Understanding North African Work Behavior: A Comparative Analysis

Europeans criticize Americans for working too much....

Where do the different work attitudes in different countries come from?

Americans are criticized by Europeans for “working too hard,” and “not having any culture.”  Americans in Europe often criticize Europeans for having anti-business attitudes and being cultural snobs.  The Asians, on the other hand, make Americans look extremely lazy!  In French-speaking North Africa, we have a curious mixture of pro- and anti-business sentiments.  Business and money are extremely respected, yet nothing works well.  Businesses are extremely inefficient, and services are terrible (including government services).

There are now a number of good books written on  differing work attitudes in various countries.  Three of my favorites are The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, Working for the Japanese:  Inside  Mazda’s American Auto Plant, and Au Contraire!  Figuring Out the French.  But these books don’t explain where these attitudes originated from.

The answers are to be found in the historical experiences of various countries.  The major difference which sets America apart from Europe, in work attitudes today, is that America has no history of feudalism.

European work attitudes, with their emphasis on free time for workers and quality of life came directly out of peasant attitudes and revolts against feudalsim.   Peasants were the lowest class of society, were highly oppressed,  heavily taxed, and were at the mercy of justice systems operated by the social classes who took advantage of them.  When we study Feudalism as a system, we do not normally address how the peasants felt about it.  In fact, peasants did not passively accept the situation, century-after-century.  Peasant uprisings and revolts were a common occurrence.  Later, as Feudalism’s authority began to weaken, the new urban workers widened the base of the lower class, against the princes and the lords.  The upper classes used nepotistic practices to maintain their control over the bureaucracy.

The remnants of these attitudes are found today in European attitudes toward work, where laws and the public demand that workers have plenty of free time and are not “taken advantage of” by those in management (the old lords and princes).

Promotions into management are not awarded to competent workers; rather only people who are from certain families, or who went to the top categories of schools are permitted into the management tracks.  Decision-making in French corporations follows a strict hierarchy, and authority belongs to the office a person holds, rather than to the individual.  French managers tend to make the decisions and collaborative teamwork is discouraged.  Co-workers tend to feel in competition with each other.

New York offices of the French Investment banking company, Calyon.

American work attitudes, in contrast,  were not not born out of feudalism, but out of freedom, individualism, and capitalism.  One of the main reasons Americans left Europe was because they rejected the class system.  (This is why American bosses occasionally make the office coffee, to demonstrate to workers that they are not “above” others in social class.)  In America, one’s social standing at birth does not prohibit one from rising to a prominent position (whether Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama).

Who you were at birth has nothing to do with who you will be, or might be.  In America, it is “up to you” to make what you will of your life.  In America, no one cares who you ARE.  They care what you have DONE, what you have ACCOMPLISHED.  This is why Americans generally give the highest pay, promotions, and status in business to those who accomplish the most (rather than those who went to impressive schools, but who do not perform once employed).  Anyone can reach the top tier by becoming rich, if they are smart enough, and willing to work hard enough.  This is what every American teaches their children from the time they are two years old.

Management by Objectives chart

These attitudes are seen today in the American tradition of Management by Objectives, which involves participative goal setting, then choosing a course of action, and decision-making in line with those actions.  Employees are measured against these standards.  Unfortunately, American managers often find that management by objectives does not work well in many other parts of the world, such as in North Africa.

Satchel Paige - a victim of American racism in baseball

In America, the problem has been racism, not classism.   The class-based problems and conflicts of Europe have been replaced in America by race-based problems.   While minorities have now been absorbed into society through the past battles of Martin Luther King, past affirmative action (preferential hiring practices based on race), and by becoming members of the professional and middle classes, some disaffected groups and individuals are still very anti-white.

These individuals feel a group solidarity against the white culture.   This same feeling also applies to certain religious groups and groups of new immigrants from various nations to America throughout our history.  They were discriminated against on the basis of national origin until each group became well-integrated after two or three generations.

In the same way, many Europeans and North Africans feel a class-solidarity against those above or below them, which influences work behavior in those countries, in the same way that race conflicts affect work attitudes among anti-white groups in America.  (The Arab Spring movement is partly about hope of the middle classes in the North African countries for abandoning nepotism and moving toward meritocracy.)

America continues to work on these race-based conflicts, but in reality, skin color and culture do continue to be a barrier to certain groups.  White Americans, using the example of Abraham Lincoln, have always told their children since the age of two, “You could grow up to be president.”  However, since the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, now for the first time, black Americans can also tell their children the same thing.

Barack Obama

Today in French-speaking North Africa, there are remnants of attitudes from both the feudal system and modern French systems.  Work behavior of employees and managers here is extremely confusing for North Americans.  While some people work hard and well, these people are rare, and should be especially appreciated (and rewarded).

Instead of being helpful to customers, and cooperative with employees or co-workers, most North-African employees (especially those not in management) tend to set up little “fiefdoms” and act like little Napoleons within their sphere of influence.

If someone comes to them with a request or a problem, instead of facilitating the process, they act as “gatekeepers” and often try to create problems and obstacles where none existed before.  (Yes, some of them expect bribes, but even those who are not looking for bribes tend to behave this way.)  Instead of sharing information so that the organization can function smoothly, both managers and employees are extremely secretive with information, insuring that the organization lurches along from crisis-to-crisis, and problem-to-problem.  This seems similar to business practices in France, in some ways.

There seems to be a sort of “class war” going on between management and employees in most North African companies.  Managers generally come from certain families, and have gone to certain schools.  Employees, neither from important families nor important schools,  have little stake in making the organization function well, and their main interest seems to be in working slowly and inefficiently, specifically making sure that no employer “takes advantage” of them by making them work “too hard.” Employees’ interests seem to usually be diametrically opposed to management’s interests, and many employees (not all) come into a job the very first day with the attitude that they expect an employer will try to exploit them.

Queuing at a government office in North Africa

When employees or co-workers are asked why they don’t give their best effort and take pride in their work, they often answer, “What will it get me if I do?  I will not get paid any more.”  Yet, most say, if presented in theory with a theoretical doubling or tripling of salary for a given job, that the work effort would be exactly the same, that this would not solve the problem.  Therefore, the real problem lies in the attitude behind the work.  Employees immediately assume that their personal interests are in opposition to their employer’s interest, and that they must do everything they can to “protect themselves” instead of everything they can to “do the job right.”


While most Americans view themselves as working hard for a chance to get ahead, and believe in more possibilities in their future, employees in class-based societies usually don’t believe they will be able to get ahead, or be rewarded for their efforts, no matter how hard they work.  Their societies are not meritocracies, and this accounts for their reluctant attitudes at work.

recalitrant employees, passive-agressive employees

Many employees in North Africa behave in a passive-aggressive manner at work, saying "yes," but secretly sabotaging their employers.

North African  employees’ typical productivity is about one-quarter to one-third of an American worker (not everyone–there are some very hard-working North Africans; and certain regions have these problems more than other regions).  Their jobs are “protected” by labor laws which prevent the employer from replacing them no matter how poorly they work.  It can be done, but it is extremely expensive and indemnities increase for every year the employee was with the company.  There are only three acceptable reasons to fire an employee:  being caught stealing, showing up drunk, or not showing up at all repeatedly.  Those reasons do NOT include being habitually late or doing poor work.

Looking at French-speaking North Africa as a whole, unfortunately, from the employee’s  viewpoint, exploitation is rife throughout every level of the society.  Few businesses are corporations.  Most are individual or family-controlled enterprises, large and small.  Nepotism is the order of the day, from finding a job, to being promoted, to getting anything done in the society.

French-speaking North Africa

Business owners tend to exploit anyone working for them who is not a family member, while non-productive family members often have a title and a salary, while doing little.  People are less often employed for their skills than for who they are, or who they know.  Of course, this makes services notoriously bad for consumers.  But even those who lament the exploitation of workers in their own workplace often come home and exploit the labor of those below them.

One secretary, who previously in tears because her boss overworked her and treated her poorly,  turned right around and did exactly the same thing to the assistant she later got.  Some in the middle classes cry over being exploited at work and turn right around and exploit their own maids at home.  As a teacher, I saw over-and-over young students complaining about adults and older children who spoke to them rudely, using insulting words.  But the minute they become older themselves, they turn around and do the same thing.

All this exploitation is about power, which seems to be the main point of interest of each person in the society.  Everyone wants to know precisely who has the authority for what, and authority is never delegated to others as it is in American culture.  This also may be similar to France, but even more extreme in North Africa.

Every time a new employer-employee relationship is created (whether in an office, or a housewife at home with a maid), most employees are not thinking about if their new boss will be kind or provide them with reasonable working conditions.  It is already assumed that they will not.  Instead, they are thinking, “How powerful will I be able to be in this relationship?”  (This may be starting to change with some of the younger generation who are becoming educated and, after the Arab Spring, are hoping for meritocratic changes to take place.)

This concern about power is where foreign managers and expats run into trouble.  American managers aren’t generally thinking about using power and maintaining it.  They are thinking about how to facilitate cooperation, collaboration, and effective problem-solving.  Unfortunately, kindness and consideration (even in speech) is viewed as “weakness” in North Africa, and immediately, the subordinate maid or employee with the “power interest” mentality begins to take advantage, secretly sabotaging the goals of the manager.  The most serious dilemma for the expat manager becomes how to treat employees well (a sincere desire), while at the same time getting them to put forth a good effort toward accomplishing the goals which are important to the manager or employer.

–Lynne Diligent

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18 Responses to “Understanding North African Work Behavior: A Comparative Analysis”

  1. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Bruce Stewart (from Google+) – “This was really good. Thank you.”


  2. intlxpatr Says:

    Powerful article, Lynne, with some great comparisons. Thank you.


  3. airsquadron Says:

    nice reading on my weekend


  4. Balanced Melting Pot Says:

    My goodness, this could be the beginnings of a book! Very thorough analysis. Although I’ve never had a boss prepare the coffee :-), you’re right about American culture constantly pushing the idea that no one is above the other by birthright. We all have the “potential” to be rich and change social classes – although it’s practically impossible. I swear by MBO and am having a heck of a time with seeing the way performance is handled here in Venezuela. It’s so frustrating that neither the boss or the employee know exactly what’s expected, let alone document it. It’s hard to push something like this without sounding like “the American way is the best”, but I simply think it’s one of the most rational and fair management models. That’s my two cents…


    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Thanks for your comments, Deborah. I have personally worked in American offices where the boss made a point of getting in early and preparing the coffee himself once every week or two. I would be very interested in discussing with you in more detail about how performance is handled in Venezuela, and how you are finding the work culture there.



  5. Jim Taggart Says:

    There’s an inherent assumption in North America that “busyness” and long work hours are tantamount to effectiveness and productivity, though the latter’s measures by economists continue to be acutely crude. I think back to the federal government where I worked for three decades and the long hours many managers and some staff put in. Were they effective and did they produce substantial value for citizens and taxpayers? In one word, NO. “Busyness” has no place in today’s competitive economy, whether in the public or private sector.

    I look at Canada’s steadily diminishing competitiveness, where private companies bumble along, pushing their employees to put in longer hours and increasingly where new hires work on contract. Creative thinking and innovation are fading, productivity stinks and emerging economies are eating our lunch.

    It’s about working smarter and investing in technology and people.


  6. algerianna Says:

    Hi Lynne

    Thanks for following my blog.
    You write about interesting themes. This post in particular is quite insightful, a lot of what you say is true. But do you have any idea on the reason why this power calculation is the prime concern of employees?


  7. Bruce Stewart Says:

    I’m not so sure that American managers get off the power hook quite so easily. Hierarchical systems are all designed to turn information flows into power. This can oftimes be counterbalanced by a formal hierarchy: for instance, in Japan, where there is a formal hierarchy by age, there are traditions in place where in meetings the flow is from the youngest to the oldest — this way, truth can be spoken to power without fear of retribution, since you have not yet “contradicted an elder”. Similar deference, I believe, is shown in the British class system when a member of the aristocracy or one who is knighted chairs: their views are left to last at the board room table.

    North American business, on the other hand, has hierarchy organizationally but not a class structure to stand against it. The results are often Dilbertesque. Add to this the US focus on function over history and the counterbalance of appeals to the past or to long-term consequences are quickly overridden by information held today for short-term moves.

    (Indeed, the traditional difference between an American and a Canadian in business was that the answer to “why” in the US was functional, and the answer to “why” in Canada was historical.)

    The French system would be well-advised to look over the border at the Germans: a German Generaldirektor uses the dual board structure, and, in the Mittelstand companies, the town council, as ways of removing the isolation of top management from the community (diffusion of power). No Président et Directeur-General would do so (I could be snarky and say it’s anti-ÉNA, but I won’t). France, like America, loves strong leaders.

    British management falls in between the American and the German, one reason Anglo-Dutch partnerships (Royal Dutch/Shell, Unilever, etc.) work so well. The Dutch share some of the desire for quick action; the British understand the need to allow parallel tracks to emerge and to come to consensus.

    Social networking in the workplace and the “flattening” of hierarchies hasn’t changed any of this: it is far more deeply embedded. (One reason you all go to the pub after work in England is to say things that can’t be said in the context of the office. The social nets are “office”, not “pub”.)

    So … excellent article. The old saying “when in Rome” comes to mind: I know that during the years I was travelling in Europe as a research advisor, and during the year we lived in The Netherlands, I felt it as incumbent on me to be the one to first “fit” the local culture before trying to share some “Canadian changes” with the folk I was with. (Alas, I never did give up my historical explanations during the time spent living and working in the USA, to the chagrin of my clients and co-workers. Adjustment doesn’t mean abandonment of essentials!)


  8. cybermd Says:

    Very interesting. This is the first time I have seen a historical explanation for work behaviours and cross-cultural work productivity variances.


  9. Craig Storti Says:

    Hi Lynne:

    A very good article. I write quite a bit about the feudalism issue in my book Americans At Work, but you took that idea even further. The bits about power and abuses thereof are alsio facsinating.

    Craig Storti


  10. Third Worlder Says:

    Lynne, I agree with Balanced Melting Pot that you could develop this topic into a book!

    I guess you are right that the American attitude of putting great emphasis on freedom, individuality and the ability to rise by one’s own work (thereby rejecting the feudal class system of Europe) was the reason for America becoming the world’s most competitive economy and a leader in technological innovation – there can be no doubt about that.

    I wonder if this is now being lost as a largely free market economy is being replaced (has already been replaced?) by large corporations forming secret cartels to control every field and manipulative forces working behind the scenes to ensure their interests are protected? One can think of the likes of Walmart forcing small retailers out of business or Big Oil doing all they can to suppress the development of clean technology or the parasitic “too big to fail” banks getting huge bailouts from the taxpayer to stay afloat while smaller banks get shut down because they don’t have the clout to blackmail the gubmint for bailouts or the cases of the insurance, healthcare, pharmaceutical mafias etc.

    Unfortunately, gigantic “too big to fail” banks and corporations are nothing but a modern form of feudalism. Like the feudal lords of old, these modern feudal entities aren’t concerned about the well-being of their serfs but only with their own profits and pleasures. Why else would they completely outsource as much of the manufacturing and service industries as possible to the Third World, pushing Americans into unemployment, underemployment and despair (and even homelessness) while profiting from the very low wages they pay to the Third Worlders? It would be ironic if Americans whose ancestors fled from the feudal trap of old Europe become the victims of neo-feudalism. Are the “Occupy Wall Street” protests the beginnings of the neo-serfs’ revolt against their neo-feudal lords? 🙂 (These neo-feudal lords also happen to have the gubmints and lawmakers in their pockets, just like the way kings of old depended on the feudal lords).

    Thank you for explaining that Europe’s generous employment and social benefits are a result of the long struggles of the peasants and serfs against the exploitation of their feudal lords in the old days and a necessity to prevent such an exploitation in modern times. I guess Europe is still a hierarchical society in some forms with social mobility across classes more difficult than in a place like America. This must be especially true in countries like the United Kingdom.

    I believe the generous social benefits given out in the European welfare states are a means to compensate for the comparative lack of social mobility across classes. When even the lowest class of society in the European welfare states get all they need (free education, healthcare, medicines, even housing and many other social benefits) to avoid living in absolute misery, they wouldn’t complain much about lack of social mobility. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it seems homelessness and despair in Europe seem to be relatively less than America. Perhaps the social benefits given out in the European welfare states serve as a huge magnet to attract hordes of desperate people from the Third World, who know that even living as a member of the lower class in a European welfare state is much better than eking out a miserable living back home in their Third World country. Of course, when the difficult financial situation and debt crises force European gubmints to cut back on many of these benefits, there are going to be huge problems.


  11. Third Worlder Says:

    I have no idea about the French management culture, but it does seem that the American management style encourages a good working relationship with employees. As you rightly mentioned, I believe American managers view themselves more as a part of their team rather than behave in a nauseatingly hierarchical manner.

    It comes as a refreshing change and is something that is immediately apparent to someone who lives in an insanely uncouth “culture” which completely lacks the principles of human equality and dignity that are seen as an inseparable part of any civilised society. In fact, I’ll share some photos with you which will explain how some bosses (especially in the incorrigibly corrupt gubmint departments) treat their sub-ordinates which might give you a shock. Of course, the reasons for this can also be learnt from the history and the sick, sub-human social and religious practices of the country I live in.

    It must be true that Americans (managers and employees alike) work harder and for longer hours in general than those in many other countries. But when it comes to workaholism, no one can match the East Asians like the Japanese and the Koreans. I believe they generally work like crazy and so hard that they develop health problems early and even die of overwork in rare cases. I guess their workaholic attitude is enough to explain why they were able to rise like phoenixes (in a very short span of time) to the top from the ashes of war and destruction that completely devastated their countries.


  12. Abdelmjid Seghir Says:

    What a great analysis of a very complex phenomenon!
    I agree with the things you mentioned here. I am from North Africa and I know that what we do here is that we “blindly” follow the French model in management.
    I think we need to open up to the American or Japanese ways of work.
    Thank you Lynne 🙂


  13. Organisations Still Value Rigidity and Conformity Over All « It's Just a Jump to the Left, and then a Step to the Right Says:

    […] about where and how all four of Handy’s types “fit into” their organizations — and relate it to the regional cultures found in their domains of operation (to answer the question “where best to put a function”). Many of those I spoke to were […]


  14. Mike Lehr Says:

    Lynne, you present a very multi-dimensional perspective. It really shows that the right way is whatever way the people want it to be. After all, traditional capitalistic and management theory was originated and promoted by Westerners. If we follow Adam Smith’s original declaration that businesses care primarily about profit, I could easily see why other systems would arise to protect workers, environments, families, etc.

    Let’s remember that the financial crisis was not caused by people breaking laws; it was caused by a system that allowed people to make as much money as they wanted even if it meant wrecking the U.S. and World economies in the process. At the moment, there is no law in the U.S. that prevents anyone from becoming rich even if it would bring economic ruin to the U.S.

    As for U.S. manager’s disinterest in power, I have to totally disagree here. I agree with Bruce’s assessment here. The best predictor of a manager’s behavior is how the specific action will solidify his control, authority and power. It’s not unlike manager’s to forgo monetary benefits (i.e. incentives, bonuses) in exchange for job security.

    I would agree that Management By Objective (MBO’s) would be frustrating for other cultures. The main one being is that it doesn’t work that well in a dynamic, fast-changing economy. MBO’s are really a relic of the 1950’s when America held dominance over economic markets and technological changes were quite slow. As it stands now, MBO’s are out of date within a couple months of being set. They encourage a very static, bureaucratic, uncreative organization to develop.

    Finally, in regard to meritocracy, I would suggest looking into research published by such conservative publications as The Economist. Some claim some European countries are more upwardly economically mobile than the U.S. In the U.S., the number one indicator that predicts where a child will end up in the economic hierarchy of the U.S. is where his parents were.

    I do much work with community banks here in the U.S. and was finally asked to do a seminar by some of the associations on how to work with employees you can’t fire. This is because there are many social, personal and communal relationships at work that prevent firings of incompetent workers even though they would be perfectly legal.

    So, let’s not forget that in the U.S. there is a favorite saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.”

    Still, even though I believe you’ve over stated and sanitized the U.S. system and work ethic, I do believe your conclusions and analysis are in line; the contrasts just aren’t as stark.

    I enjoyed the post!



  15. arabexperience Says:

    Nice reading, thanks.
    Cheers from Holland!


  16. More money = Better work? Not in Algeria! | Patriots on Fire Says:

    […] found this blog interesting as it depicts a foreigner’s perception of our cultural attitude in the workplace. […]


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