France vs. US: Which work culture is more sustainable?

When we talk about work-life balance, we often point to the European work culture, with its short work weeks and lengthy vacations. But do we also -- at the same time -- think “less productive”?

To get a deeper look, Weinreb Group talked to Laura Clise, who leads the sustainable development department for Areva North America. A graduate of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, she's a sustainability professional with copious international work experience.

Areva is a French company, but Clise is based in the United States. That puts her in a good position to observe the similarities and differences between the two work cultures. During our conversation, she acknowledged several myths about the famous European workweek, but also emphasized that there are indeed some clear differences between U.S. and French work cultures.

Here are six of those differences:

1. Deliberation vs. Execution

Clise sees a fundamental difference between U.S. and French decision-making: Americans tend to focus on execution, whereas the French are more likely to emphasize the deliberative process, she says.

While Americans can be frustrated by the amount of research required to inform an ultimate decision, the French frequently see the U.S. method as hurried and incomplete.

For example, when she partnered with her French colleagues on a recent report, Clise remembered, her colleagues' document was extremely thorough, consisting of more than 50 pages, while her version was designed to communicate the minimum necessary information for its intended audience.

2. Governance

Although it involves a lot of input, French decision-making often occurs at the highest levels of an organization. French corporations typically have a more hierarchical power structure than their U.S. counterparts, which -- while bureaucratic -- tend to have a culture of execution throughout the ranks.

As Clise put it: “Decisions usually cascade down the levels, which presented an initial challenge for our regional sustainability program, as it hadn’t been contextualized for the North American market.”

A one-way governance system can create a gap between ranks that may reflect class disparities. While this is also a challenge in the U.S., Clise said it appears to be even more of one in France.

3. Mobility

In France, employees' upward mobility appears to be highly correlated with the university they attended. And the Grandes Ecoles tend to dominate public- and private-sector leadership. The French higher-education system is highly competitive, and the top Grandes Ecoles accept relatively few students even when compared to the most elite universities in U.S.

While the Ivy League functions similarly, those who don’t attend one still have great career options. This, emphasizes Clise, reflects the American ethos of opportunity and meritocracy, or “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

Next page: Different attitudes toward profit