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Carla Catalano, PMP, Orange Business Services
Carla Catalano, PMP, Orange Business Services, Santiago, Chile
PHOTO BY JOSE LUIS STEPHENS
As a global project manager, Carla Catalano, PMP, knows that good cross-cultural communication skills are never optional.
a Venezuelan project manager now living and working in Chile, Carla Catalano, PMP, has worked for international businesses as diverse as France's Alcatel and the United States' Sun Microsystems before joining her present employer, Britain's Orange Business Services. Regardless of which country she was working in, one thing became clear to Ms. Catalano over the years: cross-cultural communication skills are essential.
“No matter how good your intentions are, or how often you use a given word, it can have a different meaning in a different culture, which can get you in trouble,” she says. “It's something you can't avoid if … you're working with people from different countries.”
Just recently, for example, Ms. Catalano was giving a presentation to a customer in Chile, updating the company on the progress of a project. “I could tell from their expressions that something was wrong, and eventually stopped and asked if there was a problem,” she says. “It turned out that some of the words I was using had an entirely different meaning in Chilean Spanish from the Spanish I used back home in Venezuela.”
That said, Ms. Catalano insists managers can develop appropriate levels of cross-cultural sensitivity—if they approach the task with the right attitude and a willingness to learn. “A lot of cross-cultural scenarios and difficulties become manageable if you show respect, listen to others and show an interest in the culture in question,” she says. “And the skills you acquire will stay with you.”
In particular, she recommends going the extra mile to avoid misunderstandings—a strategy she uses in her day-to-day cross-cultural interactions with colleagues. “Don't hesitate to ask for clarification if you are not sure what people are saying or [are unsure of] the meaning of the words they are using,” she suggests. “Repeat your understanding of what has been said every time an agreement is established or when one of your questions has been answered.”
Slang, she adds, is best avoided. “Keep in mind that some words used as slang can be offensive in other cultures,” she says. “Pay attention every time that people's reactions indicate that you've said something you shouldn't have. Ask them what was wrong and try to remember it in future.”
She also suggests that before a project, project leaders establish a common set of words and meanings with all team members to avoid misunderstandings.
Ms. Catalano has learned that project leaders who are respectful and mindful of the cross-cultural differences of their team members produce better results. In a strongly multicultural project she worked on in her previous job, three project managers assigned work to three different teams, yet one particular team was doing better than the others. “We started to look at why, and the reasons essentially boiled down to communication: The way [the team members] were being asked to do things was different from the way that the other teams were being asked to do things,” she says.
Leadership 2008 / www.pmi.org