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Thematics :

Having faced international comparison for a number of years, the verdict concerning the weaknesses of French management style and managers is unanimous: an over-rigid and vertical (top-down) hierarchy, high individualism, poor listening skills, lack of team spirit and communication… As a result, French employees working in Anglo-Saxon companies, which have a more performance-oriented culture, are more satisfied with their working conditions than those working for French companies. Beyond the stereotype, there is also an obvious amount of truth to this viewpoint. There appear to be genuine cultural differences between the traditional French and the more Anglo-Saxon styles of management. Of course, not every facet should be called into question, as the success of so many large French multinationals testifies.

First professional experience? Decisive…

In recent years, international exposure has increased significantly for students in many Business Schools. Academic exchanges and internships abroad, more and more international professors mean that the students and future managers are being confronted with a wider range of proven managerial approaches from many different companies and sectors from all around the world every day. However, there is a gap between the training our students receive and the managerial practices implemented by French companies. This gap can be explained in particular by the strong impact a young manager’s first professional experience has on their development.

Numerous studies have shown that an individual’s first professional experience, the organization they work for, their first mentors and leaders etc, has a real impact throughout their career. Despite experiencing such strong international exposure during their studies, many young graduates begin their careers in an organisation managed “à la française”. That is, a management style characterised by many hierarchical levels, where information means power and top-down communication is the norm. These young graduates are therefore confronted with managerial practices that tend to go against everything they have learned at school. Nonetheless, compliance is the only way for them to progress within the company. So, when they become managers themselves, they are all the more likely to copy this style of management. Such observations reveal the existence of a gulf between training and managerial practices in certain companies. Business Schools and companies should therefore be encouraged to work even more closely together.

Developing a French management style

Many Directors of French and International companies alike are convinced that, in order to remain competitive on a global scale, organisations must become less hierarchical and maintain open and informal communication channels between managers and employees. Many companies in France are working towards this end, but often express difficulty in “changing mentalities”. Certain organisations have implemented a number of structural changes that facilitate a management style that is based on more communication and less hierarchy. Examples include the creation of open offices, where managers and employees work together in the same space, and the disappearance of separate catering facilities for senior managers and employees. I spoke to one Managing Director who had even installed windows in his office to be closer to his employees.

Such efforts are to be commended. However, changing the codes that govern organisations is much slower. Some senior managers find it difficult to share more information with their employees, as this has often been synonymous with power and status, and is therefore something they are finding difficult to give up. Similarly, when young professionals try to be less “formal” with their employees, it is not uncommon for them to be taken aside by their senior managers and reminded of the importance of maintaining a certain distance to protect their authority. If it remains difficult for management mentalities to change, the same is also true for employees. Therefore, when employees are invited to share their ideas with their managers, they remain hesitant, believing that their opinions will not really be taken into account.

Change is happening nonetheless. However, the transformations need to take place slowly. Changing a company’s management style that is deeply rooted in culture is not an easy task. It will take time and effort from Business Schools and Companies to promote these managerial changes.