Belgium is a country which is internally divided, where regional tensions can be detected just below the apparently calm surface of business life.
The inherent tensions within Belgium society have led to the knowledge that compromise and negotiated settlements are essential if progress is to be made.
Companies have traditionally been organised along strictly hierarchical lines – but this system is currently under attack and many companies are moving towards the adoption of more matrix-oriented models.
Decisions tend to laboured, as they have to go through the process of compromise and debate if they are to be accepted.
Managers tend to take a measured approach which relies heavily on consultation and discussion – this is more the case in the Flemish areas than in Wallonia.
Being conservative and compromise-oriented, rapid change is difficult to achieve and new ideas may be viewed with suspicion.
Confrontation is to be avoided and being dogmatic can be viewed as arrogance. Open disagreement within meetings is more likely to be seen in Flanders than in Wallonia.
Belgians work well in multi-cultural teams – possibly better than they do in teams which include both Flemings and Walloons.
In a group situation, it is important to try to develop a harmonious atmosphere, free from conflict.
The English language is widely spoken (especially in Brussels where many people exhibit an advanced degree of fluency.)
It is often best to speak English in Belgium, even if reasonably fluent in French (or Flemish), as this maintains neutrality.
Communication styles differ between the two major Belgian groupings. Flemings tend more towards direct speech than their colleagues in Wallonia who have an almost French-like love of rhetoric.
Humour, if used at all in business, would tend to be included at the beginning or end of a meeting rather than during any of the substantive issues.
Women tend not to be found in the highest echelons of Belgian business.
Food is important and it is better not to try to discuss the detail of a business transaction until the coffee is served.
Surnames are usually used in business circles and the transition to the more familiar use of first names can take time.
Written and Produced by Keith Warburton
This country profile has been produced to give a short overview of some of the key concepts to bear in mind when doing business with contacts in Belgium. It is intended to be an aid to business people who have commercial dealings with counterparties in the country but should not be seen as an exhaustive guide to this topic or as a substitute for more substantial research should there be a need.
With this in mind, we have covered the areas which are key to a better understanding of the cultural mindset underpinning business dealings in Belgium and which are, quite often, extremely different from the approach and thought processes associated with business in other parts of the world.
Therefore this briefing note is broken into short, bite-sized sections on the following topics: