Intercultural competence

In business and project management, behaviour plays a crucial role in the success of projects and the development of business relationships. In this context, good behaviour and adherence to rules of conduct are essential. Especially in a globalised world, where companies and projects are often international, it is important to get to know the customs and traditions of other cultures. After all, what is considered polite and appropriate in one culture may be considered rude or even offensive in another. It is therefore necessary to develop and promote intercultural competence in order to avoid putting one's foot in one's mouth and to build good relationships.
A man holding a globe.


Intercultural competence in project work - understanding, accepting and collaborating

Culture plays a major role in our lives. Whether in business, international relations or personal encounters, cultural differences and similarities shape our actions and interactions. Culture is defined as belonging to a group, be it an ethnic group or a company, that shares certain values, norms and behaviours that shape and distinguish its members.
Edgar Schein described the different levels of culture. The most superficial level consists of visible rules and behavioural outcomes that are subject to interpretation. The next level is the values and norms, some of which are visible and some of which are unconscious. The last level is made up of basic assumptions, which are invisible and mostly unconscious. These levels influence our thinking and actions to varying degrees.
In order to communicate and work effectively with people from other cultures, it is important for project managers to develop intercultural competence. This is the ability to understand and respond appropriately to cultural differences and similarities. It also includes the willingness to accept differences and to show understanding of other world views.
In order to develop intercultural competence, it is necessary to become familiar with the cultural differences and characteristics of the regions and countries in which one works or with the people one works with. One way of doing this is through intercultural training programmes. They provide a deeper understanding of other cultures and help to avoid intercultural misunderstandings. 
Developing intercultural competence can help promote open and productive collaboration between members of an international project team or with clients and stakeholders from different cultures. By understanding and accepting cultural differences, project staff can better respond to the needs and expectations of their colleagues and clients. This leads to more effective collaboration and ultimately contributes to project success.

Affective, pragmatic and cognitive skills

In order to achieve intercultural competence, it is important to develop specific skills. These can be divided into three categories: affective, pragmatic and cognitive skills.
Affective skills refer to the emotional level and enable project managers to show empathy and develop a positive attitude towards other cultures. It is particularly important to be able to empathise with other people and to accept cultural differences. Pragmatic skills refer to the concrete application of knowledge in a specific situation. This includes the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural codes and to communicate effectively in an intercultural environment. Cognitive skills concern the theoretical knowledge needed to understand and respond appropriately to cultural differences. Knowledge of cultural backgrounds and traditions, as well as rules of behaviour and etiquette, is crucial.
The combination of these three skills - knowledge, ability and empathy - forms the basis for successful intercultural cooperation. The skills of ability and empathy can be improved over time through practical experience, while theoretical knowledge can and must be acquired in advance. Project managers should be informed about cultural differences and similarities of different cultures in order to improve their intercultural competence. Aspects such as physical contact, expressions of respect, table manners, work and leadership styles, hierarchies and dress codes should be considered. A reliable source of this knowledge is essential.

Benefits of intercultural competence in business and project management

A project manager who has studied intercultural competence and knows how to apply the knowledge gained has several advantages over a project manager who has not studied other cultures. The one who has dealt with other cultures, and ideally with the cultures he is working with, is aware that there are a number of stumbling blocks and faux pas he can stumble into. They know the most serious mistakes to avoid, but they also know that they can put their foot in it in ways they never imagined. In that case, he should know how to react. 
As projects are often carried out by teams from different cultures, miscommunication or misinterpretation can quickly escalate, for example because of different ideas about punctuality or accuracy. Similarly, gestures or norms may be perceived as rude or disrespectful in one culture that are perfectly acceptable in another. Without knowledge of cultural differences, such misunderstandings can lead to conflict. When project managers are aware of (subtle) cultural differences, they can avoid unintentional misunderstandings and the conflicts that can result. Not only does this make teamwork more pleasant, but negotiations and discussions can be more constructive and lead to better results.
Intercultural competence not only helps to avoid stumbling blocks and misunderstandings, it also makes it easier to build good relationships. In many cultures, it is customary to build a relationship before closing a deal. Project managers who take the time to get to know the culture and the people they are working with can build more trust and a better foundation for successful collaboration. The resulting business relationships will be stronger and longer lasting.

Wrapping up

Intercultural competence is important because appropriate, respectful and adapted behaviour avoids putting one's foot in one's mouth and builds good relationships more quickly. In this way, a stable business relationship can be established and the project can be carried out efficiently. Every project manager knows from experience how important good relationships are in the context of a project. Negotiations and discussions can be more fruitful and misunderstandings avoided if you know how problems and obstacles are dealt with in the other culture. Those who develop and demonstrate intercultural competence have a better chance of achieving their goals. Those who are tolerant, flexible and adaptable will appear more likeable and professional to other project participants as well as to clients, customers and authorities. Open-mindedness and a willingness to engage with your partner or counterpart will almost always be viewed positively, even when things don't go perfectly. Shine with your knowledge, but don't be afraid to ask for something specific. Don't forget the human element and be guided by empathy and professional friendliness.

Would you like to have your experience in the international project environment certified? Then register now for the Certified International Project Manager (IAPM) certification.

Intercultural competence - The IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Intercultural competence, Soft skills

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For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.