If you walk along the corridors and around the offices of a French company you will most probably see small groups of people every now and then standing around talking or having lively discussions. The atmosphere in the group may be high-spirited or one of concentration. Do not assume that they are all taking time out and enjoying themselves. You would lose any bet! These employees are working. Of course, they might be talking about the weekend or other events but the majority of these discussions are about project content, reports, telephone calls or solving problems.The keyword during project management in France is people-orientation. It refers to the ›informally formal‹ way of communicating i.e. on the one hand speaking to one another in an informal atmosphere and in a casual tone of voice, but on the other doing so in the knowledge that everything that is said can be taken seriously.
Furthermore, priority is given to meeting people in relationship-orientated cultures; at this point, your own topics fade into the background. If you or someone else joins the group, the subject may well be changed. The group wants to include you and does not want you to feel you are interrupting the discussions taking place.
People-orientated Style Of Working
Serious talks conducted in a flexible manner describes an important aspect of the French style of working. Creative ideas are generated from free-flowing cooperation in different settings because various elements from the overall context can be included. If topics are worked on or projects are realised, there is always a working atmosphere that enables a dialogue with one another to take place. If the French see empty corridors and employees working on their own, they tend to think that the style of management in that firm must be strict and authoritarian.
In comparison, the French way of working is pragmatic and analytical. The apparent contradiction between these tendencies can be explained as follows: French colleagues like to discuss, analyse and think through all the information surrounding a subject for as long as possible and then draw their conclusions. Then they will find that either time is running out or the decision is made to reach a conclusion now. Then the final, tangible solution will be worked out.
Long, detailed planning procedures appear to the French to have little to do with everyday situations and are not sufficiently pragmatic to be effective in practice. Anyone in France will tell you how quickly conditions change, how often customers modify their specifications etc.
The French feel that planning is necessary, but it is only deemed important as long as it can be incorporated into the ever-changing framework of conditions. Everything else seems stiff and unprofessional because it cannot be adapted.
Deadlines And Dates
It is important to keep to schedules in France, so long as this brings results. Of course, France cannot beat the two world leaders in monochronic time management, Germany and Switzerland, and would not want to. As a polychronic nation, France’s attitude to time limits is governed more by the degree of urgency rather than long-term planning in advance. A date will be observed if it is (has become) very urgent if it is clear that it is important for the people involved and why, and if the risk in not observing it can be clearly identified.
Since time specifications are only a guide in polychronic thinking and are not necessarily seen as an exact point in time, it is advisable to tell colleagues and partners – either personally or by telephone – how important these dates are for you.
As far as the French are concerned time limits should always be seen in relation to a purpose. A French CEO once said: ›It is the result that counts, not necessarily the steps getting there unless they guarantee a better quality of results.‹ It is assumed that participants recognise how exact a date is intended to be from the context and the interaction taking place. Anyone who does not obtain this information runs the risk at the end of not being on time, which can mean they are either too early or too late.
A Swiss colleague found that meetings with his French partners always started 15 to 20 minutes later than scheduled. At an internal meeting, he thought he would skip the small talk which bridged the gap and arrived 10 minutes after the time stated. He was very surprised to discover he was the last to arrive. He asked a colleague what had happened. The answer was: ›Mr. T. is here today, it said so in the invitation!‹ That was correct, but the colleague from Basel was not aware that everyone would be on time because an external guest was expected for the presentation!
Another example: Two foreign businesspeople send documents for a specific date that was agreed on weeks or even months before, but do not realise that in the meantime the date had been put back. It is easy to imagine that that is extremely annoying.
In most cases, the French will not be able to understand why their counterparts did not know about the postponement. They knew about it because, for example, everyone was talking about it at informally formal moments. Circumstances had changed. Make a point, therefore, of asking more often! All French children are taught ›punctuality is the politeness of the king‹. This type of punctuality depends on the situation and the context.
If your work depends on your French partners‘ compliance with a deadline you should make this clear to them. In such a case, the French would say: ›on October 1st sharp, please!‹ It is often assumed in France that if something is important or urgent the relevant person will remind the others of the deadline. The friendly reminders feared in monochronic business cultures are often seen in France as welcome support and are not perceived as being a nuisance.
Furthermore, the people-orientated and polychronic style of working means that priorities can change quickly. If a colleague, a customer or the boss is at your side or on the telephone or sends you a message saying he needs something now, this will have priority and will be dealt with immediately or as soon as possible. The risk then is that other issues will be dealt with later than planned. For this reason, short-term scheduling, or in the case of longer procedures, more frequent reminders are found to be helpful in actively influencing adherence to deadlines for one’s own advantage.
However, this approach is not as easy as it may seem at first. Spontaneity does not mean that you allow yourself to be distracted and do not do your work. If you make time for your colleagues it often means that other work is neglected and has to be done later. It would be very impolite to point this out to others, which means that many colleagues from cultures where a direct style of communication is used, do not pick this up.
Flow Of Information
If asked about the flow of information in a company, it is worth mentioning the conversations that take place around the coffee machine. These informal conversations contain plenty of information that is just waiting to be coordinated.
If you have the feeling that you are missing some information, then all you have to do is ring and ask directly. In France, there is more of an obligation to collect than to provide when passing on information. You may be pleasantly surprised how willing your French counterparts are, to provide you with information and any explanations you might need, either on the phone or in person, but only if you ask! The philosophy behind this is the freedom of every individual to organise his work and obtain information as he wishes. Everything else could be interpreted as trying to tell someone what to do.
The French usually prefer verbal communication. Written communication seems to them to be very formal or condescending. The best combination is a telephone call plus e-mail. Either you talk on the telephone and decide on sending other information by e-mail, or a phone call is made subsequent to a first e-mail, in order to make inquiries, to explain something, to ask for an explanation or just to confirm that everything arrived well and to find out what further points need to be discussed. You should see these telephone calls as ›virtual‹ corridor talks.
In addition, some French firms use instant messages or other forms of internal chat facilities. Use all corridor talks to your advantage and remember every piece of information you are given, even if it is not directly connected with the core topic of discussion.
If the information in connection with work organisation is exchanged in writing, after all, the following should be observed: it is customary in France to inform not only the relevant person but also his or her superior.
Long cc lists are commonplace in French e-mails. The idea behind this broad distribution is that everyone can fish out the information they need. I have often witnessed the amazement of the French in many workshops when their foreign colleagues complain that they cannot deal with so many e-mails! ›What do you mean by deal with?‹ they answer. ›They are only for your information! You can simply delete the e-mail if you no longer need it‹. If the reply to this is that perhaps it would not have been necessary to write the e-mails in the first place, the French answer: ›you can decide for yourself whether the information in them is relevant or not.‹
The French are interested in the feeling of self-responsibility and freedom and they do not want to take that feeling away from you.
Problems And Solutions
The French author André Gide once wrote in his journal: ›Il n’y a pas de problèmes, il n’y a que des solutions‹ ‒ ›We do not have any problems, we only have solutions.‹ The French like practical solutions and they prefer these to complicated procedures.
However, solving the problem covers many aspects of the context. The aim is not to forget anything and to be creative in dealing with all elements. The French are very surprised when someone concentrates entirely on the actual problem and does not feel that other aspects are helpful.
A typical French reaction to a problem is système D. ›D‹ stands for ›se debrouiller‹ ‒ ›to get out of a mess by yourself‹. (The letter D can stand for a coarser version of the expression which I shall not explain here!) Here solutions are meant, which can be ›conjured up‹ with the resources available. Sometimes it is evident that they will not be the final solution, but the general attitude is it is better to accept a ›small‹ solution than to have no solution at all.
Système D is particularly popular if procedures appear too complicated or too lengthy. The practical approach is the way forward. Results are what matter, you are judged by the results you achieve. You quickly get used to the advantages of système D.
If a problem arises in a project with French partners because procedures were not followed exactly, it is important to show that the individual stages lead to the required solution. Everyone knows that it is often possible to reach your goal without keeping to each step of the process. In that case, a supervisory body would be necessary, which is usually provided by management. If, however, this is provided by colleagues on the same level of hierarchy without a mandate, the French are not very pleased. This happens quite often because e.g. colleagues from further north have learnt to keep to the stages of the procedure. For them, it is perfectly normal to point out possible mistakes to their colleagues. What do the French think? ›He’s trying to play the boss.‹
Nevertheless, it must be emphasised that procedures and step-by-step methods of working are also observed in France – but only if it is clearly visible that this will lead to the solution. As soon as it looks as if something is only being done for the sake of it or as a safeguard, motivation on the French side is no longer very high. It just becomes monotonous hard work, something they are reluctant to take on.
There is a danger that bicultural teams will cause participants to divide into two camps: ›we‹ and ›the others‹! This type of group dynamics very often turns into an intercultural problem where ›we‹ and ›the others‹ is equated with each nationality.
There can be prejudices on both sides which emphasise this division. If there are disputes in the team, each side will often revert to its own cultural behaviour: The French for example will communicate very much more with one another, rebel – passively or actively – and cut their own path even more.
Therefore, it is essential to ensure from the outset that the team is aware of all potential pitfalls and has been briefed on the differences in style of communication, understanding of time and organisation of work. These three cultural dimensions are the main cause of conflict when working with the French or are the reason why conflicts escalate.
It is often said that the French and monochronic participants – complement each other: flexible creativity meets planned organisation.
Complementing each other, however, can only arise out of differences and they need to be managed. If they are not managed, then the team will be managed by the differences and they become the focus of cooperation. Conflicts arise.
Intercultural teams are more excitable than monocultural teams. Troubles multiply and make conflicts erupt more quickly. Nevertheless, bicultural and multicultural teams have the potential to achieve outstanding results because they incorporate very different resources and cover a wider range of ideas than monocultural teams. Team management has to be professional and interculturally experienced for this to work.
Positive results in intercultural teams with the French can be achieved, if the fact that the individuals are similar in many respects but that at the same time the respective countries of origin have instilled in us different expectations of one another, is dealt with openly. A highly experienced German manager in the IT sector always ensures in his international teams, that the French are allocated posts that require creativity and comprehensive knowledge.
In addition, his recipe for success is the fact that he also has a strong, socially competent boss on board as a supervisory authority – if required. He is not discouraged if the French team members complain about certain requirements or if they come up with completely different solutions from those he expected of them. It can contribute to success if such typical characteristics, without the stereotypes, are taken into consideration when assembling the team – on the condition that this is done by using the actual capabilities of the team members as the basis for making the choice.
Another important point is that the team leader should be able to handle the cultural merits of each nationality in the team professionally, be able to prevent any tendency to form camps and be able to concentrate more on the respective individual and cultural strengths than the weaknesses. It is a balancing act to make use of these cultural characteristics but at the same time to overcome them in team cooperation in order to develop an efficient team.
Towards the goal!
Multicultural teams, more so than monocultural teams, need to focus on the common goal – and look for a joint understanding of this goal and the intermediate targets. Successful international teams have taken the time, especially at the beginning of their cooperation, to work out this joint understanding and to peg it down. A joint understanding of the goal can only be achieved if the team leader and all members of the team talk to each other about this and together think about what their strengths are. In this way, they can overcome possible pitfalls on the way to their goal.
Extract from Business Culture France, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag