What Can We Learn From the French

12/12/2011 02:30 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

I was catching up on some reading over the Thanksgiving holiday and I came across a piece in The Economist that got me thinking. The column, written under the Schumpeter pen name (or nom de plume if we are getting all français), focuses on management issues. This one was entitled The French Way of Work, and asked the question, "Are French workers lazy?"

I was expecting the usual tirade on how French workers have contests to see who can do the least work and the ilk. Having spent some time in France, I was always troubled by this depiction of French workers, as I am often dismayed by broad generalizations of American government employees in the same light. When I was in France, I found that people were incredibly proud of their jobs, and not just doctors, lawyers, and bankers -- but farmers, computer techs, shop clerks, and railroad workers. The column shed some light on why this never made sense.

The author cited a report on global competitiveness published by the World Economic Forum (they do other things than just ski at Davos with Bono and Brangelina) that showed that French workers actually have a stronger work ethic than American, British, or Dutch employees. However, the French still lag in the top-line competitiveness score behind all three. So what gives?

Well, it seems that French workers really don't like the people running their companies. According to some other survey research cited by The Economist, while two-thirds of US, UK, and German workers have good relations with their managers, less than a third of French workers report the same. And forty percent of French workers actively dislike top management. So are the French workers lazy or do they just have a really poor labor-management relationship? The column goes on to postulate it's a systemic problem caused by the way French companies choose managers and top executives. If you are interested in this issue, you should read the column, but lets bring it home as they say.

So what can we learn from the French? It seems that they have more passion for, well, work, but lack the management tools to capitalize on that passion. We Americans are great on ideas and innovation, and apparently better than the French in employee/management relations (but we have some room to grow). I think we have lost some of our national pride in our work, so while I won't ask you to eat organ meat and stinky cheese (leaves more for me), let's take a page out of the French playbook and bring back the pride that used to be an American hallmark.

If you have been following me for a while, you have heard me say this is not a column about telework, or office work, but rather its about the nature of work. My thesis is that work is definable and measurable. Knowledge work is harder to define, but it doesn't have to be harder to measure if the employee and the manager work together to set expectations, define performance criteria and metrics, and most importantly communicate issues and concerns. The nature of work comes down to people. In the U.S., especially at the government level, we tend to measure those people by criteria that are not effective at predicting positive outcomes (e.g., attendance, effort, pure output). We need to teach our managers to manage, our employees to focus on what is really important, and get them both to work together. While we are still better off at the top line in competitiveness than the French, we went from second in the world to fourth. This is not a trend that will serve us well in our efforts to climb out of this financial crisis.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments. You can email me at or check out my blog at