Last month, when it became clear that France’s AAA credit rating is in danger, President Nicolas Sarkozy told the French that they had to be more like the Germans: “The problem is not the rating agencies. The problem is that we spend too much and we must work more.”
But in a provocative article in the latest issue of The Economist, the Schumpeter argues that the French aren’t lazy, they’re just poorly managed. It cites a World Economic Forum report on national competitiveness, which says that the French have a “stronger work ethic than American, British or Dutch employees.” They’re just not motivated by their managers. According to the magazine:
France ranks last out of 10 countries for workers’ opinion of company management, according to a report from 2007. Whereas two-thirds of American, British and German employees say they have friendly relations with their line manager, fewer than a third of French workers say the same. …
A study of seven leading economies by TNS Sofres in 2007 showed that France is unique in that middle management as well as the lower-level workforce is largely disengaged from their companies.
Why is this the case? A few things:
French have a more intellectual approach to management. Many French CEOs come from grandes écoles, or elite universities, like HEC Paris — and they take a more theoretical approach to managing. According to World Business Culture, more pragmatic issues of buy-in, motivating staff are not as prominent in French management thinking. … This directive approach can be seen, especially by those from a consensus oriented, non-hierarchical background, as being overly authoritative and lacking in the necessary team-building elements.
In a 1990s study, “The Making Of A French Manager,” the Harvard Business Review “determined that the development of French managers did not take place in formal company training programs but began long before employment … the schools are said to be the real training ground for managers.”
This way of managing makes it harder to connect with employees.
The French have a more rigid view of power and hierarchy. According to the HBR study, “the design of French organisations reflects and reinforces the cerebral manager. France has a long tradition of centralization, of hierarchical rigidity, and of individual respect for authority. … Large French organisations are not only hierarchical but also compartmentalized. Vertical differentiation is often quite literal; at L’Air Liquide, the chief executive is on the top floor of the building, and the typing pool is in the basement.”
Many French executives come from civil service. According to HBR, “Many of the chief executives of France’s largest and most admired companies started their careers in public service and moved to positions at or near the top in private industry. The result is that France’s largest public and private groups alike tend to be headed by products of the higher echelons of civil service.”
The Economist points out that “Air France KLM, for example, announced unexpectedly last month that its new chief executive would be Alexandre de Juniac, formerly chief of staff to Christine Lagarde when she was France’s finance minister.” Which means that outsiders are more likely to get top jobs — and that can create internal strife. According to the magazine:
As Thomas Philippon, a French economist, points out in “Le Capitalisme d’Héritiers,” a 2007 book, that too many big French companies rely on educational and governmental elites rather than promoting internally according to performance on the job.
France’s many family-run firms keep it in the family — and they value long-term employees. This makes it more difficult for employees to move up the ladder. According to HBR, “While the strength of [formerly family-run] Michelin’s corporate culture is considered unique even by French standards, its de facto commitment to lifelong employment is shared by other French companies such as L’Oréal.”
Multinational mergers and acquisitions have begun to change this traditional French managerial culture. For example, “the 2006 merger of Alcatel, a French telecoms-equipment firm, and Lucent, an American one, created a less hierarchical group,” according to the Economist.
But the country is a long way from reaching American and German productivity levels. Which means everyone is going to have to work harder — managers and workers alike.
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