Cross-Cultural Communication in Project Managers

Introduction

In the present-day business world striving for globalization, organisations do their best to benefit from cost-saving technical expertise in other countries. This trend creates a business environment that necessitates ongoing interaction across cultures. Project managers today have to deal with teams that are scattered across the globe and consist of people with very different cultural backgrounds (Krishna, Sahay, & Walsham 2006). Thus, the professional communicative skills and broad, innovative thinking of project managers can contribute greatly to the overall success of global projects, thereby enhancing the competitiveness of businesses (Moran, Abramson, & Moran 2014).

However, despite the opportunity to use culturally diverse teams to the company’s best advantage, cross-cultural interactions can also undermine the success of a project and pose additional risks due to the differing values of the participants and the resulting misunderstandings (Low & Shi 2001). In order to prevent failure, project managers should be more flexible in their approach to leadership. Their task is to foster tolerance, understanding, teamwork, creativity, and cultural exchange. Culturally sensitive management requires both knowledge of the accepted theories of intercultural communication and the ability to use personal skills in order to successfully implement theories into practice (Thomas & Mengel 2008).

Whether face to face, by email, or by telephone, communication is one of the most demonstrative domains in terms of cultural differences. The misinterpretation of messages underlying verbal expressions may trigger technical, financial, or organisational problems (Luthans & Doh 2009). The paper at hand seeks to discover what knowledge and skills connected with cross-cultural communication are required for project managers to succeed in culturally-aware leadership at present and in future. Analysis will dwell upon the major differences across cultures as well as their implications for project management. Moreover, some specific ideas about training multicultural teams will also be provided.

The Major Differences across Culture: Implications for Project Managers

The successful completion of any project is a complex task. The business of the future promises to be more human- than planning-oriented, which implies that human thoughts, feelings, and behavioural patterns will be taken into consideration when a team is selected at the initial stage of a project (Binder 2016). Such an environment necessitates high levels of cultural awareness, and future project managers will have to acquire more substantial knowledge of intercultural communication and demonstrate the ability to apply this knowledge in practice (Thomas & Mengel 2008).

Major differences across cultures were studied profoundly by Geert Hofstede, a researcher who identified the cultural dimensions that could be used to create a model of organizing and prioritizing cultural values. In practical project management, this model can serve to predict how representatives of different cultures will behave in certain contexts. The model’s dimensions can be divided into the following groups (Johnson, Lenartowicz, & Apud 2006):

  • those concerning interpersonal relationships;
  • those involving aspects of motivation; and
  • those expressing cultural perceptions of time and time management.

The differences entailed by each dimension can lead to cultural problems that project managers must address as they work with multinational teams. The key discrepancies of which they must be aware include the following five aspects (Carbaugh 2013):

  1. Power distance. This aspect can be defined as the attitude that less influential members of a company have toward the fact that power is not distributed equally. The key issue in the functioning of any organisation is hierarchy, which presupposes inequality. Hofstede suggests the use of the Power Distance Index (PDI) to measure how much higher company leaders stand in relation to their employees. He discovered that there exist countries with low power distance (e.g. the United States), high power distance (e.g. Japan), and middle power distance (e.g. Germany). For project managers, it is necessary to identify each team member’s attitude toward power in order to create a successful working environment. For example, a manager’s commanding tone might be perceived as a personal offence by those who are used to being treated on equal terms. On the contrary, representatives of high-PDI cultures often find it difficult to work without rigid frames and strict instructions.
  2. Uncertainty avoidance. This factor derives from the level of comfort a person feels when he or she is in an unpredicted or unstructured setting. People from different countries express different attitudes to things that are new, challenging, unusual, or spontaneous. The Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) basically measures the extent to which a society wants to control such situations. A high UAI score (e.g. Greece) indicates that it is crucial for representatives of that culture to have rules to obey, feel stability, and prevent stress. A low UAI score (e.g. Denmark) indicates the ability and desire of people to act on the spot without planning ahead, use their creative thinking, and challenge themselves with the unknown. In project management, this factor predetermines how elaborately planning must be done and who should be responsible for creative aspects of projects.
  3. Individualism vs. collectivism. This scale reveals the extent to which people tend to be independent from the team or integrated into it. Individualistic cultures (e.g. the United Kingdom) have very loose connections: people are expected to be responsible only for themselves and their own families. All other ties are optional and non-intrusive. In contrast, collectivistic societies (e.g. China) emphasize the importance of belonging: groups protect individuals and make them feel confident, strong, and supported. The interests pursued by the group stand higher than the personal goals of its members. The Individualism Index (IDV) is used to measure how much a culture values social liaisons. This indicator is important because it shows project managers how to distribute responsibility among team members and which incentives to choose in order to motivate them. Representatives of cultures with high IDV scores are much more productive when they have competition and leadership opportunities, whereas members of collectivistic societies feel more secure being a part of a non-hierarchic team.
  4. Masculinity vs. femininity. This indicator demonstrates how emotional roles are distributed in a society. It is generally accepted that women attach more significance to social interactions, relationships, mutual help, trust, and comfort, whereas men tend to be more self-centred and career-oriented. In this way, masculine cultures (e.g. Austria) have distinct traditional gender roles and are mainly concentrated on achieving financial success. On the contrary, feminine cultures (e.g. the Netherlands) tend to value humility, convenience of life, and social connections in which gender roles are indistinct and can mix. The Masculinity Index (MAS) is used to measure this cultural dimension. When it comes to project management, representatives of low MAS countries rely on collaboration, interactions with leaders and co-workers, and group discussions and decisions; these individuals do their best to eliminate stress at work, which is why they are much more productive in the execution of small-scale projects. Workers from high MAS countries value challenges, risks, individual choices, leadership, stimulating stress, and a fast-paced working environment—all of which explain why they prefer working in huge international organizations.
  5. Long-term vs. short-term orientation. The Long-Term Orientation Index (LTO) measures how long a culture is willing to wait to receive results satisfying people’s financial, social, and intellectual requirements. Countries that score highest on this index (e.g. South Korea) tend to pursue long-term goals that involve many steps. They do not expect immediate payoffs and are ready to go a long way in order to win a strong position in the market. On the other hand, countries with low LTO are concentrated on the more immediate bottom line, which means that they judge the performance of companies by their results over a short period of time. For project managers, this indicator can show what to expect from each team member in terms of immediacy of achievements.

Hofstede included many regions in his research. His hypotheses about different countries have been supported by modern studies and applied as a model for further analysis.

Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner singled out other dimensions to add to this list (Binder 2016):

  1. Internal vs. external control. This spectrum refers to the way a culture perceives its relationship with the natural environment: it can either act with it or against it (trying to obtain control). A desire to control the environment signifies a desire to control one’s own life and in this aspect can be linked to the uncertainty avoidance dimension. Internalistic cultures (e.g. the United States) do not believe in predestination – they see their environment as a complex mechanism that can be controlled as long as the person is qualified enough to do it. Their attitude to the working process is similar to the individualistic dimension: every chain of actions starts from a decision made by one individual. The central idea is that everything can be dominated and organised. Internalistic countries have low power distance, and their people can influence governmental policies. Externalistic cultures are more calm and compliant. They see nature as an uncontrollable force that people should learn to cooperate with. They believe in fate and mystery, which makes them easily adaptable to external conditions, no matter how difficult they may be. Such countries are mostly collectivistic (e.g. China), and their people have less say in politics. In project management, this dimension manifests itself in team members’ attitudes and desire to control and the degree to which they express and pursue leadership ambitions.
  2. Sequential vs. synchronic cultures. This is another approach to time orientation that falls into two aspects: the importance of the past, present, and future for a culture and the way its representatives structure time. The first aspect signifies how heavily people rely on past experiences and traditions when considering future perspectives. As for time structuring, there are two methods: sequential, in which one thing is done at a time, and scheduling and fragmenting are highly important; and synchronic, in which several tasks are performed simultaneously, time commitments are not crucial, and plans are flexible. For project managers, it is essential to select team members whose time management ideas will not interfere with each other in group tasks.

As evident from the given dimensions, cultural blueprints in a society manifest themselves in cultural patterns at work. Project management techniques must be adapted in order to guarantee acceptable working conditions for representatives of all cultural backgrounds. Indeed, this is one of the major challenges of the modern business world. To achieve higher job satisfaction of cross-cultural teams in future, motivation and training must be widely applied (Oertig & Buergi 2006).

Motivation and Training in Multi-Cultural Teams

Any project (even those completed by representatives of only one culture) faces the problem of personal conflicts. Cultural gaps existing among members of multi-cultural teams add another stress factor and aggravate misunderstanding. Language barriers, time management approaches, uncertainty avoidance tendencies, and other discrepancies restrict team members, prescribing them a limited set of actions they are allowed to perform (Oertig & Buergi 2006).

Team motivation is a challenging task, and managers of multi-cultural projects must overcome many obstacles. Cultural diversity necessitates continuous learning, which impacts the ways in which team members use technology, communicate, train, and participate in the overall working environment (Browaeys & Price 2008).

Motivation and training can be successful only when all team members are willing to bridge the existing cultural gaps and complete the project efficiently. Project managers must bear in mind that criticism for poor performances, as well as incentives for jobs well done, cannot necessarily be the same for all members (some cultures are insensitive to verbal influence). Different approaches to values or different views on project goals can be reconciled through negotiations. On the contrary, team members who are reluctant to learn about other cultures or are hostile towards them are much more difficult to manage (Browaeys & Price 2008).

The business of the future should strive to eliminate intolerance through education and to motivate employees to collaborate effectively as they pursue a common goal.

Conclusion

No matter how qualified and experienced project managers may seem, many of them still lack the cultural awareness that would allow for more successful management of international projects. In future, the success of global projects will directly depend on leadership, intercultural interaction, mutual trust, understanding, and respect. Indeed, companies that have opted to broaden their innovative thinking have considerably enhanced their competitiveness in the market, both today and in future.

Reference List

Binder, J, 2016, Global project management: Communication, collaboration and management across borders, CRC Press, Boca Raton.

Browaeys, MJ & Price, R 2008, Understanding cross-cultural management, Pearson Education, New York.

Carbaugh, D 2013, Cultural communication and intercultural contact, Routledge, London.

Johnson, JP, Lenartowicz, T & Apud, S 2006, ‘Cross-cultural competence in international business: Toward a definition and a model’, Journal of International Business Studies, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 525-543.

Krishna, S, Sahay, S & Walsham, G 2006, ‘Managing cross-cultural issues in global software outsourcing’, Communications of the ACM, vol. 47, no. 4, pp. 62-66.

Low, SP & Shi Y 2001, ‘Cultural influences on organizational processes in international projects: Two case studies’, Work Study, vol. 50, no. 7, pp. 276-285.

Luthans, F & Doh, JP 2009, International management: Culture, strategy, and behavior. McGraw-Hill Irwin, New York.

Moran, RT, Abramson, NR & Moran, SV 2014, Managing cultural differences, Routledge, London.

Oertig, M & Buergi, T 2006, ‘The challenges of managing cross-cultural virtual project teams’, Team Performance Management: An International Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 23-30.

Thomas, J & Mengel, T 2008, ‘Preparing project managers to deal with complexity – advanced project management education’, International Journal of Project Management, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 304-315.