Can French managers break free from a certain arrogance “à la française”?

Intercultural relations between manager can be a difficult art. Shutterstock

“They could see that I was there to make them grow”, “I can’t get my subordinates to do any work”, and so on. These types of comments from company managers in the French expatriate community raise serious questions about the way that they envisage relations with their foreign colleagues.

Is there a particularly French prism? In an article published in the journal Gérer & Comprendre, we examine how cross-cultural relations have played out between French managers and their colleagues working for subsidiaries or partner companies. This research shows that French managers often have a shared approach to such relations, which we summarise in three attitudes that clearly differentiate them from their international counterparts.

1. A highly intellectualised approach to relations

“Understanding cultures is subtle, we decipher, we reflect.”

They enrol in cross-cultural seminars or perform their own research on the cultures to which they are exposed. French people are passionate about cultural issues and often feel the need “to understand how other people operate” before approaching a new relationship. They attempt to understand the foundations of the culture, often examining the country’s history or religion. This theoretical analysis reassures some people, giving them the impression that they have understood the country’s cultural origins and will be able to anticipate the way people behave. French managers tend to give the impression that they are adapting to cultural behaviour they have identified beforehand rather than adjusting their behaviour to their counterpart’s actual behaviour in a given situation.

One manager tries to show less empathy towards South American contacts to compensate for the fact that they are “very emotional”, another explains that “because of their past”, the Russians constantly “use strong-arm tactics and you need to speak as loudly as they do”, while a final manager had “understood that the Thais are so proud that they can’t resign, so you can push them pretty far…” The intellectual approach overrides observation on the ground, meaning that a manager who knows how to “decode” will be at an advantage compared to a colleague who does not have the same grasp of cultural differences.

On the other hand, managers from other countries employ few grand ideas or generalisations about cultural differences; instead they tend to make pragmatic observations regarding their partners’ actual work habits. Some managers might respond in less detail than others, while others refuse to work late into the evening or to go to the office by public transport, etc. Being able to adapt can speed up the relationship-building process. However, the French approach considers the prior analysis of cultural procedures to be a key factor for forming successful relations. “You need to combine this cultural understanding with flexibility, humility and empathy to ensure that the company can operate in the best possible conditions.” The question of adapting to the other person with whom we interact is almost secondary.

The cross-cultural experience often appears to be disembodied, counterparts are rarely described or named, interactions are only vaguely described, and the dialogue gives the impression that French managers are just as fascinated by the analysis as by what it implies in terms of adapting on the ground. In fact, most French people find cultural differences stimulating because they oblige them to understand a new way of thinking and to create new models.

2. Compromise, a partial failure

“Sometimes you have to compromise. Actually, I don’t like that word.”

The second distinctive aspect of the French approach is that they are unlikely to spontaneously propose compromise. When they do mention compromise, French managers tend to describe it as a constraint, an exercise that is unavoidable when working with certain cultures that “have it in their DNA”, such as in Northern Europe. They don’t really identify with the concept and prefer to talk about a “middle ground between constraints, a fair and honest balance” which, unlike compromise, would not be an impaired solution compared to the one they had envisaged before beginning talks with their counterpart. It seems difficult for them to accept that if they collaborate, they will not produce the same outcome as if they had worked alone. In this sense, compromise is perceived as a partial failure.

3. A role of educator

“Then there are some things – the reporting structure, discipline – but we manage to alter them, to develop them!”

Many French managers tend to feel the need to educate their partners, even in cases where they cannot claim any superiority in terms of hierarchy, status or expertise – in situations where they are seeking new partnerships or implementing joint projects, for example. Regardless of the organisational context of the relationship, the counterpart may be able to learn something from them, particularly from a technical point of view, “Sometimes I had to educate them, so to speak.”

The legitimacy of French managers relies more heavily on the industry expertise that they employ to help others “grow” than on their management skills (d'Iribarne, Chap. VI, 1993). Because French managers attach great value to expertise, it is important to them that this be fully acknowledged by their counterparts. They don’t try to impose their expertise on the other person through their authority, but instead attempt to make the person voluntarily agree with their opinion by showing that it is the best option. This approach can only work if foreign colleagues accept the position of “learners” assigned to them by French managers.

In contrast, international managers’ comments simply evoke the role of a typical manager: improving team effectiveness, motivating, setting a good example. Even when they are in a position of superiority in relation to their counterpart, there is nothing to indicate that these managers are motivated by a desire to help the other person “grow”.

It is thus clear that there is a very French representation of cross-cultural relations that creates an “elevated positioning” that is shared, to varying degrees and irrespective of age, by the majority of French managers. However, and this is what makes the positioning significant and distinctive, there is no trace of this in non-French managers.

Are the French less effective than others in a cross-cultural context?

Yes and no.

No, because although French managers have a different way of demonstrating their interest in collaborating in a cross-cultural context, their motivations are nonetheless just as strong as those of managers from other countries and they demonstrate the same commitment to such relations.

Yes, because there sometimes appears to be a disconnect between theory and practice, which can harm relations. Some French managers draw a distinction between an interest in different cultures and business obligations. Others struggle to link their understanding of a country’s culture to their experience on the ground, with many managers explaining their actual experiences in terms of stereotypes generated by over-hasty analyses.

It is therefore possible that the cross-cultural skills employed by French managers are largely founded on cognitive aspects – in other words on the acquisition of knowledge, to the detriment of affective and behavioural aspects (as defined by Barmeyer).

This is not necessarily a weakness in itself. Studies performed on managers with different cultures would no doubt bring to light other strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, acknowledging the impact of French cultural biases on the skills implemented in a cross-cultural context would help to better prepare the managers exposed to these situations.

This article was originally published in French

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