Compensating for business culture and communication differences

By far the most common, most glaring misstep U.S. employers make in foreign markets is to assume that people, by and large, act more or less the same in a business setting. It’s a mistake I’ve seen in almost every International project, whether the global team is Russian, Indian, Asian, or South American. Business in a foreign country is not like business at home.

Business culture and communication

In the U.S. we have become very insular, expecting behavior from our workforce that simply doesn’t exist in other cultures. For example, we take for granted that employees will be outspoken and even downright vocal about anything they aren’t happy with. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” as the saying goes. But it turns out, that saying doesn’t apply in very many cultures. In fact, the global project manager needs to recognize that in some cultures, speaking out is an anathema, in any setting. This has come up with almost every outsourcing effort I’ve managed throughout Asia: People will seem to contribute extensively or not at all, depending on the culture.

While this looks like a communication issue, it’s actually power distance. Power distance is the degree to which a supervisor and a subordinate are separated by culture and society. Throughout most of the world (especially Asia), power distance is very important. It introduces a formality into the business relationship that doesn’t exist in many Westernized countries.

One strategy to begin overcoming this problem is to initiate collaboration up-front. This can be a particularly effective tool for establishing peer relationships early in the game. While speaking out is not a given, it’s almost universally true that people open up to their peers before opening up to managers (and this is especially true in Asia, where group orientation is predominant). Initiating a project with an on-site collaborative session kickstarts the drive for interactivity. We’ve found that it’s critical to stage the session appropriately. It has to be at one location, the entire team should be present, and the environment should be tailored to create effective, collaborative conversations. Remember, it’s more about building the team than about making real progress on the project.

Successful projects — and therefore successful project management methodologies — recognize that communication is a common point of failure, and put measures in place to compensate. That means taking steps to create strong team communication, and continuing to facilitate collaboration throughout the project, and using methods that encourage rich, complex communication (like frequent, short video calls). It’s very important that the team has the right tools to establish effective communication, so don’t skimp on them.

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