Intercultural competence in project work - understanding, accepting and collaborating
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
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
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.
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