Challenges of intercultural Project Teams

intercultural Project

Managing a Project as such can be quite a challenge. But adding an international flavor can make things more challenging, or can it?

Initiating a Project always means creating a business culture that is separate from existing ones (hierarchies in companies etc.) and it must differ from these to be able to cope with the challenges of intercultural teams.

My daily experience shows that project complexity rises exponentially when working with international Teams. This especially counts for the different understanding of values, norms and behavior. Every international Project faces the challenge of developing its own Project culture.

Starting Projects

One of the first steps in starting a project is the planning. This stage influences the culture of the team and the use of special project management tools has naturalized. These tools are culturally influenced and are used culture-specifically. In international, intercultural Projects, questions arise over their use: Are these tools appropriate and what ways of using them are possible…?

Let us take a typical example: The definition of the Project Objectives (problem diagnosis, task definition, clarification of goals…). There may be different cultural backgrounds and the following questions arise:

  •  To what extent is it possible and permissible to talk about problems?
    For example, in some Eastern European countries the way of communication is more indirect so that problems are not immediately addressed.
  • A difference can also be in the diagnoses of problems (e.g. Germany) versus the goal orientation (e.g. USA). In a planning process the question then quickly turns to how much time you invest into diagnosing the problem and how complicated the description of the initial situation is.
  • Differences can occur in the usefulness / quality / relevance / liability of targets. The bandwidth goes from “Why set goals, it comes as it comes” to “SMART-Goals: precise, explicit and ambitious.” Goals can be seen as indicative targets, the orientation to give the direction and can always be adjusted if necessary.

The multiple culture trap

In international Project Teams people from different cultures should work together. Their own culture and how it shapes our thinking and our actions, is not always conscious. We tend to regard our own norms and values, and their following actions to be universally valid. And this is where multiple cultures working together becomes difficult. Especially when it comes to communication, these differences can be a trap.

Messages are often interpreted in different ways. The cultural norms often form the basis for further misunderstandings in the team. For example during a telephone conference Germans tend to talk offensively whilst Chinese may wait until they are asked to say something. This can lead to a situation where the Chinese think that the Germans are aggressive and the Germans tend to think that the Chinese are too passive.

In virtual communication (e.g. Email) between German and US-American team members it repeatedly creates misunderstandings and a bad atmosphere because messages in the German context being normal are picked up in the US as being  too direct, impolite, or  insensitive. On the other side the German team members think of the American writing style  as containing too much  “small talk” instead of coming to the point.  Different expectations may also occur in the “response time” and the extent of the replay. Many communication problems are not seen as being misunderstandings but more the opposite. Other team members may think of this being manipulative or even malicious. This can lead to distrust in the Project Team. When working in international teams it is very important to keep in mind that not everybody is communicating in their mother tongue.

The question remaining is…WHAT TO DO? Interculturally staffed teams need very clear structures and a maximum extent of cooperation at the beginning of a Project to maximize their time and energy effectively despite the distances.

The difficulty with the respective different cultural backgrounds is that many things will be misunderstood (e.g. “what is a viable target, precision planning, dealing with time”). This leads to a situation in which this cannot and will not be clarified within the first Project Meeting. Experience shows that even if one person believes that goals have clearly been defined and laid down, several loops are necessary to ensure a common understanding GRADUALLY. Patience is one of the biggest plus points when leading intercultural Project Teams.

The essential point is to promote an atmosphere of open communication within the team and repeatedly stress that it is important and normal within an intercultural team to ask for clarification and address any misunderstandings. The best way to promote the open atmosphere is to have team events once a month and have so called kitchen meetings with an open atmosphere, rather than having strictly organized team meetings in a meeting room, as people generally tend to open up in a relaxed environment.

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