Intercultural competence in international projects

Intercultural competence in international projects 26.07.2018 - Intercultural competence is required at German management levels and in project management - as can be 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 an understanding of foreign cultures, the ability to communicate and get along well with business partners from all over the world and much more, which makes intercultural competence incredibly difficult to measure and define.

Intercultural competence for managers
If you want to position yourself in emerging companies and in project management at management levels, you need intercultural competence. Residencies abroad have become a must in a world that is moving ever closer together and in which hardly any large company works only at national level. Project managers in all industries increasingly 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 long since become common practice. International project teams are 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. In order to work efficiently with partners from foreign cultures, language is of course extremely important, but language skills alone are not enough. Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings even with perfect language skills. Values and norms can be stored differently, manners differ and depending on the interlocutor and his background (gender, age, social or societal status) may have to behave differently. Intercultural competence is required in order to interpret the behaviour of international partners correctly and to recognise conflicts quickly. But how can they be learned?

Recognizing and managing differences
There are four phases in intercultural encounters. The first is called a honeymoon. Everything is new and you are enthusiastic about the other foreign culture or at least open-minded and interested. The crisis phase follows when everyone involved becomes aware of how great the differences really are and when the partners begin to understand that they often do not understand each other. Many people feel shaken in their confidence in their own culture because everything they have believed in so far is being called into doubt. The third phase is called recovery. In this phase the partners find a new stability and a way to let both worldviews coexist. In the final phase, the adjustment, the employees accept their new intercultural environment and begin to work together despite the differences, find efficient ways of communication and simply live with the differences. A small (or sometimes even larger) culture shock is unavoidable. As a project manager, you should get involved in this. Much that seemed self-evident is questioned and this is not always easy to process.

Learning intercultural competence
To improve your intercultural skills, you can either jump in at the deep end and simply go abroad to work on a project. Try and error. But to ensure that an important project in an intercultural environment does not go to waste, prior training and preparation for the task makes sense. First of all, it helps to acquire formal knowledge. How are taxes, finances, insurance, building regulations, administrative procedures and laws handled in the other country? How do the partners conduct their meetings? How do you live, eat, celebrate? What is considered polite, normal and inappropriate in dealing with other people? What role do gender roles play in the respective country? How are hierarchies structured? How does the working world work? With a certain amount of basic knowledge, you can avoid pitfalls. In Thailand, for example, it is unforgivable to touch someone's head. In Arab countries, host gifts may only be presented publicly, and in Japan you must take off your shoes before entering certain rooms. A nod in the head does not have the same meaning in every country.
Three levels of intercultural competence
In addition to general and specific knowledge of foreign culture, two other levels play a role: intercultural sensitivity and intercultural competence. If you know a lot about your business partners and their habits, you have to work on sensitivity. Empathy is not easy to learn. However, techniques can be trained. The third level aims to learn communication techniques, conflict resolution methods and discussion techniques.

Training for international project management
IAPM also has its own training units for intercultural projects as part of the certification of project managers. These are called Contract Culture Training or International Communication Training. These courses deal with intercultural communication processes, conflict resolution and avoidance as well as team building in multicultural teams. For example, you can attend a seminar on international project management at an IAPM training partner or, if you already have in-depth experience, directly obtain certification as a Cert. International Project Manager (IAPM). The entry requirements can be found here.

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