Managing multicultural teams

Just how can you manage remote resources in a multi-cultural team?

For all sorts of reasons many more project managers are finding themselves with some (or all) of their project team members based thousands of kilometres away, maybe 10 time zones away, and from a range of cultures. This makes everything more difficult, and even the obvious solution of frequent telephone or video conference calls is fraught with danger.

Typically here in Europe or North America you would carry out a regular round-the-table team meeting, asking about progress, issues and upcoming tasks. Typically this type of meeting works well, as most Europeans and Americans are not inhibited about putting up their hand, admitting a problem, and asking for help. Typically, with many Eastern and Arab cultures, this will not work as well as the project manager might hope. Indeed, if the PM is not aware of the potential for different communication styles, the PM will not understand the messages that come from some team members.

Well, this topic is larger than one simple blog post, but here are a few ideas for some practical approaches to managing a few of the common challenges found in a multi-cultural team. Some of these suggestions are focussed on the people and some are powerful project management processes that will help.

Some team members (especially from Eastern and Arab cultures) will not want to lose face, and will find it impossible to report bad news or a lack of understanding in an open meeting (even if this is run as a telephone conference). Such information-gathering must be carried out before any formal meeting, preferably in a private conversation.

Even in a one-to-one conversation many eastern cultures find it difficult to admit problems with progress, and will not report failure. The project manager must develop a style of conversation that asks for evidence of achievement, and not rely on simple answers to closed questions (e.g. ‘are you on schedule’ will always be answered ‘yes’).

Reporting issues sometimes can be seen as causing the boss to lose face (it seems like a criticism of the boss’s plan, and, by implication, the boss), and this is a total no-no to many Eastern folks. The project manager must work really hard to prove that the reporting of issues is a GOOD THING, and no-one will be shot for doing it. If the issue is not reported it cannot be fixed, so the reporting of issues is a powerful contributor to project success, and this must be explained in non-threatening terms to all team members.

Meetings can also be bad forums for arriving at a decision. Suggestions should be canvassed before the meeting, and then the meeting is used to confirm the group’s decision.

If the project manager feels that work being carried out remotely is at risk then the only way to manage this is through deliverables. If the work is truly risky (either because of scheduling constraints or quality risks due to unknown skill or availability levels) then more deliverables must be identified and built into the control management plan and the communication plan.

The remote team members will feel more trusted if you do not hassle them about hours worked, but show great interest in the deliverables they are creating. It is very difficult for a diffident team member to fake an answer to ‘please send me the XYZ deliverable that you have just created, as we need it for ….’.

An issue system that is open to all, with a fully visible status and history of every issue, will also show that issues are taken seriously. This may encourage team members to report them in the first place.

Having more deliverables to specify, document and check is obviously harder work for the PM; welcome to international project management. What is the alternative?



©Mike Watson 2015



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