Project Management Institute

The message is clear

VOICESIn the Trenches


Adjust communications to break
cultural barriers on diverse teams.

By Mark Milotich, PMP, and Waseem Hussain

WE ALL KNOW THE WORLD functions faster than ever. The speed at which messages from a project manager in Belgium can reach team members in Singapore, for example, can be measured in milliseconds.

This makes globally diverse teams feel like the norm—and it's also made miscommunication caused by cultural differences seem ever-present. We hear of these problems daily. For instance, a U.S. project manager with a diverse team may believe that by having all team members participate equally in the decision-making process, they will be more committed to delivering results. However, when the project manager asks junior Indian team members directly for their opinions during brainstorming meetings via video conference, their replies might often be short and show a lack of engagement, such as, “We can do it the way you want.”

These types of communication problems can make for a frustrating project atmosphere. Here's what a project manager should do in these situations:

Be encouraging with requests.

Not every culture views authority in the same manner. Typically, Western cultures value the benefits of involving people in decision-making. However, many cultures in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia prefer clear lines of authority and decision-making.

In the aforementioned example, junior team members in India don't necessarily expect to be consulted for their opinions. Regardless of experience, encourage each team member to act as a leader by using phrases such as: “I would like to hear how you would solve this problem if you were in my position.”

Frame problems as challenges to be solved together.

In many cultures, people are reluctant to communicate news that could make their boss look bad. Team members may not speak openly about project problems or delays—no matter how many times you ask.

Instead of expecting team members to come forward with problems, frame the discussion so that both leader and followers are on the same side of the obstacle working together toward a solution. For example, don't ask why a project deliverable is late. Instead, let team members know, “I would like to work with you to identify any factors that may cause delays.”

Avoid vague terms.

Project managers are often not aware of the large role that culture plays in how technical or procedural requirements are interpreted. For example, traditions in India's 5,000-year-old culture suggest that a soul has 311 trillion years to fulfill its destiny. This surely relieves some of the pressure of having to deliver a project task by next Tuesday.

“As soon as possible” may have a different meaning depending on what country you come from.

Non-specific requests such as “I need that report ASAP” leave room for cultural misinterpretation. “As soon as possible” may have a different meaning depending on what country you come from.

To reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding, create a work breakdown structure with your team. It must include a detailed project dictionary to get everyone on the same page.

Share Your Thoughts

No one knows project management better than you, the practitioners “in the trenches.” So every month, PM Network shares your opinions on everything from sustainability to talent management, and all project topics in between. If you're interested in contributing, email [email protected].

Simply because virtual communication such as emails can be sent across the world in a matter of seconds doesn't mean effective messages take no time at all. To deliver results with offshore team members, project managers must do more than just think about being culturally savvy. They must actively work at understanding how their own background influences their methods and behavior. With an open mindset, project managers can adapt to the needs of team members with different cultural preferences and practices. PM


Mark Milotich, PMP, is a founding partner of leadership, communication and change management consultancy Claxus GmbH in Zurich, Switzerland.


Waseem Hussain is the managing director of business strategy consultancy MARWAS AG in Zurich, Switzerland.

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.




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