Intercultural competence in international projects

Intercultural competence is required in project management - as you can read in many job advertisements. But what does this term actually mean and how can intercultural competence be acquired and improved? The concept of intercultural competence means much more than just language skills, it includes understanding foreign cultures, the ability to communicate with stakeholders from all over the world and much more. It is precisely this diversity that makes intercultural competence incredibly difficult to measure and define.
A person holds a globe in their hand.


Intercultural competence for managers

Those who want to position themselves at management levels in aspiring companies and in project management need intercultural competence. Periods spend abroad on a CV have almost become a must in a world that is growing together, in which hardly any large company now works only nationally. Project managers in all sectors have to work with suppliers, experts, partners and customers who come from different continents but work together on a project. Thanks to modern communication technology, this has become common practice. International project teams are therefore the rule rather than the exception, which means that project managers have to adapt to the changed environment. In addition to technical know-how, languages and communication skills are becoming increasingly important. To work efficiently with partners from foreign cultures, language is of course enormously important, but language skills alone are not enough. Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings even with perfect language skills. Values and norms can be different, manners as well as facial expressions and gestures differ. Depending on the interlocutor and his or her background, it may be necessary to behave differently. Intercultural competence is needed to interpret the behaviour of international partners correctly and to recognise conflicts quickly. But how can you learn it?

The four phases of intercultural encounters

There are four phases in intercultural encounters. The first is called the Honeymoon. Everything is new and you are enthusiastic or at least open-minded and interested in the other foreign culture. This is followed by the Crisis phase, when everyone involved realises how big the differences really are and when the partners begin to realise that they often do not understand each other. Many people feel their confidence in their own culture shaken because everything they have believed in up to now is called into doubt. The third phase is called Recovery. In this phase, the partners find a new stability and find a way to let both worldviews coexist. In the last phase, Adjustment, the partners accept their new intercultural environment and begin to work together and, despite the differences, find efficient ways of communicating and simply live with the differences. A small (or sometimes larger) culture shock is unavoidable. As a project manager, you should be prepared for this. Many things that seemed self-evident are called into question and that is not always easy to deal with.

Preparing for international assignments

To improve your skills in intercultural competence, you can either jump in at the deep end and just go abroad to work on a project. Trial and error. But in order not to mess up an important project in an intercultural setting, prior training as well as preparation for the task is useful. First of all, it helps to acquire formal knowledge. How does the other country deal with taxes, finances, insurance, building regulations, administrative procedures and laws? How do the partners conduct their meetings? How do people live, eat and celebrate? What is considered polite, what is considered "normal" and what is considered inappropriate in dealing with other people? What do you have to pay attention to regarding gender roles in the respective country? How are hierarchies structured? How does the working world function? With a certain basic knowledge, you can avoid putting your foot in your mouth. In Thailand, for example, it is unforgivable to touch someone's head. In Arab countries, hostess gifts may only be presented in public and in Japan you have to take off your shoes before entering certain rooms. A nod of the head does not have the same meaning in every country.

Three levels of intercultural competence

Besides (general and specific) knowledge of the foreign culture, two other levels play a role: intercultural sensitivity and intercultural competence to act. If you first know something about your business partners and their habits, you have to work on sensitivity. Learning empathy is not easy. But techniques can be trained. The third level aims at learning communication techniques, conflict resolution methods and conversation techniques.

Proof of knowledge for international project managers

To be successful as a project manager in international and intercultural settings, it is important to have project management skills in general. If you can successfully manage projects in your home country with teammates from the same culture, you are already well prepared to be successful in international projects. Now you need to add the intercultural and international component to your project management knowledge. You can do this by attending intercultural trainings, becoming part of a language and culture tandem and actively engaging with the culture, e.g. by reading books, researching on the internet or listening to relevant podcasts. Don't forget to get your knowledge certified to show international clients that you not only have basic project management skills, but can also cope in intercultural situations.

Intercultural competences  - The IAPM Logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Tips, Intercultural competences

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