Project Management Institute

The Borderless Leader

Cross-Cultural Skills Are Needed Just To Survive In Today's Global Economy

by Malcolm Wheatley

Globetrotting is becoming business as usual for today's project professionals and their respective teams. For some time now, corporate executives have been exposed to cultures around the world and have learned to work seamlessly across borders.

Cross-cultural skills are needed just to survive in today's global economy.

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But it has taken introductions like low-cost international air travel and the internet for a business' international footprint to truly impact all employees.

In the past, only a select few met or worked with employees, customers or suppliers in other countries. Today, finance employees in the United States deal with back-office workers in Bangalore, India. Procurement people in London, England, exchange e-mails with those in Beijing, China. And project teams might be comprised of members from all ends of the earth—from Budapest, Hungary, to Brisbane, Australia, to Buenos Aires, Brazil.

“The business map today contains a lot more countries, with regions like the Balkans and Southeast Asia coming on stream,” says David Eaton, Boston, Massachusetts, USA-based cofounder and president of Aperian Global, a consultancy and training firm.

As the effects of globalization—the increased connectivity, integration and interdependence in the economic, social, technological, cultural, political and ecological spheres among countries around the world—are felt by entire businesses, leaders are challenged with cultivating employees who are culturally sensitive and aware.

FOR YEARS, IBM's annual investors' day has taken place in New York, New York, USA. But in 2006, the Armonk, New York, USA-based computer and software giant broke tradition by holding the meeting in Bangalore, India, a country in which the company has more than 50,000 employees. It's a sign of the times.

In a world where global trade barriers have all but broken down, the challenge is obvious for those who manage and lead organizations and employees: Cross-cultural skills are no longer a nicety. Project leaders must learn to be sensitive to the multitude of cultures they come in contact with, and teach team members to do the same.

The good news is it's a challenge that globalization itself is helping to meet. Today's project executives are exposed to different cultures through the media and personal travel, so they are more likely to hit the ground running when it comes to dealing with different cultures.

Leaders today are far more attuned to cultural sensitivities and are definitely far more aware that it's a potential issue.

—David Eaton, Aperian Global, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

“Compared to 20 years ago, when I first began working in this field, leaders today are far more attuned to cultural sensitivities and are definitely far more aware that it's a potential issue,” says David Eaton, Boston, Massachusetts, USA-based cofounder and president of Aperian Global, a consultancy and training firm specializing in helping clients address cross-border multicultural issues. That mission is even reflected in the company's deliberate avoidance of a headquarters, with central management functions spread across Boston; San Francisco, California, USA; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Tokyo, Japan.

It's a matter of realizing that differences exist, adjusting leadership practices to be inclusive and sensitive, appreciating the differences and using them to build a better organization.

On Common Ground

First and foremost, before honing cross-cultural skills, leaders of global project teams must recognize when and where cultural differences exist. “Until you have awareness, you can't change,” says Ron Hyams, Cape Town, South Africa-based managing partner with multinational executive coaching firm Praesta.

But that can be difficult at times. “It's a little like asking a fish about water,” he says. “The fish says, ‘What water?’ It doesn't see the water because it swims in it. Culture is like that: Because we're all so totally immersed in it, we don't see it.”

Although individuals can't be quantified, common denominators can be found in project team members from different cultures and should be assessed. For years, researchers have looked for ways to assess cultural similarities and differences. One such popular assessment came back in the 1980s with Geert Hofstede's Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work Related Values [Sage Publications Inc., 1984]. Thirteen years later, Belgian academic Fons Trompenaars built on Mr. Hofstede's research in his book Riding the Waves of Culture [McGraw-Hill, 1997].

While this information isn't new, the findings are as relevant today as they were then. Essentially, both researchers determined that cultures could be characterized by how they scored on a number of dimensions, such as uncertainty avoidance, individualism vs. collectivism and participative vs. hierarchical decision-making.

For example, in what Mr. Trompenaars called “particularist” cultures—such as France, Spain and Southern Europe—relationships matter more than rules. People from “universalist” cultures, on the other hand—such as those found in Northern Europe—believe rules exist to be obeyed and take precedence over people.

In his research, Mr. Trompenaars found 91 percent of Germans and 90 percent of Britons responded as universalists, while only 58 percent of Greeks and 68 percent of French respondents did so. Translation? In universalist cultures, leaders should expect employees to grumble about things, but broadly fall in line. In relationship-driven cultures, on the other hand, unwelcome changes can be met by open rebellion, as old loyalties count for more.

Put to Practice

Simply understanding which cultures fall into which categories isn't enough. After assessing differences and similarities, leaders must adjust policies and work habits to fit the appropriate cultures.

For example, leaders shouldn't underestimate the importance of face time, says Rudolf Melik, author of The Rise of the Project Management Workforce: Managing People and Projects in a Flat World [Wiley, 2007] and chief executive of Tenrox, a Pasadena, California, USA-based project workforce management software firm. “If the only tool available for communication was e-mail, there would be a lot more confusion and misunderstanding,” he says. Even with offices as far flung as Poland, the United Kingdom and Canada, he adds, Tenrox tries to ensure as many of its employees as possible get to meet each other face-to-face. When in-person contact is not possible, communication should be conducted via phone or videoconferencing, not solely by e-mail.

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In universalist cultures, leaders should expect employees to grumble about things, but broadly fall in line. In relationship-driven cultures, on the other hand, unwelcome changes can be met by open rebellion, as old loyalties count for more.

It's important to understand how people from specific cultures prefer to communicate and interact. “English [for example] is quite an ambiguous language, especially when used by native speakers,” says Vivianne Naslund, a Swedish-born independent executive coach now based in Sussex, England. “In Asian cultures and some European cultures, people prefer a lot more specific information before they will feel comfortable making a decision.”

And in a situation where a leader from a task-focused culture is working with people from relationship-focused cultures—the U.S. and most of Western Europe—there may be an unwillingness to invest the time in providing that information. “Leaders can be impatient and not accustomed to going into so much detail,” she says.

But cultural frameworks provide a useful way of analyzing and ameliorating potential conflicts before they happen, not just helping to explain what went wrong after the event, Mr. Hyams says.

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“If people are expecting a consensual management style, as the Swedes do, and instead they get a highly individualistic style, such as from [someone from the U.S.], they don't think, ‘This is an interesting phenomenon.’ Instead, they think, ‘This is not a good leader,'” he says. “Knowing this in advance, you can adjust your leadership style.”

In a recent real-world example, he says, a female marketing director was accustomed to walking around her company's headquarters looking at her BlackBerry mobile communications device—a familiar sight in airports and office buildings across North America and Europe. But in South Africa, where she was working, the perception was very negative. “People were expecting eye contact and acknowledgement. When they weren't getting it, they felt insulted and not respected,” Mr. Hyams says. Once the woman realized how her behavior was perceived, she adjusted it to fit the culture.

The Silver Lining

As demanding as it is to perfect cross-cultural skills, doing so can be even more rewarding to a business.

“Celebrate cultural differences,” says Daniel Hepp, Toronto, Ontario, Canada-based director of professional services at BlueCat Networks, a manufacturer of network devices. “People from a different cultural perspective bring with them a different way of looking at things, and it's a diversity of viewpoints that should be captured and leveraged, not swept under the carpet.”

People from a different cultural perspective bring with them a different way of looking at things, and it's a diversity of viewpoints that should be captured and leveraged, not swept under the carpet.

—Daniel Hepp, BlueCat Networks, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

BlueCat, he says, deliberately takes advantage of the broad range of cultural backgrounds present in the Toronto labor market when making hiring decisions. “We're getting people with relevant work experience and who speak three or four languages,” he says. “They're bringing to the team another way of looking at things and another way of doing things.” Now actively building its presence in Europe, BlueCat is trying to replicate this same diverse approach to hiring.

Having a multicultural workforce can help dissolve the “tribe” mentality that can plague organizations. “People are more likely to be loyal to the project rather than to the functional silo,” Mr. Melik says, adding that Tenrox views its employees' more than 20 different nationalities as a competitive advantage. “[Employees] recognize that it's the project that is the common glue that they share, and that bonds them together.”

What's more, he adds, there's an element of positive reinforcement at work. The more employees mix with people from other cultures, the more adept they become at doing so—and the more likely they are to value the contributions, strengths and insights that others bring.

At Tenrox, for example, the breadth of cultures within the company “brings different and fresher perspectives to bear on problems and opportunities, which helps us to become more innovative and agile,” Mr. Melik says.

But when it comes to working cross-culturally, there are no quick fixes. “It takes time to change the habits of a lifetime. Overcoming natural conditioning is never easy,” says Dean Cunningham, a London, England-based managing director of Cross Border Coaching, a consulting firm that helps leaders and professionals work more effectively across cultural borders. “Don't get disillusioned. It takes practice.” img

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

Leadership 2008 / www.pmi.org
Leadership 2008

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