Your French colleagues might have been surprised and made fun of you when you told them you were going on expatriation to Belgium!
From an ethnocentric and French perspective, working in Belgium is much like working in the North of France. We think we know our neighbors quite well and we make fun of them using some “Belgian jokes” (Belgian bashing?). Again, working with Belgian teams does not look that different from working with local teams, let alone talking about intercultural management.
But yet, a closer look reveals the incredible complexity of this country and the necessity to implement a frame of reference of managerial behaviors in order to succeed in business. One the most intercultural cities in the world happens to be Brussels, with its 163 nationalities. A genuine challenge for intercultural experts!
Belgium: A Genuine Cultural Kaleidoscope
Belgium is composed of 3 linguistic communities: Flemish, Walloon and German-speaking. Yet, those 3 languages are official ones and the king – who is the real bond in the country – addresses his citizens successively in those 3 languages.
Belgians are known to be gifted for languages, just as the Dutch are. This is not by chance. As a matter of fact, since their very childhood, Belgians are confronted with many different languages, in the streets and at home through television programs which are subtitled and never doubled. In Brussels, the capital of Europe, information is given in French and in Dutch. It is compulsory. English is very frequent too, so that language immersion is an everyday reality.
As a consequence of this exposition to foreign languages and cultures, Belgians are open-minded.
History is cyclical. Flanders which is wealthy today thanks to its industries developing throughout the 20th century, was rural at the beginning of the previous century. Wallonia on the contrary is losing speed today and experiences a high unemployment rate, while it was famous in the previous century for its mines. All are empty now. A real turnaround which has consequences on the working on the country.
The relationships between Flanders and Wallonia regions are tense. The Flemish want to split the country because they say Wallonia is nowadays taking advantage of the blooming economy they are leading.
Is Communication between the French and the Belgians easy?
Belgium and France are separated by a common language with small differences and large similarities. Relationships will seem easier at first sight. The use of the language and its “translation” are nevertheless different. On the Belgian side, the language is more explicit and pragmatic.
Words mean what they mean. Belgians are sometimes said to be “too direct” by the French. “Would you be so kind as…” becomes “Can you do this for me please?”
Management à la Belge?
Management is more participative on the Flemish part (more like in the Netherlands or Germany); it is more hierarchized with the Walloons (more like in France). It can be puzzling for the French counterpart.
Of course, a French manager will feel more at ease working with a Walloon than with a Flemish counterpart. Relationship toward hierarchy plays a role as well as the one toward the colleagues or teammates. Office life might seem harsher with the Flemish. They are more task-oriented than people-oriented. The deal is more important than the harmony between people. This is quite different in Wallonia and in Brussels where 85 % of the inhabitants are French-speaking.
Belgian are specialists in self-mockery. Managers don’t take it too seriously. This behavior may unsettle their French counterpart. But they go straight to the point. They seem to be cool, easy-going, but expect results from you at the exact date.
Nothing is left to chance, no benefit of the doubt, everything is square.
Intercultural Dimensions in Belgium
As far as the relationship to time is concerned, time is money in Belgium. It can be compared to other North European or North American contexts. Belgians abide by the rules, plannings, agendas and are monochronic (they do one thing at a time).
As far as the relationship to space is concerned, the Belgian bubble (personal space) will be larger than the French one. The more we go North, the lesser colleagues will kiss to say hello. People don’t touch and keep their distances, above all in Flanders.
Even if the individual is essential, team work will be more consensual than in France. Belgians are specialist of “the Belgian compromise”, which made it possible for them to remain 541 days without a government in 2011!!
The Flemish-speaking Belgians privilege management by objectives whereas the French-speaking Belgians involve their co-workers more in the company life.
Belgians in general are happy at work, as a survey tells us in the newspaper La Libre Belgique. Rules and directions are respected in a good mood.
Is it a Model of Intercultural Management?
Belgium is a melting pot, a kaleidoscope, the Belgian, a “Zinneke” (a bastard, half-breed, in Brussels’ dialect), the population is mixed, a concentrate of European reality, and beyond. Intercultural Management starts inside the Belgian country itself.
Experts in Intercultural Management can help you better collaborate with our Belgian neighbors. Don’t forget that they love France and the French so much that they made it their favorite holiday destination.