A couple of weeks ago I wrote about presentations in French companies, which I thought was a useful precursor to what I will talk about now – meetings in France.
The most important thing to know about meetings in France is they are not convened for the purpose of sharing information and especially not for making decisions. Decisions in French companies are made by managers meeting informally, e.g. at lunch or in the coffee room or, in many cases, unilaterally by a single senior manager. It is important to understand that any meeting which looks as though it is convened for the purposes of making a decision is simply theatre, a ruse to hoodwink underlings and auditors that some sort of process has been followed. More often though, it is plainly obvious nothing of importance gets decided in French meetings because the whole thing is one long discussion with no decision at the end of it.
So what are they for? Well, that depends. If it’s a regular, scheduled meeting it’s to inform the management of what is going on in their own department. That I will make the subject of a separate post, because it deserves one all of its own. But if it’s any other meeting, it’s best thought of as something akin to the court of a medieval king, with a twofold purpose:
1. It gives subordinates an opportunity to impress the senior manager
This can be done by showing enthusiasm for the manager’s ideas, the latest management directive, or the process being followed. It can also be done by “offering solutions”, even if what is said is quite daft and the person has no expertise in the subject whatsoever. French meetings may be unique in that everyone has an equal say, so if the chap in charge of catering wants to weigh in on drilling, his opinions are considered just as valid as those of the drilling specialist. It is forbidden to suggest that because an individual has no knowledge or experience in a subject, he or she shouldn’t stick their beak in. I have tested this rule to destruction.
Another way of impressing the management is to catch one of your colleagues out on some area of knowledge or a technicality, thus making him look stupid. This stems from the French school system, and probably accounts for more man hours being wasted in France than anything else. If you can ask a question of your colleague (but never, ever your manager: I have also tested this to destruction) that he cannot immediately answer, you have scored a point by indicating you are sharper than he is. Astonishingly, French managers actually believe this. It’s therefore common in French meetings for someone to say “Aha! But did you think of this?” with “this” being some ludicrous scenario nobody in their right mind would consider. Indeed, if you did this in an Anglo-Saxon environment you’d be told to shut up and stop being silly, but in France all questions are valid, and so the person being asked cannot simply dismiss it. This is why their presentations consist of 96 slides with another 150 for backup: they have to anticipate someone asking, “but what was the pressure in the pipe in 1978?” and, if he doesn’t have the answer to hand, being pompously told “but you should know.” And then he watches the person who asked cast a quick glance at the boss before sitting back and with a smug grin of satisfaction all over his face. Without exaggeration, I have seen teams execute hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work and expend thousands of man hours studying ludicrous scenarios because “if someone asks in the presentation, we need to be ready”. Saying, “no we didn’t study this because it’s obviously stupid and unworkable” is an unacceptable answer in a French meeting; everything must be analysed and considered.
Finally, as a minimum everyone in a French meeting is expected to speak and contribute in order to get noticed by the manager, and it is these performances on which your career progression depends. You can now imagine why they go on so long. Things are made worse by the practice of having a “round the table” at the end of the meeting. So having listened to three hours of people ask stupid questions, opine on subjects way outside their area of expertise, and talk forever about how they discovered (at great expense) that water is wet, each individual is invited to have their final say to wrap things up. Each person, with one eye on the senior manager at the head of the table, will repeat whatever he or she said during the meeting in a process which takes no less than half an hour. If the term “replacement bus service” causes English speakers to contemplate suicide, the French words “tour de table” at the end of a pointless meeting that is already running an hour late will drain the will to live from even the sturdiest expat.
2. It reinforces the seniority of the manager
A Chinese chap I once worked with told me meetings in China consist of the big boss listening to various opinions of all his subordinates before making a declaration of what will happen next. Even if the manager has made a catastrophic error of judgement, perhaps by misunderstanding something technical, everyone will bow their heads and say “yes sir” in a show of unanimous obedience. It is career-suicide to even contemplate questioning the boss, regardless of how wrong he may be. Compared to Anglo-Saxon meetings, French meetings feel very Chinese. Once the senior manager has made his feelings known, there is very little pushback from subordinates who may well be seething (and will complain bitterly as soon as the meeting is over and the boss out of earshot). Making declarations and seeing everyone stare at the desk in silence, fearful over their next performance appraisal, is a useful way for a manager to reinforce his or her authority over the team. (I’ll let you imagine what it’s like for the manager when I’m in the room; there are reasons why my career has been dead for quite some time.)
The meeting also serves as an opportunity for the manager to assert his or her authority by assigning tasks to their team members. Often they are belittling admin tasks, or tasks the employee is wholly unsuited to perform, and the ordinary French employee has no choice but to accept they will do it as best they can. When it comes to snapping out random orders which leave their staff baffled, French managers are a lot more Asian or African than European. It is telling that they are often reluctant to issue orders one-on-one, and if they do it’s almost always via email, never face to face. This is because the orders are unimportant, and the tasks would be deemed unnecessary if the slightest thought was applied. Rather, it is the act of issuing instructions in full view of the team which is important, followed by the underling obeying without question. It’s also a test of loyalty, so a manager can identify who the troublemakers are. Usually, it was me.
If you ever find yourself in a French meeting, it is important you understand the true purpose of the meeting and the game that’s being played, and you abandon whatever expectations your own culture has supplied you with. Your best bet, though, is to avoid them altogether.