The increase of international projects has made working and communicating with people of different cultures and languages more common. Preparing and understanding another person's culture, mind set, sensitivities and communication styles can maximize the chances for successful outcomes.
Some of the most common problems of cross-cultural working arise from three main misconceptions:
1. Assuming your way is the correct way
In my experience working in the West, it's generally considered a positive trait to be able to communicate assertively, directly and voice an opinion.
But for Far East and Arab cultures, communicating in this manner is largely considered rude and aggressive. Emphasis is placed more on honor, pride, politeness and relationship building as a means for successful collaboration.
2. Assuming everybody understands your language
When I began working in the Middle East, I wrongly assumed that my strong British accent and articulation of the English language was clear for everyone. But just because I spoke clearly did not automatically mean that everyone understood me.
In fact, politeness prevented people from telling me truthfully that they didn't understand what I was saying. Though English is spoken around the world, it is still a second or third language for others. Allow time for others to process what is being said.
Additionally, the word "no" does not exist in some cultures. These cultures breed an optimistic disposition, and the answer to everything is a nod of the head, whether it's impossible deadlines or difficult requirements. If left unchecked, the end results will lead to frustration, misunderstandings and differences in quality expectations.
3. Selecting organizations or individuals on language abilities
When selecting suppliers, implementation teams or project staff, it seems more reassuring to recruit based on English language skills. The assumption is that communications will be easier and mitigate risks associated with translation.
This can actually backfire as the ability to communicate in English does not necessarily mean a person or organization is suitable for the job.
Based on personal experiences and lessons learned, here are my suggestions for good practices for project managers who work across cultures on projects:
- Begin conversations with a warm and engaging welcome. If you can learn the greeting in the local language, this immediately breaks the ice and leaves a good impression.
- When speaking English, speak slowly and use simple words.
- Limit professional jargon and unfamiliar terms until you are sure they are understood.
- Ask questions and politely request the other party to share their understanding.
- Never show frustration at having to explain something more than once.
- Insist on an opinion or clarification if one is required.
- Listen to everyone's opinion. It may be the person who is not speaking or is not the most articulate has the most valuable input.
- Be patient and tolerant in accommodating others' styles of making a point.
- Be astute as to what is being said and why.
- Follow up meetings with appropriate written communications to confirm times, dates, costs, and any other agreements or actions. Insist on a reply confirmation.
- Ask, request and check for constant feedback
- Smiling, relaxing and showing personality helps build relationships faster.
- Deliver on your commitments. This builds trust and respect. It sets a standard and makes it easier to hold others accountable.
- Employ multilingual people who can advise on cultural norms.
- Spend time building communication networks.
- Consider cultural training, guidebooks or manuals for all team members working on cross-cultural projects.
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