Project Management Institute

What did you say?


Arthur Costa Neto, PMP, Sociedade Potiguar de Empreendimentos Ltda, Natal, Brazil

Arthur Costa Neto, PMP, Sociedade Potiguar de Empreendimentos Ltda, Natal, Brazil

Arthur Costa Neto, PMP, is developing a golf and tourist destination site in Natal, Brazil. Twelve team members are from Brazil, and eight are from Spain. Early on, it became clear that the two groups had different ways of communicating. “In Brazil, we normally maintain a continuous communication process among team members,” says Mr. Costa Neto, project manager at real estate developer Sociedade Potiguar de Empreendimentos Ltda. Spanish team members, on the other hand, tend to provide reports only when they have new information—and that caused some concern among the Brazilians.

After talking with the project manager in Spain, Mr. Costa Neto realized the teams simply had different approaches. He and his colleague scheduled a weekly conference call that would keep everyone up to date on the project. Coming up with a way to accommodate all team members creates “a project environment that consolidates trust among all the stakeholders,” Mr. Costa Neto says.

By their very nature, projects with team members spanning different countries and cultures can be expensive and higher risk, leaving little margin for error. That means a project manager's ability to communicate across cultural boundaries “is becoming one of the critical factors in the performance and effectiveness of companies,” says Salvador Apud, senior partner at the consulting firm ITIM America, Austin, Texas, USA.

Yet, as Mr. Costa Neto's experience shows, it's easy for misunderstandings to occur. To reduce their likelihood, project managers should make an effort to learn about the team members' native cultures. “Be curious, be proactive, and read a little bit about their history and the current state of the country,” says Havard O. Skaldebo, PMP, a consultant with Project Business Systems, a project management consulting firm in Rykkinn, Norway. “For instance, if you know a sports hero from their country, you have a friend for life.”

As a project manager working on communication and computer systems in the U.S. Air Force, Bruce Paterson, PMP, spent the first week of his assignment in Turkey taking part in a cultural immersion class. “The courses were very helpful,” says Mr. Paterson, now a senior project manager with Regions Financial Corp., Montgomery, Ala., USA. He mastered several Turkish phrases and studied the culture's business etiquette, learning, for example, that making eye contact when shaking hands is very important.

Of course, even the best books and courses can't cover the myriad differences between cultures, so project managers might want to bring team members together at the beginning of a project. Hosting meetings of team members spread across the globe isn't cheap. However, if the project fails to meet its objectives because members misunderstand each other, the costs can quickly exceed the price of airfare and hotels.

Meeting face-to-face provides an opportunity for each person to talk about his or her approach to business, says Chris F. Kindermans, PMP, principal with Proyecta bvba, a project management firm in Mechelen, Belgium. He is also president of the PMI Belgium Chapter. For example, people from the United States tend to be direct in their conversations, while those from Asian cultures prefer a more diplomatic approach, he says. Team members can discuss the differences, perhaps in a lighthearted way, to show how members from various cultures might act. “You can use humor to soften the sharp edges,” Mr. Kindermans says.

Meeting in person also enables the project leader to assess how well team members speak the language of choice for the project, says Colette Foan, PMP, owner of CMS Project Management Consultancy and Training, Manchester, U.K. If some team members look confused and simply nod during conversation, it's probably a sign they're not proficient, and the project manager should take extra care in communicating with them.

Watch Your Language

Choosing a language in which to conduct business and prepare the project deliverables can get complicated on cross-cultural teams. Several years ago, Jennifer Tharp, PMP, who hails from the United States, was working as a project manager with Vodafone, deploying wireless services in Romania. Although English was chosen as the official language, the Romanian team members would sometimes resort to using their native language as they tried to understand a new concept. Ms. Tharp didn't want to interrupt, but she also needed to keep the project on track. If the conversation continued, she would tactfully ask them about the issue and how she could bring everyone back together.

Last year, Mr. Kindermans was working as the deputy project manager on a construction project that included team members from Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. Workers at the site could speak to each other in the language with which they were most comfortable, but German was used during meetings and in official documents. Translators were brought in to create some of those documents. Although it's an additional expense, a good translator can interpret words within the cultural frameworks of both the writer and the reader, Mr. Kindermans says. That's an obvious advantage when teams are using different languages, but when people are using the same one, it's easy to forget they may come from different backgrounds and not interpret things in the same way, he cautions.

imgBe curious, be proactive, and read a little bit about [team members'] history and the current state of the country.img

—Havard O. Skaldebo, PMP, Project Business Systems, Rykkinn, Norway

Even similar ideas can take on different meanings depending on the culture, says Jane Parslow, PMP, a consultant in Middlesex, U.K. In English, people talk of “spending time,” implying time is a valuable asset and shouldn't be wasted. In contrast, the French speak of “passing time,” with the connotation that time is more elastic.

The Same, but Different

It's not only when projects include team members from different countries that cultural differences can wreak havoc on communication. Even team members from the same country can experience culture clash. That was the case when Arthur Costa Neto, PMP, was managing a project for WBS Gerenciamento e Empreedimentos Ltd., which had been hired to provide project management services for Companhia Petroquimica do Sul (COPESUL). One of the project's goals was to customize and implement project management software and then train COPESUL's employees on the application.

All the team members came from Brazil—but there were still differences. Team members from the south tended to be more direct and felt freer to state exactly what they were thinking than those from the north.

“We identified during the preliminary project analysis all the potential conflicts related to the culture gaps,” Mr. Costa Neto says. To keep everyone on the same page, the project managers decided to use a structured, disciplined communication plan. For instance, team members assembled weekly performance reports that allowed all team members to quickly stay abreast of all aspects of the project. The reports were divided into four sections:

  1. Actions executed during the past week
  2. Problems that occurred and the corrective measures taken
  3. Tasks for the following week
  4. Assistance required for the following week.

Because team members communicated regularly throughout the project, both sides gained a better understanding of their counterparts from the other side of the country. That knowledge contributed to the project being completed on time and within budget.

Project managers should also avoid extraneous phrases that make it difficult for others to understand what's being said, Ms. Foan advises. For example, many people from the United States pepper their conversation with phrases such as “sort of” and “kind of.” These added words add little to the conversation, but make it difficult for others who are not fluent in English to understand them. “You have to speak carefully,” she says.

Bonnie Spencer, PMP, learned that one the hard way in her job as a cost control manager with Amec Group Ltd., London, U.K. The project management firm was hired by Kuwait Oil Co. to oversee the upgrade of a production facility in Ahmadi, Kuwait. Ms. Spencer, who relocated from the United States, manages a team of 12 employees from India, Pakistan, England, Scotland, the Philippines and other countries. In late 2005, the teams were developing the project budgets in a particularly hectic period. Ms. Spencer asked a team member to get some information from another project manager in the next day or two, but the team member thought she needed it immediately. “I said the sentence too fast,” she says. “He just picked up that I needed the information right away.”

What's the Frequency?

Project managers with dispersed team members also need to decide on the manner and frequency with which they'll communicate. E-mail is popular, because everyone can take the time to thoroughly read the messages and respond whenever it's convenient in their time zone. “You try to do as much as possible via e-mail, until it's clear that something's not getting through,” Ms. Tharp says. For instance, a requested change doesn't get made, despite repeated discussion. “Then, you talk via phone and video-conferencing.” In many cases, though, time differences mean at least one team member has to talk outside of normal working hours.

Of course, sometimes it's necessary to meet face-to-face. For the several months leading up to the launch of the wireless service, Ms. Tharp stayed put in Romania. “There were so many issues coming up, it didn't make sense to do it remotely,” she says.

When in Romania …

When team members come from a variety of cultures, project managers may need to reach out and connect with them on a personal level. “It's emotional intelligence with a cultural edge,” says Philip Merry, CEO of Singapore-based consultancy Global Leadership Academy. As with any project, project managers need to lead and motivate team members by responding to their emotional needs. With cross-cultural teams, though project leaders may need to adjust their management approach a bit to accommodate cultural differences.

Sometimes that means bowing to local tradition. While in Romania, Ms. Tharp frequently went out to eat with her colleagues even though dinners usually didn't start until about 10 p.m. “To build trust, you need to have a warm, friendly relationship,” she says. “You can't say that you have e-mail to catch up on” and decline the invite.

To be sure, communicating effectively across cultures and languages takes effort. However, project managers don't want to focus so intently on the work required that they overlook the opportunities. “In this enormous world, there's so little that we explore on a regular basis,” Ms. Tharp says. “It's great to see project management from a completely different perspective.” PM

Karen M. Kroll is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based writer who focuses on business, finance and technology.

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.




Related Content