Project Management Institute

Stranger in a strange land

the American project manager working abroad

The American Project Manager Working Abroad

by W. Richard Minor, PMP


IT WAS YEARS AGO, but I haven't forgotten those blank expressions. I would occasionally try to break the tension with a light-hearted remark or joke, and received nothing but stoicism. My first few weeks at this German project just didn't seem normal. The work was proceeding quite well, but I just couldn't build the professional relationships I believed were critical to long-term success. I was certain that something was terribly wrong with our workers’ morale.

Peaches or coconuts? Understanding cultural differences can be the key to project management success when working in other countries.

When I brought this up with one of my German colleagues, he responded with something he'd heard in his country: ‘Americans are like peaches—it's easy to interact with them to a point, but their core can be impenetrable. Germans, on the other hand, are like coconuts. It can be difficult to get through their outer shell, but once you do, you'll find they're as personable as anyone else.” This analogy began my fascination with the cultural challenges we American project managers can face when working abroad.

Though today's American project management practices are far less ethnocentric than those of the post-WWII era, working abroad still requires special attention. How can we interpret the different behaviors and perceptions that exist overseas? How can we identify and capitalize on these cultural gaps, while minimizing their detrimental effects?

W. Richard Minor, PMP, is a manager for a large Chicago-based consulting firm. He has specialized in managing project teams engaged in client/server application programming and technical architecture development. His international experience includes working in South Africa, Hong Kong, Canada, Germany, and Denmark. He is a board member of PMI's Midwest Chapter and of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations’ Young Professionals.

Why is Understanding the Local Culture So Important?

Contrary to what many of us might assume, research indicates that national culture has a greater impact on a worker's frame of mind than does organizational culture. A worker, no matter how well he or she adopts the organization's culture, will still be driven primarily by the culture in which he or she was raised.

Thus, a project manager's awareness of the cultural gaps between him and his workers can make the difference between success or failure. Conflicting approaches to time management may spell trouble for the manager who uses an American project's task actuals as estimates for a new project in Brazil. An assertive, “take charge” management style that works well in the United States is likely to alienate the manager on a Swedish project. Occasionally, a lack of cultural awareness can have severe consequences. In one example several years ago, a manager assembling a team in Africa unwittingly hired new employees from warring tribes. Soon after, a series of murders took place on the shop floor.

Ask Benchmark Questions

Here are sample questions that will help you create a benchmark based on project environments. Ask yourself questions that will characterize your experiences about each of the dimensions.

Power Distance

images Are team members afraid to disagree with their project managers?

images Do project team members like to be involved with management-level decisions?

images What are team members’ reactions to a supervisor with an autocratic management style?

Individualism vs. Collectivism

images Do supervisors manage at the individual or at the group level?

images Do project members prefer individual or team-level recognition?

images Which traits does the project hold in highest regard—an individual's ability to work well within a team or an individual's skills? Do ambitious project members try to “stand out”?

images To what degree will a project member sacrifice his needs for those of the team?

Masculinity vs. Femininity

images How different is the professional behavior of women workers from that of men?

images Is empathy for other team members a common trait of both men and women?

images Are men expected to be more assertive and ambitious than women? If yes, to what degree?

Uncertainty Avoidance

images Do project team members face unfamiliar situations with curiosity, or apprehension?

images Is there resistance to innovation?

images Will a team member break company policy if he or she believes it is in the best interests of the organization?

Many sources provide information on how an expatriate should conduct himself or herself in terms of greetings, dining etiquette, and so forth. This information, though useful, focuses on the cultural practices of a country, not its perceptions and beliefs. For a project manager to be truly successful he or she must also understand the indigenous culture and be able to anticipate the areas where problems will occur. Fortunately, developing an understanding of the culture does not require a doctorate in anthropology. A simple, effective method based on existing cultural studies can help a project manager gain the cultural awareness that is so critical to his or her success.

Steps for Success

I'll describe here an approach that borrows heavily from a popular study on national culture. Using a structure derived from this research, project managers can create a benchmark tailored to their own experiences and then compare the benchmark to observations from a foreign project. This approach identifies the areas needing the most attention.

1. Understand Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions. The first step is to understand the cultural dimensions identified by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede in the early 1970s. Hofstede's research focused on the cultural inclinations of more than 100,000 employees in 50 countries and three geographical regions. The results of his work fell into four distinct dimensions that are now widely used to describe national cultures:

Power Distance (strong vs. weak) is the degree to which individuals at lower levels of an organization accept their lack of autonomy and rely on authority for direction. Cultures with strong power distance (for example, the Philippines) tend to prefer a supervisor who is authoritarian or paternalistic. Workers are usually reluctant to disagree with their manager's decisions. In countries with weak power distance (for example, the Netherlands) employees prefer supervisors who consult with them before making decisions. Workers are not averse to expressing their opinions, regardless of whether or not they conflict with those of their supervisors. Thus, employee empowerment initiatives tend to work best in weak power distance countries, where workers expect to have some involvement in management-level decisions.

Individualism vs. Collectivism is the degree to which individual workers rely on their association with a group or team. In an individualistic culture, workers have loose relationships with each other. Each is implicitly expected to place his or her own interests above those of the collective team. A country with strong individualism (such as the United States, which rated highest in Hofstede's study) tends to emphasize competition among individuals. Most countries, however, are collectivist, meaning their workers prefer to be loyal members of tightly knit groups in return for protection and security. A Japanese employee, for instance, may be embarrassed or even terrified by individual recognition, and would much rather see his team rewarded as a whole. So, a project manager hoping to increase performance may get the best results through individual competition in a strongly individualist country, and through team-level incentives in a collectivist one. Although the individualism vs. collectivism dimension is highly variable among individuals, there is a strong tendency for workers to follow national cultural trends.

Masculinity vs. Femininity is the extent to which traditionally “male” goals of wealth and recognition are distinct from those traits traditionally considered to be “female”—caring, sharing, modesty, and so forth. For example, Great Britain's highly “masculine” culture expects men to be primarily concerned with earnings, promotions, and recognition. In a relative sense, British women are expected to be caring and nurturing. On the other hand, a culture with high femininity, such as that in Denmark, expects both genders to possess the same general mix of these traits. Danish workers, regardless of gender, exhibit the masculinity and femininity traits in roughly equal amounts.

Uncertainty Avoidance (strong vs. weak) is the extent to which a society accepts the unknown. A country with high uncertainty avoidance, such as Japan, tends to seek security in rules. Solace is found in structure, sometimes even when that structure is ineffective or illogical. Accuracy is rewarded. Supervisors are expected to have all of the answers. A country with a relatively low degree of uncertainty avoidance, such as the United States, accepts ambiguity as a natural, necessary part of society. Originality is often regarded more highly than accuracy. Supervisors are not expected to know everything about the business, and usually do not lose face by uttering the occasional “I don't know.”

Hofstede's study developed a unique cultural profile for each country or country-cluster. Unfortunately, though, country-level cultural studies alone are rarely adequate for a project manager's particular business environment. Hofstede acknowledged that ethnic distinctions made generalizing about a country very difficult. By conservative estimates, there are over 3,000 distinct ethnic groups in over 210 countries. Considering a project's unique mix of ethnic groups, it is clear that its working environment may resemble little of what its country's national culture is supposed to be. Because of this, the most useful analysis will be derived from the application of Hofstede's dimensions to your own experiences and observations.

2. Creating the Benchmark. For each of the four dimensions, Hofstede used survey data to create numeric indexes for each country he studied. Since it is unlikely you will have the time, resources, or sample sizes large enough to conduct a meaningful survey, you should instead create a benchmark based on the project environments you are most familiar with. Ask yourself questions that will characterize your experiences along each of the dimensions. The sample questions shown in the sidebar may help you:

Your benchmark will contain your own cultural biases, but this is irrelevant since we are only concerned with placing a “stake in the ground” from which to gauge the cultures of other projects. Exhibit 1 contains my own benchmark based on my general project experiences in the United States. Your benchmark may look very different, since it will be based on your own personal experiences.

The benchmark points, based on my own general experiences, and each marked with a “B,” will be compared with the results of a foreign project work environment in Exhibit 2

Exhibit 1. The benchmark points, based on my own general experiences, and each marked with a “B,” will be compared with the results of a foreign project work environment in Exhibit 2.

The points marked with a “B” are from the benchmark exercise shown in Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2. The points marked with a “B” are from the benchmark exercise shown in Exhibit 1.

3. Collecting Information About the Foreign Project. Gather as much cultural information on the project as possible. Meeting minutes, status reports, performance reviews, and issue logs can provide some revealing insights into the character of the foreign project's work environment. Perhaps you can gather much of this information before you even arrive. If possible, speak with other project members who have worked there for a while. Listen to the mistakes they have made and the lessons they have learned. Though observations from co-workers will be valuable, be aware that each person has his or her own cultural context. Your fellow project team members may not share your frame of reference. For instance, an American co-worker's perspective is likely to be more closely aligned with another American's than with a Frenchman's.

Suggested Reading

Cleland, David I. and Roland Gareis (Editors). 1994. Global Project Management Handbook. McGraw-Hill.

Hoecklin, Lisa. 1995. Managing Cultural Differences: Strategies for Competitive Advantage. Addison-Wesley Publishing.

Hofstede, Geert. 1997. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, Geert. 1980. Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Sage Publications.

Phillips, Nicola. 1994. Managing International Teams. Financial Times/Irwin Professional Publishing.

Training Management Corporation. 1995. Doing Business Internationally Resource Book

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4. Applying the Dimensions to the Working Environment. Employing the same types of questions used for your benchmark, determine where the project's culture sits on each of the four dimensions. This will give structure to your developing awareness of the project work environment, and will accentuate the differences between your culture and theirs. The dimensions with the greatest distances between your observation and your benchmark are likely to be the areas needing the most attention. This proved to be the case in Germany. See Exhibit 2 for my example of the German project's cultural dimensions in relation to my own benchmark points.

At the German project, collectivism was much more prominent than individualism. The most highly regarded project members were respected because of their contributions to the project, not because of their individual merit. Project members who didn't fully embrace the needs of the team were considered poor performers. As a foreigner joining this project and trying to build credibility, I had to demonstrate total commitment to the project team and minimize my American-born penchant for individualistic thinking. In addition, uncertainty avoidance was much stronger on this German project than in my benchmark. Project plans and deadlines were extremely rigid— many project members in danger of missing deadlines were solemnly threatened with termination. While this type of behavior is not unheard of in the United States, in my experience it has been rare. As a project manager, I used this “do or die” attitude to my advantage when dealing with my German subordinates. Conversely, I realized that my supervisor, the program manager, would accept no excuses for late deliverables: “Failure was not an option.”

5. Changing the Project Environment, or Your Changing Management Style. Once you have analyzed the culture, determine the degree to which you should modify your own management style and/or the project culture. Consider the consequences if you try to change certain cultural aspects of your project. Given the environment, will your methods be more effective? Even if they would be, would they be easy to adopt? An American project manager trying to change the culture-based beliefs and perceptions developed over thousands of years is likely to face alienation. In many cases, it may be best to simply acknowledge the things you cannot change, and adjust your own method of doing business. Your decision will depend on several factors: your assessment of how successful the current approaches are, the size of your project team, the duration of your assignment, and the mix of other cultures present in the work environment.

THESE FIVE STEPS work extremely well. I used them during some of my foreign projects and gained valuable insights that have made me a better international project manager. However, developing a cultural awareness of a foreign project environment takes time. As you learn more about the culture, you should refine your assessment along Hofstede's dimensions. During my assignment in Germany, for example, I increased the uncertainty avoidance measurement several times.

Relax, and don't be paranoid about mistakes—you will make some no matter how careful you are. When you do make them, determine their causes and learn from them. Continually revise your management style so that it complements the work environment. As I discovered on the German project, the results are well worth the effort.

On my last day in Frankfurt, the program manager, a brash, hefty German, came up to me and said something I will never forget: “Rick, when you leave the project I think I will miss you.” Then, desperately wanting to avoid any further exchange, he rushed out of the room faster than I could say “auf Wiedersehen.” I recalled the peach and the coconut analogy and realized that, at least for an instant, I had been allowed a glimpse inside a German's outer shell. images

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.

PM Network March 1999



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