Doing business in Belgium

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Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830; it was occupied by Germany during World Wars I and II. The country prospered in the past half century as a modern, technologically advanced European state. Belgium’s central geographic location and highly developed transport network have helped develop a well-diversified economy, with a broad mix of transport, services, manufacturing, and high tech. Service and high-tech industries are concentrated in the northern Flanders region while the southern region of Wallonia is home to industries like coal and steel manufacturing. Antwerp has developed into one of the largest ports in the world, servicing massive volumes of inward and outward trade for the EU.

Belgium is the eighth most populated country of the European Union with 11.6 million inhabitants. It hosts the headquarters of the EU Commission and Council, NATO and many other international organisations.

Belgium plays an important role in global matters disproportionate to its size and economic power. However, there is no one cohesive Belgian culture. There are significant differences in approaches and attitude between the two ethnic groupings of the Walloons and the Flemish.

The Dutch-speaking Flemish community, mostly found in the northern region of Flanders, comprises about 60% (6.5 million) of the population. Their language is Flemish or Belgian Dutch. The second most spoken language in Belgium is French. The French-speaking community lives in the southern Wallonia region and in the capital Brussels, and this community constitutes approximately 40% (4.5 million) of the population. There is also a tiny German-speaking minority in the eastern regions of the province of Liege (on the border with Germany) and the ‘Luxembourgish’ language is spoken in the province near the border with Luxembourg. In recent years, political divisions between the Flemish and the Walloons of the south have led to constitutional amendments granting these regions formal recognition and autonomy.

Business culture in Belgium

Education is a focal point of the Belgian culture. From a very young age, children are taught the importance of education and good manners. As a society, Belgians tend to be tolerant, flexible, modest, and open-minded. They value privacy, enjoy a safe and comfortable life, work hard, and are self-disciplined. Belgians tend to be very involved in their communities and government. They can be reserved around new people but once they get to know someone, they are warm and friendly.

In the work environment, work relationships are contract based, the focus is on the task and autonomy is favoured. The management is the management of individuals and the recognition of one‘s work is expected.

The Belgian culture (together with the French culture) houses a “contradiction”: although highly Individualist, the Belgians need a hierarchy. A British manager of a Belgian manufacturing subsidiary quoted in Richard Hill’s book The Art of Being Belgian: “In Belgium, there is a strong sense of hierarchy and people working for me wouldn’t disagree with me or offer their opinions. I realized the Flemish are quite reserved, and now I work with this, instead of against it.”

Belgium also scores highly on Hofstede’s Uncertainty-Avoidance scale. This means business dealings tend towards bureaucracy with many procedures, formal channels of communication and a great deal of paperwork. The approach is conservative and compromise-oriented, so rapid change is difficult to achieve and new ideas may be viewed initially with apprehension.

Belgians, especially the Flemish, prefer a monochronic work style and are used to pursuing actions and goals systematically. When negotiating, they may work their way down a list of objectives in order and be unwilling to revisit aspects that have already been agreed upon. Negotiating is usually a joint problem-solving process. They tend to focus equally on near-term and long-term benefits. Most people are co-operative and open to compromising in order to move forward. Since most Belgians believe in the concept of win-win, they expect you to reciprocate their respect and trust. Be straightforward, calm and persistent and avoid confrontation.

For the Flemish, communication is more frank and direct yet informal as the boss mixes with staff and often acts on their ideas. The language lends itself to concise, factual descriptions and clear instructions. Facts are important and a low key presentation, using understatement and willingness to compromise goes down well. Bosses are more relaxed and low key as it is generally accepted that decision-making will be consensual.

Communication with the Walloons tends towards a more effusive style (a toned-down Gallic style) with full discussion on all aspects and issues, a flexible agenda and long critical discussions before a decision is reached. Leadership is more akin to the French style where final decisions will be made by the boss.

Humour is used in the business world, but less frequently than in the UK. It may be used at the beginning and end of meetings, but rarely when serious talks are under discussion.

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