Challenges in intercultural relationships and collaboration are not a new phenomenon brought about by globalisation, the internet and sourcing across countries all over the world. Almost 500 years ago, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said:
“Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice, for we have no other criterion of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. There is always the perfect religion, the perfect government, the perfect and accomplished manners in all things.
As a result of globalisation, an increased number of projects are characterised by great diversity and involvement of people from different cultural backgrounds. Interpersonal relationships – and the ability to work together across national cultures and individual values – are crucial to a project’s success.
Where do problems arise?
Most misunderstandings arise because we experience something unexpected in our relationships with others. Our expectations are typically based on what we know and naturally and often unconsciously act on the basis of.
The primary sources of challenges in cultural encounters include individual perceptions and misconceptions of e.g. unwritten rules, values, religion, concepts of time and space, body contact, gender, hierarchy, trust and preconceptions and self-perceptions, all of which can challenge a person’s view of the world.
To demonstrate how such challenges can be mitigated, the article is based on a case that illustrates how different perceptions of time cause problems to a project manager.
Lise, the project manager, invites her new global team to a three-day workshop. The team members are asked to submit their input in a structured form before the workshop and given a reasonable deadline. Despite repeated reminders from Lise, however, only the participants from Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United States have provided input. Lise therefore prepares the workshop material based on the input received and in the expectation that the other countries will agree to it with few changes.
However, the workshop gets off to a bad start. A number of participants are taken by surprise when Lise enthusiastically tells them about her preparation efforts and the time she has saved for the participants. It turns out that the participants from Spain and Italy have brought their written input to be discussed during the workshop, while the participants from Mexico and Brazil have held a meeting on the South American input and have prepared a verbal input.
The mood in the group is polite, but Lise senses a certain resistance to her role as a project manager. Collaboration within the group is hesitant, the goals are not met, and the group has not become the close-knit unit she had hoped for.
When we encounter a different culture and things are not as we expect, we become insecure and tend to feel under pressure more quickly. As a result, we may – more or less consciously – end up dictating the terms and increasing the risk of conflicts.
Lise acted from her own cultural standpoint and expected the participants to provide feedback by the agreed deadline and in the specified structured form. This did not happen, and she was not sure why. One reason may be different perceptions of time.
Time is of the essence – all in good time
Perceptions of time vary greatly from one culture to the other. The concept of time may seem easy to understand, but differences in the perception of time are the cause of many conflicts.
Lise’s actions are based on a strict focus on time as a guiding factor. Deadlines must be met, focus is on the task, and the product is more important than the process. The relationship with the other members of the group is secondary in a work context. Time is of the essence – we must hurry up, otherwise we will not make it. This is a typical approach in cultures with a monochronic perception of time, which is characteristic of Northern Europe and the United States.
As opposed to this, polychronic cultures perceive time as fluid. The process is more important than the product, and structure is not all that important. The relationship is primary, and punctuality is balanced against relational factors. Deadlines are aimed for, but not to be met at all costs. All in good time – things are done when time allows, and the relationship is kept intact.
While Lise is annoyed by the lack of input and confronts the group with the product, the polychronic project participants see a challenge to the relationship and feel “steamrollered”.
What is culture?
Culture can be defined as the basic framework that determines how a group of individuals – often unconsciously – think, interpret, communicate and act. It is what we take for granted and what reflects our expectations and underlies our behaviour. Thus, the clash is not between people or cultures – it is a clash of behaviours. In the example above, the challenge is not the different perceptions of time, but the behaviour they lead to.
An important tool is to be able to look behind the behaviour to see the intention. The point is that if the behaviour is ignored and the intention recognised, everything becomes much easier.
If we look behind the behaviour and recognise the intention, a different picture presents itself, and we can add significant value to the collaboration.
Lise’s behaviour has a negative effect, but if we look at the intention, we see a different picture: Lise seeks a response, does not get it and loses confidence in some of the project participants and the group’s success. She feels pressed for time and worries about the project’s progress. Therefore, she puts a lot of effort into the preparation, and she expects a positive response. Her intention is not to overrule the other participants, but to support the group and ensure the necessary progress. By unconsciously ignoring the other participants’ culture and expectations, however, she creates a distance – not only to the participants, but also between the participants.
Awareness of the differences in the perception of time and the underlying intention enables project managers and project participants to adjust their behaviour and thus prevent a number of misunderstandings that may otherwise affect the overall project progress.
When two cultures meet, a change occurs. Frustrations, thoughts and interpretations of a given situation may affect people’s behaviour. For Lise, the lack of response led to an increasingly confrontational approach to some of the project participants before the meeting and to much more preparation on her part than she had intended.
If she had been aware that the lack of response resulted from different perceptions of time, she could have seized the situation and used her knowledge proactively in the given context.
Interculturally competent project managers can benefit from using the three basic dimensions shown in the green circles in figure 1. The three dimensions are all equally necessary and mutually influence each other, and none of them can stand alone. Project managers must find the key to developing their intercultural skills in a given situation and identify the available options.
Explore is about being curious – like a child exploring the world without prejudice or bias – and about wondering and asking questions such as: “What am I experiencing, and where is each of us right now?” This may refer to the situational framework, the frame of reference, an equal approach, factors that lead to different views of roles, backgrounds, concepts, etc., and the degree of security felt by you and others in a given situation.
Understanding is the cultural insight and knowledge that can be deployed by asking the question: “What does it take to move on successfully?” This may refer to useful knowledge to be acquired, relevant questions to be asked, new experience to be gained, etc.
Action is about behaviour. Ask yourself: “How can I benefit from adjusting my behaviour?” Can we do things differently, how is the level of information, do we communicate equally, are we using the right form of communication, etc.?
The white circles in figure 1 can be described as the “supporting legs” of the three basic dimensions of intercultural skills: Self-insight (knowing oneself), insight into others (human diversity) and understanding of the conflicts that naturally arise in relationships across differences.
The model above is a tool to open the project manager’s eyes to diversity and to experiment to find the intercultural project management style that will yield results in the current context.
When a project is initiated or relationships between participants in a project group are to be built/strengthened, the above knowledge – combined with a cross-disciplinary relationship tool such as Diversity Icebreaker– may contribute to opening up the project group. The participants will feel more comfortable addressing delicate issues, laughing together and using each other’s differences.
Edward T. Hall: Beyond Culture, Anchor Books 1989
Diversity Icebreaker (www.diversityicebreaker.com)