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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.