A global workplace is fast becoming the norm. This reality is driving a need to understand the cultural differences that can impact such things as workplace norms, business practices, or project timelines. As a global company, we discuss some of the most common areas where understanding should be shown and provide a little food for thought for international project managers.
- A Global Reality
- Assume Best Intent
- Global Business Ethics and Social Responsibility
- Hybrid Global Teams Typical Everyday Challenge
- Language in PowerPoint
A Global Reality
A common topic of discussion in business is a need for more imagination regarding an international and multicultural environment. The percentage of the workforce who live abroad and work is still relatively small. The nation where we live is generally the nation we are born, and we usually all operate in that one social context of that society and culture.
As such, we generally don’t consider how people elsewhere might behave (think, communicate, collaborate) differently. That lack of imagination or nearsightedness wasn’t a concern in the past. The notion that something we do every day, at any given moment, could be different elsewhere was a completely irrelevant consideration. Global business, however, has become a game changer.
A global economy is an ideal that is almost as old as humanity itself. The global economy has gone through many different periods, evolutions, and struggles over the millennia, from the spice traders to the Vikings to the pirates; you could say that the pursuit of the global economy has given us some of the most exciting chapters/relics/staples of human history.
In the late 20th century, there was a considerable push for large corporations to harness globalization, generally for increased profits through lower costs or increased revenues through new perspectives driving innovation.
Today, “Globalization” is no longer a business buzzword but a reality that is here to stay. As a result, every day, most of us will work (sometimes very closely) with teams made up of a rich diversity of cultural backgrounds.
For example, we might be a home team at HQ, and another group may be a global division team. More often than not, this collaboration is virtual, where everyone on a team – with their nuanced cultural understanding of human and business interaction – will still be geographically located in their native homeland and culture.
Our differences can provide an exciting challenge for many of us in this emerging global world since most people have never worked (or even traveled) internationally. However, with little or no practice in understanding the global cultural kaleidoscope, we have all been thrust into a relatively new multinational working environment. So how do we come to navigate it and embrace it when we all have so much work we need to do at the same time?
It’s almost impossible to look at a project management role’s job description and not see ‘Stakeholder Management’ listed as one of the essential duties. That’s because it is such an important part of managing projects. It takes work to develop this soft skill.
Stakeholder management is a delicate balance of earning trust, leading by example, and managing by influence instead of force while ensuring everyone completes their work by the agreed-upon deadlines. A great deal of emotional intelligence, graceful finesse and personal touch make a project manager great at their job.
Virtual work has made this more challenging to attain. Looking at each other through computer screens – sometimes with our cameras off or mics muted – and communicating heavily through emails and chats, we lose the nuance of body language, smiles and laughs, and a lot of interpersonal human touches that help us form bonds with others.
Combining this disadvantage with the one that comes from cross-cultural communication (often a language barrier of varying degrees) can cause a lot of anxiety in the workplace, making it hard to build the trust essential for productive business relationships. But there are three things you can start doing today to make this easier.
Assume Best Intent
We are all eager to do our jobs well. However, how we do that can change based on a cultural mindset.
For example, in the United States, there is a mindset that relaxation comes when the work is done, and staying late to finish the job is necessary. In Europe, however, there is a greater cultural emphasis (and even legal) protection of one’s personal life and balance with work.
This difference, however slight, is still a difference in attitudes and mindsets surrounding work globally. An American Project Manager, unaware of this, who is on a European team might become frustrated.
In this scenario, the American colleague shows up to work early and is the last to leave, while European colleagues ensure their work week does not exceed 40 hours. The American teammate may assume that the European team is not pulling their weight and need to be more serious about their job.
This perception combines a lifetime of social conditioning and ignorance of European societal and cultural norms. Alternatively, the European team may perceive their American teammate as overly demanding.
Consequently, the lack of understanding leads to a lack of trust between the project manager and his team, and communication starts to break down. The lack of confidence is both needless and unfortunate because these individuals want to excel at their job and deliver the best results. Still, they can only do so in how they fundamentally relate to their concept of work.
This slight difference in mindset does not nearly threaten the project’s success as much as the unconscious breakdown of trust between the project manager and the team.
While this is one hypothetical example about two [somewhat] specific demographics, there are many other nuances and situations amongst various cultural backgrounds. There is no way a person could be culturally aware enough to know them all.
But this complete, global-social knowledge is unnecessary. Just the understanding that things can and will be different amongst diverse groups is what is necessary. As long as that is acknowledged, we can assume the best intentions before anything else. We then stand a higher chance and probability that our global team collaboration will be effective and achieve the best results.
Global Business Ethics and Social Responsibility
How can right or wrong be determined if a practice or behavior differs starkly between cultures? Is that a determination that needs even be made, and if so, by whom?
Most MBA programs in Global Management will discuss this vague and often tricky concept rather extensively, as it can cause severe problems in global business. One of the most prominent examples is the idea of gift-giving.
In Japan, it is a standard practice to give gifts in the course of conducting business. Not doing so, in fact, could put a relationship at risk. However, an American entity wishing to do business with a Japanese entity that thinks “When In Rome” and engages in this practice will have likely violated the United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
So how can this be reconciled? The answer is a challenging one. Luckily, managing global projects at Kolme Group, we are usually not faced with and can avoid such extreme scenarios. However, many international teams do regularly experience this fundamental dilemma.
Hybrid Global Teams Typical Everyday Challenge
Most American teams will have to maneuver different cultural work attitudes around project deadlines while working within a 40 hr week. Many project managers for large American multinational companies whose teams span Europe have to maneuver project deadlines.
Many team leads of American companies have to juggle potentially shorter project deadlines and the “this is how Americans do things” mindset of executives in America with the legalities and the cultural perspective around the subject of work in Europe.
Many might relate to having to explain over a project zoom meeting with American leaders sitting Stateside who are frustrated that a project timeline is being pushed back by two months. Why?
Because as the project manager of a team based in Europe, you have to account in July that the project deadline, which has a due date of September, had to be pushed back because my entire team was about to go on vacation for the whole month of August.
Yes, the cultural norm to work late and complete the project by any means necessary is a stark difference from the cultural norms of Europe. For some entering the global workforce, it is a difficult concept to grasp because there is no easy answer. Even when a solution seems easy (e.g., because the alternative would violate European Directives), it doesn’t solve the problem for the other audience.
This understanding is a balance that every person operating in this global economy will need to come to resolve with their team as a whole. Understanding that this is a conundrum we need to be mindful of is the first step in pursuing that balance.
Some advice from a project and program management team with global experience, erring on the side of relativism, is best practice. It is usually always the best course of action, and approaching from a place of openness and understanding will earn your trust amongst your global team.
Language in PowerPoint
Do you speak a second language that you learned later in life (in other words, that you don’t speak at a native fluency level)? Have you ever traveled (or lived) abroad and felt entirely out of place when around groups of people talking in a language you don’t completely understand? If you answered “No” to one (or especially both) of those questions, you need to pay close attention to this next section.
Many speakers at public speaking seminars will state that a slide should be at most six lines, and each line should be at most six words. Aside from proper slide formatting, they also tell you, “Don’t speak in PowerPoint!”
The understanding is that when your slides meet the proper criteria, don’t just read off the bullet points. However, when managing a global team, I think the opposite of that theory is true: “Speak in PowerPoint.”
In other words, be concise and precise in your language; don’t embellish your language with five-dollar words, and avoid using idiomatic expressions. We, as native English speakers, are incredibly fortunate that English won the lottery of modern global business language.
The countries where spoken English is native are also notoriously bad at educating their primary education students in other languages. As a result, we tend to have very little empathy for most of the people on our global teams for whom English is not their native language.
Imagine if you are an American working abroad, and how frustrating it would be to be in a meeting with a group of people speaking in another language, even a language you speak fluently (just not natively.) Imagine trying desperately to understand each person as they spoke and hoping to gain clarity on meeting recorded playbacks where you didn’t understand or couldn’t read a person’s lips.
That is what it is like for many global team colleagues on international projects where English is not their native language. Imagine calls involving unnecessarily big words, conversational idioms, any expression/usage of the word “get,” and just a lot of word vomit. How frustrated the non-native English speaker could be experiencing because they don’t understand.
Simplifying your language is a simple practice with just a little mindfulness and will go a very long way toward the success of your global project and the comfort of your multicultural team. This mindfulness could be as simple as using the international date format of YYYY-MM-DD to set deadlines to help avoid confusion.
Another important point about “Speaking in PowerPoint” is the visual aspect and images or things that transcend language. Common visual aids can convey your points more clearly, like Gantt charts, timelines, calendars, graphs, dashboards, and even stick figures.
Also, when assigning responsibilities, getting progress reports, etc., the more you can relay your ask to your team using any visual representation, the more transparent everything will be for everyone. No one trusts anything which they do not understand.
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