eyeball to eyeball
Culture is central to what we see, how we make sense of what we see, and how we express ourselves. Kevin Avruch, Peter Black (Avruch & Black, 1993)
Globalization is a self-fueling process, destined to move ever faster and become ever more deeply entrenched. It compels us to interact with people from different cultures. What happens when those people come together on a project? They are customers, government officers, coworkers, suppliers. Whatever the case may be, project managers have to face ever more challenging environments. They must hone their leadership talents; they must cultivate an immense sensitivity for listening, understanding, and showing respect. Consider, for example, how often we say, “I explained myself, but I didn't get the effect I wanted,” or “I probably used the wrong words, considering her reaction,” or “When I talk to him he doesn't make eye contact with me.” Culture represents the fundamentals of our communication system. It influences how people approach work and how they participate on teams.
During a certain point in my life, I found myself working 3,500 miles away from home in a completely different business and lifestyle environment. Since that experience, my life has been changed and I've started reflecting on becoming integrated not only as a project manager but also as a human being---as much as possible, as well as possible, and as fast as possible with people who look at life in a different way than I do. Time has passed and I've been involved in more international assignments, giving me the opportunity to share my beliefs with people from other cultures, who had values deeply different from mine.
In this paper. I describe some academic definitions about what makes lifestyles and values different among people, what are the impacts of working together, and what are the theoretical aspects that a project manager or a team member should take into consideration before leading or being a part of a cross-cultural team. In addition, I will provide the reader with some advice, warnings, and recommendations that come from my direct working and life experiences, in order to get along with people in several business contexts.
Globalization has brought us one of the most important challenges of our time. In the Bible's tale of the tower of Babel, for example, the tower was not built for the worship and praise of God, but was dedicated to the glory of man, with the motive of making a “name” for the builders (Genesis 11:4). God, seeing what the people were doing, confused their languages and scattered the people throughout the earth. The story explains the origin of nations, of their languages, and of different cultures in the world.
Globalization seems to have started the reverse of this process. With globilization, we are all striving to get closer to each other in order to create new initiatives and collaborations and, therefore, are facing new challenges. Business needs, technology, and the easier, faster, and cheaper means of travel have brought us to work in closer virtual or physical situations with people who reside in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, although being close or “virtually close” nowadays may be easy, unfortunately it doesn't guarantee that we will necessarily get along proficiently or successfully with people of other cultures. We are only at the beginning of this maturity process, and therefore need to learn to deal with diversity in order to accomplish projects successfully.
Business, and not business, literature describes Culture as shared value, expectations and norms found within countries, regions, social groups, business firms and even departments and work groups within a firm. Culture is also that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by men as a member of society. It is a distinctive way of life of a group of people which forms their complete design for living. It comprises the behavioural norms that a group of people, at a certain time and place, have agreed upon to survive and co-exist.
Culture influences how we approach problems and how we participate in groups and in communities. When we participate in groups, we are often surprised at how differently people approach their work together.
Defining Cross-Cultural Working Scenarios
When discussing cross-cultural differences in a work context, it is usual to talk about culture in terms of issues such as a group's belief systems, their everyday behavior, and their values---in other words, the issues that have impact on their working style and working relationships. The group itself may be a specific ethnic or religious group or a particular nationality. Cross-cultural difficulties often arise when individuals make assumptions regarding how similar other people are to them. Although much commonality may exist between members, it is not commendable to assume that all people have the same beliefs, values, or priorities.
In East Asia, there is a tendency to keep relations harmonious by avoiding talking about problems directly; confrontations are avoided, and human relationships are highly valued. In North America, on the other hand, people prefer “getting to the point” directly and quickly, even though such an approach may embarrass someone personally or publicly. Cultures with a high social conscience, as in China, prefer to work in teams and to make decisions through group consensus. Other cultures, such as those in North America, place a high premium on individualism and individualistic reactions; people in these cultures are not inherently team players.
Some cultures, such as those in East Asia, Northern Europe, and South America also emphasize social status, which is reflected in, among other things, seating arrangements and other protocols based on “position.” North American culture, however, tends to place more emphasis on competence.
The time elements also hold different connotations in different cultures. A monochronic time perspective refers to the treatment of events in an orderly fashion, whereby activities are performed separately and time is compartmentalized, organized, and controlled. It also tends to focus on the present or immediate future and reflects the belief that an individual can affect future outcomes. Monochronic cultures are prevalent in northern European and North American countries. On the other hand, with the polychronic time perspective, time is considered as “endless” and ample. More importantly, according to this perspective, many events can happen at the same time. The polychronic perspective is prevalent in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. In this context, many topics (including both those of the family and of business) are discussed concurrently in meetings. Polychronic cultures tend to be more futuristic and fatalistic in outlook, believing that one cannot control their own future or destiny.
Defining Cross-Cultural Difficulties
In an essay by Marcelle and Marya (2002), “Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication Challenge,” some key concepts are discussed that can be used to explain the cross-cultural circumstances described in the above paragraph. Some of the more important of these concepts are as follows:
- Verbal. The way people communicate varies widely between, and even within, cultures. One aspect of communication style is language use. Across cultures, some words and phrases are used in different ways. For example, even in countries that share the English language, the meaning of “yes” varies from “maybe, I'll consider it” to “definitely so,” with many shades of gray in between.
- Non-verbal. The degree of importance given to nonverbal communication also varies from culture to culture. Nonverbal communication includes not only facial expressions and gestures, but also seating arrangements, personal distance, and sense of time. In addition, different norms regarding the appropriate degree of assertiveness in communicating can add to cultural misunderstandings. For instance, some white Americans typically consider raised voices to be a sign that a fight has begun, while some black, Jewish, and Italian Americans often feel that an increase in volume is a sign of an exciting conversation among friends. Thus, some ethnic groups among Americans may react with greater alarm to a loud discussion than would members of other American ethnic groups.
Attitudes toward conflict
- Understanding the sense of the conflict. Anthropologists Avruch and Black (1993) defined culture as “a perception-shaping lens for the production and structuring of meaningful action.” Individuals use their cultural attitudes to shape their behavior into meaningful forms and to interpret other people's behavior. Parties from different cultures may have different understandings of what causes conflict and of what responses are appropriate. Because conflicts are a form of human activity, it is essential to understand the relevant cultural attitudes in order to grasp the meaning of conflict-actions.
- Different customs in conflict resolutions. Some cultures view conflict as positive, whereas others view it as something to be avoided. In the United States, conflict is not usually desirable; however, people often are encouraged to deal directly with conflicts that do arise. In fact, face-to-face meetings customarily are recommended as the way to work through whatever problems exist. In contrast, in many Eastern countries, open conflict is experienced as embarrassing or demeaning; as a rule, differences are best worked out quietly. A written exchange might be the favoured means to address the conflict.
Approaches to completing tasks
- Different notions of time. Cultural approaches to time may play out in painful and dramatic ways if not handled properly while working on a task, causing damage to the level of communication. For example, someone with a monochronic attitude to time may feel that a colleague displaying polychronic behaviour seems disorganized and may feel frustrated; in contrast, the person with a polychronic attitude to time may get frustrated with colleagues displaying monochronic behaviour --for instance, when they seem reluctant to take time out on an ad hoc basis to discuss pressing issues.
- Different methods in relationship building. When people come to together to work on a task, cultures differ with respect to the importance placed on establishing relationships early on in the collaboration. For example, Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion toward the end, as compared with European-Americans. European-Americans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task. This does not mean that people from any one of these cultural backgrounds are more or less committed to accomplishing the task or value relationships more or less; it means they may pursue them differently based upon their cultural approach to time.
Decision making styles
- Delegate to share responsibility. The roles individuals play in decision making vary widely from culture to culture. For example, in the United States, decision making is frequently delegated---that is, an official assigns responsibility for a particular matter to a subordinate. In many southern European and Latin American countries, there is a strong value placed on keeping decision making responsibilities to oneself. When decisions are made by groups of people, majority rule is a common approach in the United States; in Japan, consensus is the preferred mode.
Attitudes towards disclosure
- Ability to hide or show/share emotions. In some cultures, it is not appropriate to be frank about emotions, the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information. Questions that may seem natural to people of some cultures (e.g., What was the conflict about? What was your role in the conflict? What was the sequence of events? ) may seem intrusive to others.
- Keeping or sharing personal information. The variation among cultures regarding attitudes towards disclosure should also be considered before assessing the views, experiences, and goals of the people with whom you are working.
Approaches to learning
- Epistemology. Notable differences occur among cultural groups when it comes to the ways people acquire knowledge. European cultures tend to consider information acquired through cognitive means, such as counting and measuring, more valid than other ways of coming to know things. African cultures, prefer affective ways of knowing, including symbolic imagery and rhythm. Asian cultures’ epistemologies tend to emphasize the validity of knowledge gained through striving towards transcendence.
- Theoretical approach versus pragmatic approach. These different approaches to understanding could affect ways of analyzing a community problem or finding ways to resolve it. Some members of your group may want to do library research to understand a shared problem and identify possible solutions. Others may prefer to visit places and people who have experienced challenges like the ones they are facing to get a feeling for what has worked elsewhere.
Respecting Our Differences and Working Together
Anthropologists Avruch and Black (1993) have noted that “when faced by an interaction that we do not understand, people tend to interpret the others involved as ‘abnormal, weird, or wrong’.” This tendency, if indulged, gives rise on the individual level to prejudice. If this propensity is either consciously or unconsciously integrated into organizational structures, then prejudice takes root in the structures, laws, policies, and procedures that shape our lives. Consequently, it is vital to learn to control the human tendency to translate “different from me” into “less than me.”
Awareness of cultural differences doesn't have to divide us from each other. It doesn't have to paralyze us either, for fear of saying the “wrong thing.” In fact, becoming more aware of our cultural differences, as well as exploring our similarities, can help us communicate with each other more effectively. Recognizing where cultural differences are at work is the first step toward understanding and respecting each other.
To be effective, attempts at conflict resolution in intercultural settings must begin with cultural analysis. According to Avruch and Black (1993), culture provides “the ‘lens’ by which we view and bring into focus our world; the ‘logic,’ known as common sense, by which we order it.” The goal of cultural analysis is to understand the system of meanings and beliefs within which a seemingly “abnormal” or “inexplicable” event is seen as normal and understandable. Cultural analysis does not so much seek the cause of an event as it seeks to make sense of it. Cultural analysis seems to understand the significance of an event within its own cultural context.
Learning about the different ways that people communicate can enrich our lives. People's different communication styles reflect the deeper philosophies and world views that are the foundation of their culture. Understanding these deeper philosophies gives us a broader picture of what the world has to offer us.
Learning about people's cultures has the potential to give us a mirror image of our own. We have the opportunity to challenge our assumptions about the “right” way of doing things and to consider a variety of approaches. We have the chance to learn new ways to solve problems that we had previously given up on, having resigned ourselves to accepting the difficulties as “just the way things are.”
Lastly, if we are open to learning about people from other cultures, we become less alone. Prejudice and stereotypes separate us from whole groups of people who could be friends and partners in working for change. Many of us long for real contact. Interacting with people who are different from ourselves gives us hope and energizes us to take on the challenge of improving our communities and worlds.
Working in Cross-Cultural Projects
As you set out to work on multicultural projects, it is essential to take into consideration the following guiding principles:
- The first thing to do at the beginning of a project assignment is to develop a detailed understanding of the environment around you. Make a 360° assessment and acknowledge historical events that have taken place. Be open to learning more about them. Honest acknowledgment of the mistreatment and oppression that have taken place on the basis of cultural difference is vital for effective communication. Use this as an opportunity to develop a general understanding of “the other's” point of view, how they see the world and what are the main differences from your perspective. This will allow you immediately to be folded into the context without becoming impatient or defensive.
- Learn from generalizations about other cultures, but don't use those generalizations to create stereotypes. Although stereotypes might describe some characteristics of people from a specific culture, this “description” can easily become the sole model of how people from that culture function, oversimplifying the complexities of human behavior. Relying too heavily on stereotypes may cause someone to misread people who are the exception to the stereotypes.
- Develop your cultural sensitivity. Approaching people who think and react in a different way than you requires a good amount of sensitivity. Understanding others is the foundation to getting along with others. Leveraging cultural diversity and the ability to embrace differences while “learning from each other” is a paramount to success.
- Be genuinely interested in cultural differences. Ask people about the cultural differences that shape their lives. Show curiosity and genuine interest in their way of understanding life. However, do that this prudently, in order not to avoiding hurting the other person's feelings.
- Be genuine, open, and honest towards people. Human beings appreciate these three characteristics. Face any situation with elegance, showing respect for everybody, no matter what their role or their assignments.
- Don't assume that there is one right method (yours!) of communication. Keep questioning your assumptions about the “right way” to communicate. For example, think about your body language; posture that indicates receptivity in one culture might indicate aggressiveness in another.
- During an argument, be sure to have understood the variables well. To prevent problems associated with miscommunication, check with each other for clarity either through paraphrasing or by asking questions. Paraphrasing basically involves restating a point and then asking, “Is that what you meant?” Think and weigh the response style, using your cultural sensitivity. Stay firm on the contents, but shape the answer according to the other's way of understanding life.
- Listen actively and empathetically. Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes---especially when the other person's perceptions or ideas are very different from your own. You might need to operate at the edge of your own comfort zone.
- Respect others’ choices about whether to engage in communication with you. Honor their opinions about what is going on.
- Don't assume that breakdowns in communication occur because other people are on the wrong track. Search for ways to make the communication work, rather than searching for who should receive the blame for the breakdown.
- Suspend any judgment and try to view the situation with some distance and perspective; you are only a part of the whole.
- Remember that cultural norms may not apply to the behavior of any particular individual. We are all shaped by many, many factors: our ethnic background, our family upbringing, our education, and our personalities are all highly and cannot be defined solely by any cultural norm. Check your interpretations of the situation if you are uncertain of the meaning of what is being said.
Working a as part of a cross-cultural project can be quite challenging, and working as a project manager in such a setting, even more so! The purpose of this paper is to share portions of my own real-life professional experiences, as well as experiences from my private life, and to offer some of my hands-on knowledge. Many of the concepts that I have discussed are difficult to express in words. In order for you to gather a complete picture of these concepts, I would urge you to attend my presentation, to become more consciously aware of what working in multicultural teams truly implies.
The simple steps described above on respecting differences and working together on cross-cultural projects will help minimize the challenges and maximize the benefits of international teamwork. However, the key to understanding many of these steps is taking the necessary time to review, reflect, and put them into practice in actual cross-cultural scenarios. Think about the people you are working with, take time to get to know their working style, and consider things from their point of view. Do not make assumptions and do not dismiss unfounded ideas.
Being aware of cross-cultural differences and, in particular, our own attitudes, behaviors, and biases is essential for effective international teamwork. But awareness is only part of the process; we also need to have the skills and to use them consistently to ensure that we communicate and work effectively with people from different backgrounds. An important point to remember is that cross-cultural teamwork is not about minimizing the differences between people; rather, it is about making the most of the added value that a diverse team can offer.
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© 2008, Giancarlo Duranti, PMP®
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA