Managing Multicultural Teams

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In my first post ever, I talked about how the "multi" factor plays an important role in projects and how project managers must be prepared to address team issues related to this phenomenon.

As project managers in a global environment, we are now more often expected to lead multi-regional projects. This adds the element of different cultures -- both national and organizational -- that adds can add complexity to projects.

Perhaps your experience is similar to mine when working with project teams in a global environment. My multicultural project team consists of senior stakeholders, a deployment team and a technical support team. All team members have varying experience in the organization, but also can come from very different cultural backgrounds.

There can be a struggle when starting a project in a culture that you are not familiar with. How do you bring everyone together to share a common vision and commitment on the project delivery? I have learned that I need to develop strong cultural competencies to manage a multicultural project team effectively and to establish connections with the team members.

I like to use three tactics when on-boarding a new team member from a different culture:

1. Explain the purpose and benefits of the project to help establish the bond between the team member and the project objectives. Stress the importance of his or her role and how his or her local experience and knowledge will benefit the project.  

2. Discuss any concerns that the team member may have, such as with language or customs. This can also help break the ice and show that you understand how difficult cross-cultural relationships can be.  

3. Emphasize what is important to you, whether it's work ethic or communication methods, and why it's important. Don't assume that all of your expectations are globally understood.

When I manage a project abroad, one of my preferred ways to build cultural awareness is by spending time visiting popular spots where the locals meet. For example, at restaurants, coffee shops, sporting events and shopping centers, you can observe customs, traditions and behaviors.

Your observations in those settings can help to answer your questions about the culture. But it's just not observation that will help you.  People are very proud of their cultures and customs and are often keen to help you understand them. This supports the need to build a rapport with your team, whilst also building your awareness.

It's also important to understand your own culture's norms and behaviors. That knowledge helps guard against interpreting another culture's behaviors in terms of your own unexamined expectations.

As a global project manager, how do you manage a multicultural team?  

Posted by Conrado Morlan on: August 20, 2012 02:28 PM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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PM Hut
Hi Conrado, I think #1 (explaining the vision to your team members) should happen in all projects - not only on multi-cultural projects. I can think of two things that have to do with the project manager, for example: - The project manager must know about the major traditions and customs for the countries represented in his project (through the project team) and - The project manager must treat each country's team members differently

I agree with PM hut in that and explanation and understanding of the project vision should be present on all projects. I also believe that a solid understanding and good comunication is very important in a multicultural project. Nothing should become lost in translation.

As a cultural consultant and experienced project manager, I have focused on culture, project teams and leadership. I agree with Conrado that developing cultural competence is necessary for a project manager, but I suggest the need to understand cultures is both broader and deeper. To begin, cultural differences come from different assumptions and values, which we do not even recognize until we work with others from another culture. Culture effects how we communicate, make decisions, conduct our meetings, come to agreements, etc. Project managers need to be careful that they do not impose their own culture on the project team and lose the advantage of the diversity. Therefore, I suggest the project managers and the entire project team explore these deeper layers of culture and develop a shared team culture for working together. Through this shared learning, the entire project team develops the cultural competence to effectively work together and achieve their cross-border goals.

Nora Collton, MBA, PMP
Several years ago, I presented on this topic to the PMI-NH chapter. The impact of multiculturalism of project teams goes beyond people relationships. In my talk, I included perception of time and its impact on the schedule or responses to dates, level of and details needed for communication based on cultures, and many others. Cross-cultural project management is a very interesting topic for me as it is very salient today.

Cenk, MBA, PMP, MSc
Very well written post Conrado, thank you. As a PM working abroad for a couple of years leading multicultural virtual teams, I do agree with your comments. I think culture and the language are the most important barriers a PM and his team may face when working in a multinational environment. These two could have a strong impact on the communication channels created between the PM and team members. Knowing that generally 90 % of the time of a PM is spent on communication, the PM is the key to determine when, how, what to communicate and the frequency. Last but not least, even though we have different cultures and languages, if you gain the respect of the team members by being an example, you will have their commitment to the project and the success will follow against all odds.

Dr. Zareen karani
"Communication is complex even in the best of situations. Shared values, attitudes, beliefs, customs and thoughts by a majority of people within a society create a central culture. These shared cultural components create cultural preferences, or the preferred way of doing things, with the people who are formed within that culture.With cross border mobility becoming much easier the number of people moving from one country to another has grown significantly. This has also led to more people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds intermarrying. Their children could be born and grow up in different countries and have hybrid cultural identities. Globalization and the advances in communication and transportation technology have reduced trade barriers and increased interaction among people".

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