How Culture Affects Interpersonal Communications & How to Approach

In this story, the project manager, Thania Olivier, shared how the complexities of a project spanning across different continents, different time zones and different cultures to develop a new Forecasting system for the international Shipping giant, Maersk, were overcome.

The project goal was to provide an electronic system to forecast and plan Maersk’s shipping schedules and cargo loading. The development team needed to understand a myriad of information for the cube to be developed. This included international port laws, time-zones, currencies, and the algorithms required behind the scene to create system intelligence that would enable Logistics Managers to accurately forecast, plan and schedule.

Good Communication Practices for Dispersed Teams

Project stakeholders were distributed globally and were located in Cape Town, South Africa, London and Copenhagen, with Copenhagen being where the Head office of Maersk as well as for all project Business- and Process Owners.

There were good relationships between Cape Town and London, whose team consisted of English, Australian, and Indian team members. This was achieved by having daily communications by means of teleconferences with the London office and also stand-up meetings for the Cape Town team. This consistent communication helped to align the teams, to provide clear visibility into what is being planned, to be aware of the challenges and to agree the strategies on how to deal with them. The project manager also travelled frequently to have face-to-face meetings with key stakeholders.

Challenges with multi-cultural communications

No regular communications took place with the stakeholders at Copenhagen. They were not part of the key tactical team and consisted mostly of business and process owners who funded the new system and were only required on an ad-hoc basis.

The Danish culture was experienced as a focus on efficiency, somewhat devoid of emotion, and not readily forthcoming with information. They were busy people in high demand, which made it difficult to get time in their schedules and meant often waiting for long periods before receiving responses to critical queries.

Problems emerged when the e-Learning component of the project fell behind due to information required for training material not being received in time from the process owners. In turn, this delayed progress with Marketing’s planned schedule of distributing and on-boarding e-Learning modules across global Training Centres and jeopardized associated classroom training schedules for learners in these different countries.

 Multi-cultural Management Skills

Members of the project team had to travel to Denmark to obtain the information in onsite sessions with Process Owners and other stakeholders. The project manager applied multi-cultural management skills to identify an important difference in communication styles between the Danish and the South African stakeholders. The Danes had a preference for structured, focused communication that limited its scope to the factually intact, whereas the Cape Town based project team generally had a story-telling approach and had a preference for acknowledging the individual within the working environment. Understanding this difference enabled the project manager to open up styles of communication acceptable to both teams and resolving the matter of congested information sharing.

The e-Learning component was able to move along and be completed in time for training sessions across the various global locations to kick off on scheduled dates.

 Understand the culture first

Trust was only built between stakeholders when individuals felt comfortable with the non-verbal language aka style of communication being close to what was known to them in their respective cultures.

It is important not to make assumptions about personalities and readiness of stakeholders to collaborate without understanding the culture, because culture influences personalities and behavior.

Project Managers could benefit from stepping up their soft skills and emotional intelligence. Important to note is that a minimum level of trust is essential if people are expected to collaborate and contribute effectively.

As a project manager in a new environment, it’s better to hover and observe at first to get a feel for the type of person they will be working with, rather than demand and force their presence into an existing setup to which people became accustomed.

Aim to understand the culture first. Once common ground has been found and connections have been established with members in an existing environment, people generally feel respected and trust is built between people.

On projects with globally distributed stakeholder teams, regular communication is imperative for visibility into project activities and expectations. Relationship building benefit from a keen awareness of cultural differences. Accommodating and complying with different ways of behaviour will create respect, and individuals who feel respected are generally more willing to cooperate and are motivated to perform well in the work place.

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