3 Tips for Improving Intercultural Communication in International Projects

Nita Korsten

 

 

 

“While project managers may feel like magicians, we all know successful projects don’t just happen by magic.”  PMI (Project Management Institute)[1]

Projects don’t stop at national borders. The opening of new subsidiaries, large infrastructural projects, IT projects, foreign aid, you name it.  Forget magic, the International Project Management Professional surely must feel like a wizard!

International Project Management Professionals and Wizards

What makes international projects so challenging? The answer is the way people deal with concepts varies across cultures. Risk, time, hierarchy, and decision making, are defined and handled differently. In some cultures a good project manager takes decisions  quickly and with authority to create ‘speed’; (is it speed or perhaps efficiency?)in other cultures a good project manager listens carefully to team members as a way to create ‘consensus’.

At a workshop I gave at PMI (Project Management Institute) in New York, a participant asked me how he could improve his intercultural communication. Today I’d like to share the 3 tips that I gave him:

3 tips on developing Intercultural Communication:

  1. Realize that a lot of what you’ve learned about effective communication might not work.

You probably know many do’s and don’ts for effective communication, such as rules for active listening and providing feedback. However, did you know that many of these tips are not universally applicable?

To illustrate, I once heard a project manager from the US providing her Dutch team-members with feedback. She said: “You are doing a great job, I love the quality of your deliverables, and I appreciate how you collaborate; if you’d reply fast on the emails that I’m sending to you, I’m sure that we will be able to inform our stakeholders in a timely manner”. The Dutch team members were very happy with how satisfied their project manager was, while in fact she’d actually told them she wasn’t happy with the amount of time they took responding to her emails.

In American management books you will mainly find a positive approach about giving feedback, such as:  ‘Provide 3 positives for 1 negative and use a sandwich method – softening a negative message with positive parts before and after’.  Dutch literature, on the other hand, will typically emphasize being very clear and to the point when giving feedback: ‘Describe concrete and specific behaviors that you have seen or heard yourself, indicate what effect that behavior has on you, and ask for the desired behavior’.

2.  Listen extremely well

This sounds so easy and logical! But in reality it’s not always that simple! Some cultures use a direct approach to communication where other cultures prefer a more indirect speech. I love the example of a Japanese team-member who was regularly late to work. If her manager would ask her ‘How are you?’ it would be obvious to her that she should change her behavior[2]. An American would probably take this as a common way to say ‘good morning’.

Especially when you’re used to a more direct speech, you have to learn to ‘Listen to the silence’, and ‘read between the lines’.   

3. Be aware with non-verbal signals

In most Anglo-Saxon literature on communication you will find a section on active listening skills with tips as: ‘maintain eye contact, nod your head and smile’.  However, many non-verbal signals mean something totally different elsewhere. Nodding your head doesn’t mean ‘yes’ in every country, and looking someone right in the eye is not always perceived as being interested, but rather as impertinent. 

Even speech rate and pauses can create misunderstandings. I coached an American project manager who was leading a project in Finland. He experienced a lack of engagement with his Finnish project team members, because “people don’t speak much during meetings and only reply after taking a long pause”. He interpreted the silences as indifference, while in Finland the normal speech pattern includes long pauses, allowing people to digest what they’ve heard and to think before they speak!

The most important lesson to be learned is that to communicate effectively in international projects it is key to observe others carefully and sometimes take another approach, one that you may not be used to.

 

 

[1] PMI’s 2014 Annual Report

[2] Joe Lurie, Perception and Deception; a mind-opening journey across cultures, Cultural Detective, 2015