Best Practices to Engage with Cross-Cultural Teams

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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.
What advice or experiences of interacting with other cultures can you share?

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Posted by Saira Karim on: March 30, 2012 11:55 AM | Permalink

Comments (14)

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PM Hut
Hi Saira,

About your first paragraph: "Assuming your way is the correct way"... I don't agree when it comes to your opinion about the West.

While this might be true for British people (being assertive), it's not true for North America at all. In Canada, for example, when someone asks you to do something, he might tell you: "How about if we try this..." It's probably the most polite way to ask someone to do something. This is true, to some extent, in the US (although there can be a huge difference from one state to another).

Thanks for sharing...

Janaina Silva
Great Article! I totally agree!

I would like to share an experience I had in India:

I was the only woman among around 15 men to discuss the commercial aspects in relation to a Contract with a client.

I led the negotiations and nobody from the client’s side looked at me. They were directing their eyes to one of my colleagues, which was an Indian man.

I asked myself: How could I get their respect and attention in order to not ruin the negotiations?

I got two answers in my mind:

1 – Try to get their respect being very strict and serious in order to get their respect, or;

2 – Try to get their positive reception, letting them know how I appreciate their country and how Brazil (my home country) admires their culture.

I picked the second one.

Therefore, I started saying trivial things, like the Indian weather is similar to Brazil and how Brazil was at that time affectionate by India because of a soup opera which were all about India.

It really worked, they started paying attention on me and I got their respect and affection.

Mark Bowen
Thank you very much Saira for this interesting discussion.

In our country, South Africa, we have a large number of cultures and languages living and working side by side. In one of my businesses we had 4 people working in one office - we used to joke because in that tiny space we had three race groups and three languages spoken. The language spoken depended on who was speaking to whom as each person could speak two languages but was very weak on the third.

I believe that the trick is to enjoy the people that you work with, share experiences, have respect for each other and relax a bit. Don't assume that even though you are speaking the same language that you understand each other - accents can play havoc in interpreting instructions! If you start with respect and patience then you will achieve a lot.

Thank you.

Barb Richards
Excellent framework to build good working relationships.

Respecting cultural traditions can also turn out nicely. We found our certain staff from Russian regions and other northern climes valued daily afternoon tea/coffee breaks.

Seemingly non-productive time for us Westerners, but joining in occasionally (pick a day) can cement trust relationships. In casual settings, but never in formal meetings, staff felt OK asking big-picture questions to clarify their understanding, or would reveal problems they saw developing.

Saira Karim
Many thanks Mark and Janaina for sharing your experiences from South Africa and India, you've pointed out some valuable lessons.

PM Hut, many thanks for your point. I highlighted the misconception 'Assuming your way is the right way' in a certain context. I was alluding more to the point that assertiveness should be balanced with diplomacy and relationship building as a means to getting the job done.

Tim Shaw

Thanks for posting this insightful list of reminders and tips for successful multicultural projects.

I definitely agree that "Assume nothing, clarify everything" is a good mantra (even for Western all English based projects!).

As an American, I know not everyone would share my outlook but here goes...

A great idea that has always worked well for me is that when traveling abroad for business I always try to work in some local sightseeing to take in the local culture.

My hosts in each and every country I have visited have always been more than willing to be my tour guides. This allows a bond and human understanding to develop outside the pressures of the office or project site that help make communication and negotiations in the office go much smoother... and develops lasting friendships beyond just the business relationship.

I try to always return the favor when working in the US, by showing my visiting colleagues around the city or always a favorite, taking in a local sporting event like a baseball or basketball game. (My thanks to my colleagues in India for sharing their love of Cricket, and their patience teaching me to follow their game!)

My most recent experiences in India and China might have left me with quite a different impression without the support, guidance, and friendship of my local hosts.

Take the time to appreciate other cultures, it will serve you and the world well. Multicultural experiences can be challenging and frustrating, but can also be fun and a learning experience you might not have planned.

This article is very interesting and knowledgeable. I would like to add one thing to the article: When interacting with the vendors/stakeholders from a different culture, it is always better to research/understand the culture prior to the interaction/engagement. This will help in resolving the cultural differences.

Barb, Tim and Anon,

Thank you all for your sincere advice. On the mention of 'mantras' one I always remember is that "the project manager role is that of a communicator'.

'Developing bonds of human understanding', 'respecting' and 'interacting' with different cultures may sometimes take us out of our comfort zones but these experiences provide us with opportunities to broaden and sharpen our communication abilities.

Multicultural relationships built on good mutual human interaction and communication will help to get the work done but as you rightly say Tim can 'serve you and the world well'.

Faisal Rathoor
I do not agree with your points. What you have mentioned is based on your personal experience.

I am in the industry for last 30 years, and have mega projects in the Middle East under my name. I believe that handling people is an art. I have been handling teams quite successfully and I never experienced the matters you mentioned in your article.

There is difference between an observation of a trainer and practitioner. Reality is different. It is not based on theoretical assumptions.

Consuelo Santiago-Dean
Regarding point No. 1: Assuming your way is the correct way: The same is said for Latin America. We are taught to respect our elders and managers. In USA, I have found that they do want you to be direct, to the point and not personable. Which to me comes across as rude.

Point No. 2: Assuming everybody understands your language. This is true and applies to the spoken and non-spoken language. Body language says a lot.

We have a saying in my country that "speaking everyone understands each other." This means all forms of communication and going the extra mile to truly get to know and understand each other. And if you are the PM, that YOU are understood.

Saira Karim
Consuelo, you're so right when you say 'Body language says a lot.' Thank you for mentioning this, as our body language does say a lot and can really make all the difference when communicating. We often forget that communication is not just the spoken or written word our gestures, postures and expressions aid in completing and clarifying our message too.

Faisal, thank you for commenting. My blog is based on my personal work experiences as a project manager and experiences of project professionals in my network. I agree with you when you say 'handling people is an art.' Both art and communicating improve with experience and maturity. It would be appreciated and helpful if in your comment you could share some of your 30 years of advice on HOW you managed teams so successfully.

Conrado Morlan
Having the opportunity to work for multinational companies with presence in more than 200 countries and territories has given me the opportunity to lead large global and regional information-technology projects.

While technology made the work complex, the element of culture, both national and organizational, amplified the complexity.

During my tenure in those companies I learned that there are certain interpersonal skills that project managers must master in order to analyze situations and interact appropriately, as outlined in Appendix G of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)¬—Fourth Edition.

The skills include political and multicultural awareness. Cultures are based on invisible values, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions created by shared experiences and events. These differ across cultures and each will likely feel or behave differently in the same situation. The lack of cultural awareness may lead to a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the situation.

Saira, your points are valid and may replicate in different latitudes across the world. Cultural differences can lead to frustration, conflict and poor team morale. It is always easier to work or do business with people from the same culture as us or at least of a similar culture.This is clear because,we typically have no language barriers and the cultural cues are easy to read.

But culture may relate to Jean Paul Sartre’s quote “In football (soccer) everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.”

Rob Dunbar
It’s like being a negotiator…

“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.”

Dr. Zareen karani
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.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.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.Never show frustration at having to explain something more than once.

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