Intercultural Skills in Project Management

Intercultural Skills in Project Management 16.01.2018 - There is clearly no doubt that certain types of behaviour and good conduct are indispensable and vital to ensure the success of projects in the business world and in project management. However, in an international environment it is usually not enough to simply behave well in accordance with your own patterns of behaviour and standard norms of etiquette. Whoever works in an international team must ensure they are familiar with the subtle details concerning the habits and customs of other cultures and what is considered to be polite behaviour. This does not just apply when business relationships are established with countries such as China and India. Even having contact with the UK, France or the Czech Republic means having to get to grips with the cultural context of another country. Intra-cultural and intercultural skills are some of the soft skills that are important for a project manager. The challenge that needs to be met in terms of intercultural skills involves having the ability and the willingness to adapt and to see the world through another’s eyes. Being tactful and adaptable are just as important as being willing to find out about foreign cultures. 

Intercultural skills

First and foremost, it is important to understand what intercultural skills are. This does not just involve foreign countries and ethnic groups but also the differences that exist between corporate cultures. If a partner business is built and structured according to completely different principles, this can lead to misunderstandings between the different company cultures. In general terms, culture needs to be defined as the sense of belonging to a group, regardless of whether this is an ethnic group or a different company. Three levels can be broadly distinguished. The first level involves rules of behaviour which are valid within each culture and which must be respected and complied with. The second level involves the willingness to engage with people who are different from yourself and to accept these differences. The third level involves cultivating an understanding of different belief systems and ways of thinking. The third level particularly applies if the partner business is based in a distinctly different culture with a different religion and world view. Intercultural skills can therefore be learned on these three levels: mentally, conceptually and methodologically. Or, defined in a less scientific way: anyone wishing to learn intercultural skills needs to practice tolerance and respect. 

Knowledge is powerful and valuable

Anyone wishing to adapt and integrate into a different culture in order to deal with and complete a project more effectively must initially find out as much as possible about the culture in which he or she wishes to integrate. Knowledge is therefore critical. It is of prime importance to ensure that you refer to reliable sources when you find out about the customs of the particular culture. The following aspects play a important role: What are the norms in terms of physical contact when greeting each other or during normal social interaction? Is it considered acceptable to shake hands? If yes, how long and how forceful should the handshake be? Are there formal and informal forms of address? Are there other ways in which respect is demonstrated which need to be observed? Which sorts of table manners are observed in the different culture? What types of food are eaten, how are they eaten, for how long are they eaten and in which types of ambience? How is a service tip calculated? Which procedure is followed when paying the restaurant bill? Are there any rules concerning the exchange of business cards? Is it usual to show emotion in any way or is this usually frowned upon? What are the differences in the working culture? Which types of leadership and working styles prevail? How important are hierarchical structures? Is there a dress code that should be complied with? 

Why are intercultural skills important?

Intercultural skills are important because correct, respectful and appropriate behaviour can avoid any blunders and can help to create good relationships more quickly. This enables a solid business relationship to be built and the project can be implemented efficiently. All managers know from their own experience how important good relationships are in project management. Negotiations and discussions can be more productive and misunderstandings can be avoided if you know how problems and obstacles are dealt with in each respective culture. Anyone who works on improving intercultural skills and demonstrates these abilities has a greater chance of achieving his or her goals. A person who appears to be tolerant, flexible and adaptable comes across as being more personable and professional from the perspective of other project participants, customers and government agencies. Open-mindedness and the willingness to engage with a partner or counterpart is nearly always received in a positive way even if things do not run completely smoothly from time to time. Ensure that you impress with your knowledge, but do not be afraid to ask your counterpart to clarify a particular detail. Do not forget the human dimension and be guided by sensitivity and professional courtesy.
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