This is the first part of a 3-part series on managing cross-cultural and multinational teams.
The world of business is shrinking. We work in an environment that allows for real-time audio visual communication and online translations. Even small businesses can operate internationally through outsourcing agreements or partners overseas. This means that project managers of all sizes face the challenges of managing international projects.
This is more than just knowing that it is 9 a.m. in Paris, Texas, it is 4 p.m. in Paris, France. Two main challenges come with international projects: people you work with may not be the same as you and they might not want the same things.
Openness to these challenges is the first step towards addressing them in a practical way that benefits everyone. We can’t change the fact that our culture shapes how we act. However, we can learn how to make it work better for all.
Senior managers may find it difficult to accept this.
They have worked hard and performed well to get to where they are today in the company. They expect certain behaviors from others, and if that doesn’t happen, it’s easy to blame the person who didn’t react as expected.
Cross-border projects can only be successful if you are able to appreciate the local reactions and work with international teams.
It is a great way to get to know your team members and their work culture. However, it is a good idea to do some research before you travel (or if you have budget constraints).
This will reveal a lot about how team members will react to the project environment.
Here are some examples to show how cultural differences can manifest in a team environment.
Leadership: A collaborative, egalitarian style of leadership will work better with Scandinavians rather than with Russians. Russians will distrust leaders who are too friendly with their subordinates.
Time: In some countries, time can be flexible. French business meetings are rarely held on time. Make sure you allow Mexicans to join your conference calls. If a deadline is an important one, make sure everyone understands what it means to miss it. Some cultures consider milestones to be a guide.
Your role: While you may be the most important person in your country on the project, your counterparts in China could view you as an extra part. People who work in cultures with strong hierarchical structures might not be able to follow your lead because you don’t belong in the grand hierarchy. If you need to move things along, bring in your Sponsor or a member of the board and ask them to talk to local management.
Some cultures find it acceptable (or even easy) to raise a hand and say “I made a mistake”. Others don’t. This makes managing problems much more difficult.
Basically, it is important to be interested enough in cultural differences to discover their true nature. Talking about the culture of your country is a great way to avoid problems later. This knowledge will give you a framework for managing the differences and also give you the assurance that you can work together.
Part 2 is available here.
Part 3 is available here.