil. Thus, ‘Northern’ is used for heuristic value