Project managers have for many years been required to manage teams in other countries and from other cultures but with the rapid expansion of global projects aimed at taking advantage of cost-effective technical expertise in other parts of the world, the ability to work effectively with other cultures is now more important than ever.
But working with project teams from different cultures can pose additional risks to a project because of a lack of understanding, from both sides, of the differences in underlying values and attitudes and how these affect working practices.
So managing cross-cultural teams requires a more flexible approach to project management from not only the people management perspective but also with respect to communication, reporting, procedures, change and risk.
Communication, whether in person, by telephone, email or formal reporting, is one of the most significant areas of difference between cultures. Many “eastern” cultures have rigid workplace hierarchies that do not encourage frank, open discussions in the way that some “western” meritocracies do. Problems of any sort whether about technical, budget or schedule issues are unlikely to be raised unless they become serious problems.
A reticence to clearly communicate problems is one of the many risks of working cross-culturally and it is difficult to encourage team members who have spent their whole working lives either avoiding reporting a problem, or developing subtle means to convey their concerns, to suddenly change their working practices and become open about issues.
Many global project managers think that simply stating that they want a team to be frank with them is enough to remove the ingrained working values held by other cultures. This is rarely the case so it may be necessary to adapt procedures in order to obtain accurate information about the project status.
But before attempting to modify project processes to handle cultural differences, it is important to start building good relationships with key team members so that trust can be established. This requires effort on all sides to understand the viewpoint of the other culture(s) but a trusting working relationship will go a long way to helping the project run more smoothly.
One of the simplest and most effective tools for encouraging unambiguous communication is to include questionnaires as part of all report documentation with very carefully worded, and direct, questions that do not allow for prevarication or avoidance of a potential issue. This simple adaptation to a standard document template can help the project manager to glean a true picture of the project status without either causing offence or expecting a sudden change in mentality.
Many professional project managers will have researched the different culture, learnt from previous projects or a more experienced project manager or even, in some cases, taken specific cultural awareness training in order to maximise the benefits of using overseas project teams and to minimise the risks. But, as with any nation, it is impossible to generalise on working attitudes so there is no substitute for personal experience with an overseas team. Those project managers who are able to work with the same overseas team over a long period of time will, obviously, become more familiar with the working practices of that team and the particular approaches that work best for the individuals involved.
If a project manager can understand the individuals behind the team – what motivates them to do a good job, their particular skills & expertise and their communication style then the project will be more likely to deliver a successful outcome. And that is, perhaps, no different whether the individuals are from different cultures or not.
So one solution to effective working in cross-cultural teams may be to get to know the people behind the faces or is that too simplistic a view point? Let us know what you think – we would value your comments.
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I think managing cross-cultural teams is always challenging and that you’re right; adapting communication and building trust is important before making any huge changes in cultural norms. In the long run projects like these tend to have a long, steep learning curve but if you can bring it all together… there are often big bonuses from the diversity of thinking and approach brought by team members from other cultures.