Monday, April 07, 2008

My Article Review on "American Values in the French Workplace"

Perception of what constitutes the actions and behaviours of effective management in one country may not be perceived as effective in another country. This means that in domestic business environments, there is considerably less opportunity for ambiguity between subordinates’ perceptions of what constitutes effective management styles and actions. However, in global business era, misunderstanding subordinate perceptions is not only inevitable but also raises a new challenge to managers which can determine to overall company success. Managing people across two or more national cultures could be difficult for managers who are used to different cultural environments. In accordance to this issue, Claire Gouttefarde held a two years research to analyze French and American managers’ perceptions of difference in management styles.

Americans have a reputation abroad for ignorance and arrogance. One of the reasons is because they require other people to understand American culture rather than adapting to the culture of country where they work in. For example: Americans prefer their fellow French to speak English to them, rather than learning how to speak French. However, American expatriates working in France actually can avoid being victim of this negative opinion by accepting different culture and managerial styles that is adopted in French companies.

Firstly, it is important to understand the value system that is being applied in France. Power distance is one of the value systems that need to be understood. American expatriates should be aware of fairly high power distance that applies in France. French business people love formality to show rank. Managers often demand their subordinates to submit formal reports to them even if it’s not very necessary of having one. They also hold formal meetings frequently even though a decision had already been made before by the upper executives. In addition, French managers rarely have informal communication with their subordinates. The upper level managers prefer to communicate with their subordinates through middle managers. These middle managers will later communicate directly to the lower-ranking staff.

Furthermore, French managers gain satisfaction from accepting their staffs’ need for dependency since they have the autonomy. Autonomy is important in French working environment. Lower ranking staff will have less autonomy and hence become more dependent to their upper managers. Lower level manager would not have the authority of taking decision even for his own project. It is common to see a manager started a project and being told to pass the project before he is able to complete it.

In contrast, American managers tend to apply casual management style. They prefer informal form of communication rather than the formal one. It is common to see American managers having lunch and having informal conversations with their subordinates. They gain satisfaction by encouraging their staff to greater autonomy on the job or staff promotion. To display rank, American managers prefer to show material comfort as status symbols. They used tangible terms to prove their worthiness. In addition, American managers possess a competitive drive and prefer to make their-own decision rather than having the upper manager to make one for them.

Secondly, France’s high uncertainty avoidance can be seen in how French managers very much stress on details. They want to be kept better informed of every detail of operations. French managers also don’t easily trust newcomers. They need time to accept and trust newcomers. That’s why French manager often hesitate to demote or fire an employee. They believe that the longer a person stays in the company, the more trustworthy that person is. In addition, their need of having stable relationship with long-time members of the company introduces term of seniority, which means, the longer you stay in the company, the higher your position will be. French employees also respond in the same manner as they show their loyalty by working for a company for long period of time.

French managers often demand their staff to submit reports in order to be kept informed of the detail of staffs’ work progress. Showing that you have done something using written document is important for the French managers. They prefer having written proof rather than just an oral progress report. It also show how French managers love having office rituals which sometimes are not necessary. In addition, high uncertainty avoidance also can be seen in how French companies have so many rules in the organization.

On the contrary, American managers prefer non-ritual management style. They don’t like to have bunch of written documents or reports on their tables, except those that are necessary. They also don’t hesitate to demote or fire an employee whose work is not satisfactory, in order to gain efficiency. However, compared to French employees, American employees have less loyalty. They prefer to move from one company to another which can provide them with better material benefits.

Thirdly, French managers see the company or organization as a living organism, while American managers see the company as a machine. French managers act based on intuition and vision they have, while American managers act logically based on rational consideration. Since most of the decision in a French organization is made by top management who doesn’t know the limitation of its subordinates, it is more common to encounter impossible-to-implement decision. In carrying a task, American managers will tend to be analytical and prefer step-by-step approach. They reduce complex tasks to series of smaller ones and then define which task to be done first. In contrast, French managers like to do a complex task at once and do subtask randomly.

American expatriates working individually and do not want to involve in other colleagues’ task. Hence, French managers consider Americans as selfish people who don’t want to help others, while actually the American just don’t want to interfere colleagues’ prerogatives because they believe it as good manners.

The French believe that information is precious and should be disseminated only at the right time. Information should be kept confidential and distributed only to those who need it. In French company, certain department has certain responsibility for delivering information to members of the company. If they fail in carrying out the information delivery task, it will break the flow of information inside the company.

In communication, Americans tend to be low-context communicator, while the French prefer a more sophisticated style of communication. Thus, A French boss’ suggestion is in truth an order that should be done by the staff being suggested. The French requires their fellow Americans to be more sensitive in communication. On the contrary, the American will find it difficult since they are used to a straight-forward communication by saying things directly.

Finally, mutual respect and tolerance are needed in order to deal with all of these differences. It’s perhaps the best if both sides could adapt to each other’s culture. However, it is better for American expatriates to adapt to the French culture in order to improve working relation with the French. The following are several good advices:

  1. Be aware of French high power distance and recognize your direct superiors and subordinates
  2. Carefully analyze meeting. Remember that decision is always made by upper executives. Meetings are often only form of formality
  3. Try to capture real messages in what you’ve told. Don’t hesitate to ask the speaker if you still cannot get the message
  4. French staffs are flattered to be asked, so don’t hesitate to ask them for guidance
  5. Do not intrude on French colleagues’ private lives
  6. Greetings are sometimes important in building good relationship with your fellow French. Remember that it is hard for them to trust newcomers
  7. Discuss with your superiors before distributing information
  8. Try to build relationship by creating an atmosphere of trust and friendliness
  9. When you received a task, consult with those who had previously done the task before making decisions. Also, remember to informs others about the decision you make
  10. Respect formality and be aware that French employees are mostly loyal to their company
  11. Criticize considerably; don’t let it turn into a form of offence
  12. Learn how to speak French
  13. Analyze critics and try to capture positive message from them

In overall, international management practitioners need to understand how subordinate perceptions of what constitutes an effective manager differ across national or cultural context. That is, international managers need to understand how particular cultural systems shape the collective concerns and preferences about the way an effective, successful manager should to behave. The significance of such awareness is that it maybe argued in practice that the more a manager’s actions, directives, and behaviours are consistent with the cultural preferences of subordinates, the more subordinates will perceive the actions and attitudes of individual managers to be appropriate. It is further assumed that subordinates will be more committed to achieve the goals and directives of their superiors.

While the traditional concern of cross-cultural researchers like Geert Hofstede have been to understand the value characteristics and behavioural orientations that are distinctive to managers of different cultures, there is a need to go further. With the rise of international organisations, there is an urgent need to go beyond describing the link between the value and behavioural orientations that characterise cultures and examine closely the way subordinates from different cultural perspectives think about management as a process. After all, subordinates are the one who managers manage in their drive to achieve organisational success and efficiency. Thus, managers should also think in subordinates’ point of view before applying their management style.

By Antony Gumi, March 2008

Gouttefarde, C. (1996). American Values in the French Workplace. Business Horizons, 39 (2), 60-69

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