- ALREADY SUBSCRIBED?
Fill in your credentials below.
The case of Disney’s venture in France has proved, among other things, how challenging it is for American people to manage French employees. For some time, the level of dissatisfaction among cast members was relatively high and the consequences for the company’s financial performance, as well as the impact on the local population, were far from being negligible.
Some of the problems might be attributed to a culture clash at the national level. Other more subtle differences certainly hinder communication and affect employees’ morale at the individual and group level. A thorough sociocultural approach to France would certainly help avoid some of these sensitive issues and foster better professional relations between people of the two countries. Here are a few suggestions to begin with:
- Assess the cultural distance between France and the United States. Unlike many Anglo-Saxon cultures which value achievements, France is a country based on affiliation and relationships, where information flows freely and constantly between interconnected people. French employees do not always need as many details and instructions as Americans when performing a task or managing a project. Giving too much information might sometimes be considered an insult or a threat to French pride and intelligence.
- Examine ways French people relate to their work activity and the importance it carries when compared with encompassing notions of quality of life and well-being. The French cultural translation of work ethic is professional conscience. Expressed at the individual level, such a moral notion does not include any idea of work or job commitment which is almost impossible to translate into French cultural understanding.
- Always remember that French employees are very sensitive about the way they are being treated. Even the notion of job description might have a negative connotation in France and be synonymous with limitation of freedom and exploitation. This might be somewhat paradoxical when one knows that power is seldom shared with lower levels and empowerment practices are far from being the norm. Even though the business culture is not especially people oriented, French society highly values and nurtures its human fabric. This is an important point every foreign manager should learn to handle with tact and consideration.
- Appraise the power and relative importance of the three major forces that regulate the French business world: the state, the corporations and the employees/unions. France’s social structure is at odds with that of the United States and the French government has always played a dominant role in the shaping of the economy and the protection of the workers. This involves, for example, extensive labor laws and mandated social benefits like paid vacations and maternity leave.
- Study child-rearing practices. They will give you an in-depth understanding of French core values and personality formation. They will also explain why concepts of psychological growth and development are foreign to the French, especially when concerned with attributes or outcomes of work. Intrinsic rewards are seldom emphasized at work and American motivational practices such as employee of the month would be considered flattery or mockery by most French employees. Most important to the French is a feeling of blossoming and human enrichment.
- Never assume similarity of meaning between identical terms and grasp the cultural translation of a few important words and concepts. Neither a single word nor a concept exists in French to describe what Americans call privacy; yet privacy in France is far better protected and more valued than in the United States. Contextual possibilities of translation include freedom, private life, personal intimacy and, as illustrated by the Disneyland Paris case, individual liberty and dignity. It is of paramount importance for a foreign manager to experience the boundaries of French privacy in order to understand what is acceptable and what is not, especially in the work place. Important cultural differences also exist in terms of trust, assertiveness and commitment.
- Explore the French conception of leadership and understand how it connects to the business environment. The word leader is mostly used to qualify politicians and often bears a negative meaning, suggesting the notion of manipulation. Leadership in business is perceived as a logical extension of one’s personal qualities. It is an expected role closely related to family background, position or class, and complemented by educational training. Words such as chief or boss are commonly used to describe the equivalent of an American business leader.
As a final word, it might be useful to remember that the French dislike being classified or forced into a specific group. Rather, out of a natural tendency to contest, argue, or criticize, French employees might enjoy expressing their personal concerns at the expense of the group. When it comes to managing people, keep in mind that "Vive la différence!" is a cherished French motto and that France is a country where personal touch and relationships matter more than anything else. French management will never be considered a science, but rather an art or a state of mind.
Charles de Gaulle was acutely aware of the complexity of governing the French when he remarked: "How can you govern a country that has more than 365 kinds of cheese?"
Gilles Asselin is president and founder of SoCoCo Intercultural (http://www.sococo.com). His international business experience includes France, Africa and the United States. In addition to being a French Certified Public Accountant and audit manager, he spent three years in French-Speaking Africa, working with the French Peace Corps in Cameroon and then conducting an organizational development assignment in the Congo. In January of 1990, he took on a new academic adventure and moved to Wisconsin where he earned a Master’s Degree in Business Administration and a Master of Science Degree in Industrial Psychology. After completing his research project on the meaning and importance of work among French and American workers, Gilles Asselin opted for the field of intercultural communication. He specializes in business relations and Community Building (CB) and has since been designing and teaching training programs for employees of international companies and CB interventions for diverse groups or communities.