Unlearn everything they taught you at business school if you plan to be a manager in France, Michael Johnson advises.
Working inside a foreign culture is one of the great and growing opportunities of our time. The single market and the global economy are driving up demand for internationalists willing to relocate abroad. For the adventurous, adaptable manager, working overseas inside a local company brings personal satisfaction of a far higher order than the familiar surroundings of home. I often think how fortunate I was to escape my rural origins - where I might have ended up selling tractors and fertiliser to the local farmers.
Language study opened new worlds. But along with the personal enrichment of working abroad come some tough lessons. Resistance to change is hardening as companies - and governments - see the pace of economic integration trying to quicken. Imported management ideas can collide with deeply programmed ways of thinking and behaving. Often there are no rights and wrongs, just differences.
With hindsight, it was naive of me to think that French work practices could rapidly be transformed just by my imposing my favourite methods from London and New York. The French, after all, are rather happy to be French. As if to make this screamingly clear, they operate inside multiple barriers to change - most of them invisible to the outsider. Nowhere are these barriers more frustrating than for a foreign manager attempting to motivate and administer by using imported procedures.
To supervise people successfully in France, as I did at CEP Publications, a leading Paris publisher, I found that it was best to start by accepting the unpleasant reality of management-labour polarisation. In a wide variety of companies, especially those only beginning to enter the international arena, there is no point in fighting this basic truth. Try consensus management, try quality circles, even try acting like a human being. You will be tripped up at every turn.
To work effectively in France the foreigner is obliged to unlearn people management methods and to re-learn new ones, to sharpen office politics skills, to re-think business ethics and to set aside any hope of creating a team effort. The French business environment is everything they didn't teach you at business school. The French, in fact, are among the world's least exportable people. They freely admit that they prefer to stay at home, where they have everything they will ever need. The depth of national pride is admirable, even among the young. A 30-year old colleague returning from a one-week trip to Washington told me, "I am so happy to be back in beautiful France. After seeing America I know how much I love my country." He was still quaking from his encounter with a panhandler who grabbed his sleeve and said: "Gimme your change." In Paris the panhandlers haven't yet started grabbing sleeves.
The bygone era of French national grandeur is still very much in the minds of young and old. The school system dwells on the glorious past, and institutions seem frozen in time. A French colleague summed it up for me in a sweeping generalisation tinged with Gallic irony: "Les Francais sont tres imbus d'eux-memes, et a juste titre." ("We French are very full of ourselves, and justifiably so.") An air of mistrust blocks any attempt at candid, open-minded communication between levels of the hierarchy. The French seem to relish this constant tension. Across the barricades, workers will tell you with some pride that they can't help it - they have revolution in their genes. The events of 1789 are often trotted out as justification for various forms of contentious conduct. Whether feudal, military or revolutionary in origin, the result is the same: workers are scorned by the men in authority, and authority is feared by the workers.
The conflict is sometimes open, sometimes clandestine. I was witness to the clandestine variety at first. My office was burgled twice by employees within two months, and my computer memory tampered with. Not everything was erased, only my file of 500 addresses and telephone numbers - 20 years of contacts. I took it as a first salvo, and prepared myself for worse.
Outside France, in most modern companies today, it is accepted that a central pillar of people management is the interplay of productive relationships up and down the pyramid. What more could employees want from a manager than open, positive other human relations? "Straight-shooter" is the highest compliment an employee can pay his boss in Britain and the United States. Open-plan offices are commonplace in modern companies. Top managers make themselves available to all levels of the company. A managerial attitude of "giving" - in the broad sense - normally provokes a "give" response in return. Managers with a good human touch are usually effective, respected and well liked. Toughness obviously comes into play when necessary, but a work atmosphere of positive collaboration is appreciated by well-intentioned workers.
In France it is not that simple. Employees and managers have problems giving. Both sides tend to take, and with a vengeance. The unwary foreigner who is too generous with his time, his understanding or his openness will only confuse his subordinates. Chances are, they have not seen such behaviour in an authority figure before. The French employee, conditioned by a lifetime of distance from his superiors, will hang back, believing that the less known about himself the longer he can safely hide in his protective cocoon. The more friendly the manager becomes, the more the employee will wonder what the hidden agenda is, or, in the worst case, he will write off the foreigner as a hopeless softie. The manager's openness will be interpreted as a weakness, not a strength.
After months of trying my best to break down the barriers, I pretty much abandoned all hope of establishing trust with my staff. I had used up all my tricks within a year or so - setting clear goals, working longer hours than anyone, joining in the actual nuts-and-bolts work of each project, maintaining an open-door policy, roaming through the editorial offices (MBAing like mad), and that ultimate seducer I had been advised would always work in France: taking them out to a good lunch one by one. They could never overcome the deep-seated belief that management was out to exploit them.
Even that universal lubricant, money, is eyed suspiciously. I once gave bonuses of £2,000 and £1,000 to two of my management group who had just crashed out a special project. In return, I expected at least a smile of contentment. Instead, in private meetings to hand out the largesse, I heard one laugh aloud and say, "Why? I didn't do anything special." The other, whom I called in a few minutes later, said, "Oh no, Michael. It's too much." I thought for a moment he was going to refuse the bonus for fear of being seen to betray his comrades. But in the end pragmatism prevailed and he pocketed the cheque.
Both sides seek counter-productive tension. In the executive suite, top-down management is the order of the day. There is an assumption that the workers are at best blameless children. Most of them are also considered lazy, devious and untrustworthy. Any employee who spoke his mind was labelled a soixante-huitard (a "68er", referring to the student street riots of 1968). The over-40s who asserted themselves were known as "arrested 68ers".
It is important to a French manager to be seen to hold great power. If a manager is perceived as the puppet of the next level up, employees will tend to circumvent him, knowing that he occupies only an intermediate stage of authority. To be known as an executant, and not decideur, is management suicide. Thus, in the process of issuing orders from above - and most of the orders come from high up the pyramid - each manager will transmit the received wisdom in the first person: "I have decided ..."; "I am asking you ..." This technique is so crucial that even revisions of orders that contradict last week's, and that the manager finds unpalatable, will be conveyed as his decision, not as the latest word from headquarters. The zigzags only add to the mystery of the manager's true self, and thus to the gulf separating him from the people he is supervising.
Office behaviour is another realm of great contrast to life in a British or US company. Unlike the "Anglo-Saxons", as we are collectively known, they can be an affectionate, touchy-feely lot among those of equivalent class. Each morning, most of the men kiss most of the women - except the managers, who stand by looking on. It is only a peck on both cheeks, but it is an essential part of the routine. A chance encounter at midday can bring an apology, man to woman: "Oh I haven't given you your kiss today. Schmakk!" In more formal settings, or with special outsiders, hand-kissing is still a gentleman's most elegant gesture of respect for a woman (but for some reason it is considered wrong to do this to a single woman, as I found out when I tried it).
In many ways, Latin cultures are like fire to our ice. The basic personality of the south is expansive, aggressive, verbose and volatile. The limits of what is acceptable office conduct is out in the twilight zone by north European standards. For a Latin, a sudden outburst is a safety valve against emotional overload, and is often followed by total calm. The tempestuous and the serene can co-exist, creating what seems a bizarre compound personality. In contrast, the typical northerner is self-contained, more taciturn and probably repressed. He may suffer more in the long run, as anxieties eat up his insides, but the workplace is much the quieter for it. The only strategy I could devise for dealing with the Latin cultures was to develop a short memory. I could thus avoid being destabilised by what had just been said, and view relationships over the long term, smoothing out the peaks and valleys of changing moods.
One executive of another French company, who had worked in Britain for many years and recently returned to France, told me how she confronted the hostile atmosphere in her office. She learned to gird herself for the worst possible petty confrontations before leaving home every morning. "So when fights erupted, as they nearly always did, I took it as normal behaviour. I wasn't caught off-balance. And if there was no fight, I considered it a real bonus for the day and went home feeling lucky."
The belligerent office mentality takes surprising forms in one-to-one meetings with employees. One woman writer, known for her acid tongue, told me during a tough performance review what she thought. "You are a liar. Everybody knows you constantly lie. It's the biggest joke of the staff." Was this a nightmare? I had to pinch myself. I had never even bent the truth, much less lied. Who was the boss here? This would be a simple case of insubordination in most cultures, but in France, as I later discovered, it was just so much hot air. There were no witnesses, so there was no case.
Since the French are, in effect, licensed to be volatile, they sometimes use this trait as a weapon to keep subordinates off balance. A division president in my company, who enjoyed sitting in judgment on his underlings, was a seasoned practitioner of the art. At each executive committee meeting he would single out the heroes and imbeciles around the table, mixing and matching differently at each meeting with little regard for reality. Recently appointed members of the committee, who thought they had "arrived", found it unsettling to be kicked around in front of new colleagues. "One day I am the wisest of the wise. The next day I am a complete nitwit," one victim complained to me. The technique was intended to prevent the team members from resting on past successes. In fact, the ups and downs of the president became an office joke that everyone nervously tried to laugh off.
In staff meetings, this volatility extends to the entire conference table, regardless of hierarchy. First, a basic rule is that several people talk at the same time, with ever-increasing speed and volume. With practice, the foreigner can learn to multiplex his brain, to follow bits of five or six conversations simultaneously. But the ultimate skill is to follow those conversations while also thinking and talking yourself.
Second, table-pounding, gratuitous insults, dirty looks, eye-rolling, brooding, pouting, paper-rustling, hyper-ventilation or heavy, audible sighs all serve as ways to distance oneself from what is supposed to be going on at the group level. My first few months were particularly disconcerting. Scanning the faces around the conference table at my weekly staff meeting, I never knew exactly what to expect. But one thing was sure: storm clouds were always gathering around the edges.
Where is the fine line between playing along with the new culture and being lax in the control of the meeting? It is difficult to be sure. To create a soothing atmosphere, I once again tried the food ploy. I arranged for pots of fresh coffee, and I personally brought in a bag of pastries to the meeting every week. Maybe it was the caffeine or the chemical preservatives, but this little snack only seemed to make the antagonisms worse. Invariably, the tension built up and exploded within the first few minutes. One of the worst of such shouting matches involved two senior staff members who had a long history of animosity predating my arrival. I never did find out why they hated each other so much.
Consistent with the air of mistrust is the French employee's aversion to responsibility. He knows that upward movement in the company will constrain his much-prized individuality. He therefore chooses to revel in his limitations and refuse to "give himself" to the company. The flowering of his individuality will be reserved for private friends. To such an employee, the ideal job is one with ironclad parameters, with hour-to-hour duties spelt out and performance criteria detailed down to the last erg. The employee has thus been blissfully deresponsabilise. He is comforted by the limits of the job. Fine, so far. But unfortunately this also means he will refuse to cross the boundaries into the realm of initiative.
Frequently, the line between individuality and outright bloody-mindedness gets blurred. Being an heir to the Revolution, the employee also reserves the right to march to his own drummer. One young professional explained to me the French attitude towards work, half in jest, shortly after I arrived: "Dites-moi ce que vous voulez que je fasse, et je le ferai si je veux." (Tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it if I feel like it.)
Along with all the personal enrichment, barriers to working in a foreign environment anywhere can be formidable. To improve your chances of enjoying the experience, aspiring internationalists should investigate the culture they are about to join. These points may be useful to bear in mind:
1 Stick to companies that already have an international team at the management level. Firms that have a good mix of nationalities already in place will have prepared the way for new ideas and styles of management.
2 Check the company's and the country's fundamental outlook on business ethics before you sign that contract. Nothing will cause discomfort like a basic ethical conflict.
3 Do what you can to ensure that the company is realistic about its international ambitions. In the quest for instant international credentials, there is a lot of "globasm" going on. It is gratifying in the short term, but the euphoria quickly fades away, leaving a sense of disappointment.
4 Speak in their language. Carry the burden of cultural and linguistic adjustment openly. If you also want them to change, try to effect it gradually.
5 Make it clear upon arrival that you understand how different you are. Ask for indulgence, and demonstrate your own. Hope that your two cultures, properly adapted, will meet somewhere down the line.
Michael Johnson is the media director of Burson-Marsteller in London. This article has been adapted from a book he is writing on barriers to change in French business.