Bridging cultural gaps in project management
As project managers, we can make it easier and more efficient to work in culturally diverse teams by understanding our own cultural preferences and the preferences of our team members, identifying gaps and deciding on strategies to bridge those gaps.
Jens slammed his computer shut and stormed out of the door past his surprised colleagues. After the last conference call with his project team in India and France, he needed to cool off. Why can’t they just do things the way he proposed?
His Indian counterparts in the project team had communicated weeks ago that they are on track to deliver on time, but during this last conference call they reluctantly admitted to needing more time. Why did he have to press them so hard?
His French colleagues – at the same time – kept questioning his authority.
The alignment and communication hurdles he had to jump over during the last months had really taken a toll. Never would he have thought that managing this IT implementation project across international borders would pose to be such a challenge.
Jens started to question his decision to take the lead on this project. His track record had made him the ideal candidate to work on this high-visibility global project. But it slowly dawned on him that what worked well in Denmark might not get him to meet his goals and targets with this international team. The success of this project depended on Jens’ ability to understand the reasons behind his colleagues’ behaviour, to build trusting relationships with his project team and ensure that he communicated in a way that leads to the most effective collaboration of the team.
Managing global projects with team members dispersed across multiple time zones and nationalities has become the norm for most multinational companies. There are many opportunities of global project work like teams being able to work around the clock, pooling the best talent from across the organisation and benefiting from regional knowledge for localisation efforts. At the same time, the potential challenges for project managers also increase.
When we work with national colleagues who have similar core values and the same understanding of processes, there is often less need to explain the reasoning for our approaches and thoughts. The PMI Global Standards (found in the PMBOK) help to create a baseline for discussion among project managers and their teams. However, when we facilitate and execute projects with project teams that have spent their childhood, education and work life in diverse cultural environments, many of our own assumptions of “what is right and wrong” will be put to the test.
What got you here won’t get you there
As project managers, we can make working in these teams easier and more efficient by understanding our cultural preferences and the preferences of our team members, identifying gaps and deciding on strategies to bridge those gaps.
Besides our personal preferences and personalities, we are also an active part of groups that shape our opinions, belief systems and values. National cultures like French, Danish and Indian have found to differ on cultural dimensions that were researched and developed by Hofstede, Trompenaars, Hall and many more. These dimensions are a great starting point to develop more sensitivity to differences in work and communication style. At the same time, we should remember that groups cannot be reduced to a single score on various dimensions. An individual can deviate from a norm and our assumptions need to be tested.
What is also important to realise is that these cultural continuums do not have a positive and negative end, meaning one side is not better or worse than the other. Both sides of the spectrum are heavily context-related and function well in their respective environment.
Some cultures tend to put a lot of emphasis on the status of the person they interact with. You can see this play out in decision-making processes and leadership behaviour. In hierarchical cultures like India, Brazil and France, it is important to know where someone stands in relation to yourself. For a project manager, this can mean that visible support from a high-ranking manager and a more directive approach in making decisions are needed. Egalitarian cultures like Denmark or the Netherlands, on the other hand, have a tougher time with those that play on their status too much, or put themselves in the spotlight. Their consensus-driven managers are often perceived as lacking authority and weak decision-makers in other cultural contexts.
Communication styles can be starkly contrasting between cultures. While there is, of course, a variety in the personal preference, you will find that people adhere to certain rules in a business context. In direct cultures like Denmark and Germany, it is considered rude to “beat around the bush” and deemed constructive to give critical feedback in the moment. In indirect cultures, a similarly blunt statement could be considered rude, impolite and extremely disrespectful towards the person’s reputation. Saving someone’s face is an art form in many conversations in Asia, for example. Especially in virtual work environments, it is important to consider what medium is used (email, chat, conference call, video call) and how to elicit input from less direct communicators.
Our perception of time is influenced by the culture that we grew up in and live in. In certain cultures, time is relative. Polychronic cultures like Indonesia and India have a more fluid understanding of time and typically work on many different things at the same time. You can see this in a looser interpretation of meeting timelines and deadlines, and a flexibility for spontaneity. Monochronic cultures like Germany, Denmark and the U.S. prefer to look at time as a linear, definitive thing. Visible characteristics of these cultures are back-to-back meetings, “time is money” mindset and a preference for punctuality. The view on relationship building while working is a major differentiator, which connects to the next dimension.
Whether you start a project or a meeting, what do you focus on: the people or the task? There are proven differences in our preferences towards one or the other. Those from task-oriented cultures (for example, Denmark and Germany) tend to dive straight into the topic with little “chit-chat” or time for small talk to get to know the project team members. It is assumed that you will get to know each other through the work process. Those from relationship-oriented cultures (for example, France, India and China) typically prefer to spend a longer time getting comfortable and finding out about each other’s professional and private background before getting to work.
When you build your project team and kick off the project, it is helpful to remember these dimensions. Most cultures around the world value hierarchy and relationship as an important part of how business is done. Jens would therefore do well in thinking of ways to build more informal touchpoints with his colleagues from India and France. Additionally, the way we believe trust is built also differs significantly between cultures. While especially Northern European cultures believe that trust is a given, until proven wrong, the majority of cultures around the world believe that trust needs to be gained.
Temporary teams such as global project teams therefore often suffer from a lacking foundation of mutual understanding and approach. Ideally, the project manager – in this case Jens –allocates more time for trust-building activities and exchanges in the beginning of the project phase. When timelines approach or pressure mounts, these different underlying assumptions on how we work together and what is important can otherwise create unnecessary frustrations and conflicts.
Here are some tips for virtual meetings and working across cultures:
Intercultural competence is generally understood as the ability to appropriately communicate and work effectively with people of other cultures. Culture can therefore be understood in a broad sense, for example, also as functional culture, organisational cultures (in M&As), national cultures or generational cultures. To be culturally competent requires that we build more knowledge, develop skills on how to bridge gaps but also change our attitudes to appreciate and value approaches and perspectives that differ from ours.
Each development starts with a good hard look at where you are standing right now. Building your cultural muscles is no different. In the case of culture, what makes it difficult is that we do not necessarily have a good grasp on what it is that defines our cultural identity. Especially for those who have never stepped outside their country lines to live abroad, the reflection on their home country’s values proves difficult.
A first realisation that project managers often have in a global setup is that there is no one way of reaching a goal. Having an open mindset towards different approaches and evaluating alternative solutions or ways of working to have an engaged and committed project team are important realisations. It is helpful to carry that learner mindset and make it a building block of a diverse project team. The more transparent you discuss ways of working together, the easier it is to build a solid team culture.
Once we have realised our own filters and lenses and have established a learner mindset, we need to change habits to build intercultural competence into our project interactions. There are two techniques that can help: frame-shifting and code-switching. Both require that you have knowledge and skills to adjust your behaviour.
Changing your perspective (frame-shifting): Our cultural values and beliefs are what we unconsciously draw upon when speaking, thinking and acting. Shifting that frame of reference means to draw upon new knowledge on cultures and values different from my own (for example, a hug might be considered a sign of friendship in one culture, but would be offensive and intrusive in another culture).
Changing your communication style (code-switching): The practice of shifting the way you express yourself and communicate in your conversations based on the recipient (originates from multilingual speakers, but also concerns communication principles like directness, non-verbal expression etc.).
After a few honest conversations with his project partners and learning about his colleagues’ cultures, Jens realised that he had overseen a lot of elements that could have been misinterpreted by his colleagues. He, however, also saw the tremendous opportunity of turning this project into a development opportunity for himself. With new energy, he set out to draft an email to his project team to share his excitement and how much he was hoping to learn from them in the future.
What about you? Have you been part of or led a global project team? What are your tips on working within cross-cultural project teams?
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