Belgium is a small country of 11 million people, located on the shore of the North Sea in Western Europe. But its size and relatively small population belie the forces it exerts on the European economy and overall business climate.
Belgium is considered politically stable, as all of Western Europe is. However, deep cultural divisions within the country make doing business within it complicated.
There is no singular cultural identity that is considered “Belgian.” Instead, Belgians draw cultural elements from their largest surrounding countries — France, Germany and The Netherlands. The customs embraced and languages spoken vary greatly depending on the region of Belgium you’re in.
The country is roughly bisected into a northern region, called Flanders, and a southern region, called Wallonia. Flanders, which includes the national capital of Brussels, is composed primarily of the Dutch-speaking Flemish people. Wallonia, with its regional capital in Namur, is home to the Walloon people, who speak primarily French, with a small German-speaking minority in the far east of the region.
The cultural and linguistic divisions between the regions have led to a longstanding power struggle within the country’s political structure, which has a profound impact on how business is conducted in the country.
Here are some things to remember as you pursue business opportunities within Belgium.
Structures can vary
The cultural rift in the country affects businesses on a fundamental level. Companies run by Walloons adhere to a French organizational style — vertically oriented, with a centralized power structure focused on a strong leader or leadership group. Flemish businesses are more influenced by the Dutch organizational model, which embraces a more egalitarian and collaborative structure.
Overall, the trend in Belgium is toward flatter organizational structures and a higher degree of collaboration, but understanding the cultural background of your business partners remains a critical step to establishing good relations.
Pragmatism is key
Regardless of what part of the country they hail from, Belgians are pragmatic when it comes to meetings. In contrast to other European countries, where shop talk might be woven into a social meal that lasts for hours and involves more than a few drinks, Belgian meetings are very professional, to the point and solution-driven.
Public confrontation is frowned upon and compromise for the greater good is highly valued. In vertically structured Walloon companies, debating the leader of the group or company in front of others is usually not an accepted practice. Subordinates are allowed to question the leader, but it will be better received if done in private.
Add a third party
If you lead or serve on a team composed of a mix of Flemish and Walloons, recruiting other outsiders to the mix is often a good way to avoid the development of factions. If a team is made up solely of Flemish and Walloons, the longstanding tension between the cultures can easily cause members to faction, undermining the collective goals of the team.
With a third party of outsiders from other countries involved, it is much more difficult for team members to split their allegiances. The neutral members can also act as mediators should disputes develop that are cultural in nature.
Speak English when possible
Especially in Brussels, English is widely spoken in Belgium. It’s the primary language of very few people, but it is understood by many and is a preferred language of business.
If you speak Dutch, French or German, you run the risk of identifying with Flemish or Walloon interests, which can cause problems if you have business dealings that encompass people from both cultures.
Gender relations are conservative
Although many Belgian women have fulfilling careers, and overt gender discrimination is considered rare, the upward mobility of women through the ranks of Belgian companies is slow when compared to some other countries. It’s rare to find a high-ranking female executive, and progress for women up the corporate ladder is relatively slow.
The situation is slowly changing, but women conducting business in Belgium should be aware of the gender-relations climate.