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Establishing a connection early on among team members is essential, but it can get complicated when they're from different parts of the world.
One of the elements I consider is what anthropologist Edward T. Hall describes as a person's cultural context level. Higher context cultures -- such as Italian, Latin American, Chinese and Indian -- place great value on interpersonal relationships. Lower context cultures -- such as U.S., British or German -- emphasize directness and logic. For example, non-verbal communication is more important in higher context cultures. In higher context cultures, the contract is a starting point for negotiation. In lower context cultures, the contract is the contract.
By understanding an individual's personal, national and organizational cultures, you can better align the team and gain greater influence.
I didn't just read up on this theory. I lived it. While leading a project in Brazil in 2001, some U.S. team members told me they were uncomfortable with how Latin American team members greeted them with hearty handshakes and kisses on the cheek.
I knew I had to address the issue early on to set the tone for the rest of the project. So during our next meeting, I eased into the topic by showing clips of people greeting each other in movies or sitcoms, making sure none were from the United States or Latin America. Afterward, I asked team members how they would react if they were in a similar situation. This was a revealing moment as the team became aware of their cultural differences by "seeing" themselves in the video clips. This broke the ice and opened the floor for candid discussions.
Since then, I've included cultural differences on the agenda for every first team meeting. I use that time as an open forum for us to share and record cultural experiences. I also create a repository with documents and video clips that can be later used to induct new team members.
I've shared this experience with peers, who agree that cultural awareness is a skill that should be developed and mastered. Incorporating a cultural differences exercise establishes respect and empathy for diverse values and behaviors, which in turn creates an open and accepting team environment.
How do you handle cultural differences of your team members at the start of each project? What are you doing to build cultural awareness?
Thank you very much for sharing your experience! I'm not a project manager but an Organizational Anthropologist who studied cross-cultural collaboration in mega projects and gives training and advise on the same topic. I agree that cultural awareness needs to be high on the project management agenda and that the cultural differences are necessary to detect and discuss. However, I strongly believe that a focus on the cultural similarities fosters project participants to form a team. Hence, I suggest that, besides listing the differences between the (national, organizational and professional) culture groups, highlighting the similar norms, values and habits that exist within these groups supports the development of a collaborative relationship in the project organization.