How to manage a cross-cultural team

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Years ago, Kevin Parry (an independent consultant at Cogenic Services) was running a team in Germany, setting up a fixed and mobile business for BT and its joint-venture partners. In his first meeting, he found out how little he understood German working culture.

“I turned up at the meeting with a blank sheet of paper and a few headings. My German colleagues were absolutely horrified – most were doctors, certainly professional engineers. They were shocked to be called to a meeting where we were going to do some planning with no prior documents, whereas my expectation was that we were simply going to brainstorm.”

Parry compounded the cultural gaffe by pulling up a flipchart and asking for contributions that hadn’t been agreed by all. He made things worse by taking off his jacket. Germany, it soon became clear, had a much more formal approach to doing meetings.

Penny Pullan has another example: the author and director of Making Projects Work says that many organisations have contingents of people doing software development in India. “If you ask them in a meeting ‘Will it be done by Wednesday?’ there’s only one answer you will get – they’ll always say yes. That’s because in places like India, China, the Middle East and South Asia, saving face is very important; you wouldn’t say anything that would make your boss look like an idiot.

“So they won’t say no – even if they can’t do it – because they don’t want you to look like an idiot, especially in front of a group.” The correct approach, she says, would have been to talk to the individual outside the meeting, using open questions to elicit a more realistic response.

More and more project managers are managing teams across different regions, each with different social norms and working cultures. Managing those differences can be tricky. How can you create bridges between cultures and keep the project on track?

  1. Treat everyone the same

To be really successful as a project manager on a cross-cultural team, you have to think about how you view people from different cultures. Confront your own prejudices, says Professor Eddie Fisher, a consultant and APM fellow – failure to do so will lead to mistrust and unwillingness to fully participate.

  1. Use emojis

Electronic communication can easily be misinterpreted – body language is a huge, and unifying, element of communication. Encouraging the use of emojis can help, says RW3 CultureWizard’s Sean Dubberke. “It clarifies whether you are being serious, sarcastic or making a joke.”

  1. Check for engagement

 “Every 10–15 minutes in a meeting, I stop and do a quick call-out of each individual by name and ask them for their comments,” says Penny Pullan. Ask team members to repeat back what you’ve discussed at the end of the meeting to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

  1. Vary meeting times

If the same members of the team always have to call in late at night or early in the morning for meetings, it becomes an unequal burden. Organising calls or meetings at different times – where possible – makes it fairer and shares the inconvenience.

  1. Create a shared experience

“I once tried delivering the same pizza at the same time to all the participants on a video call around the world,” says Pullan. “It wasn’t so great for those having breakfast. I found distributing M&Ms in the project colours works better. It gives you something to talk about other than the work.”

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Alexander Garrett

Posted by Alexander Garrett on 24th Apr 2020

About the Author

Alexander Garrett is a freelance journalist and editor whose specialist topics include business, management and property. Alex began his career at management consultancy Coopers & Lybrand Associates, spent seven years working for The Observer's Business section, and wrote a monthly column for Management Today for almost two decades. Today he is a regular contributor to magazines including BA's Business Life and BL Global, and edits the Atticus Journal for WPP. 

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