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Global teams and project tribes

Gary Yorke
July 28, 2011

Unfortunately, while the English manager was trying to be sensitive to everyone’s position, the American upset the Brit by seemingly closing down an open discussion of options. Not surprising, they say the British and Americans are one race divided by a common language.

Many people emphasise the differences when in another cultural environment, which helps them maintain their own sense of identity and culture; for example, expat communities often become caricatures of their cultures, frozen in time. The French are proud that Quebec maintains a French heritage in Canada but are surprised when they visit, as the language has more in common with that spoken 200 years ago than modern French.

Building trust

Ultimately, successful project management is about trust. A project manager must establish trust with the sponsors, users and stakeholders, as well as between the project team members. Trust allows the project manager to lead a project. Lack of trust turns a project manager into an administrator, ensuring process is being followed and auditing team members to check what they report they are doing is actually being done.

Trust can manifest itself in various ways in different cultures. Many cultures maintain trust through relationships—you establish a relationship, and trust is based on the strength of the relationship—especially with regard to a family. Others put trust in elders or superiors to make the right decisions, which can manifest itself in respect or acceptance of authority, even when undeserved.

At the other end of the scale are cultures like the US, where everything is questioned, and there is an explicit trust of the legal system, which is turned to in disputes. Given the large number of cultures involved establishing the nation, each with its own cultural values that influence how trust is established, it was probably much easier to hand it over to a neutral third party to administer.

The French are similar to the Americans with an implicit trust of the system. When talking to a professor from England working at a French business school, he mentioned he was concerned that he had not been given a contract of employment. His French colleagues pointed out the school expected him to turn up to work each day and they were paying him, what more did he need, given the basic terms of a professor’s employment were enshrined in law?

These are just a few examples of how differences and lack of understanding of other cultures can lead to confusion, loss of trust and alienation within teams.

Finding synergy

Ideally, a project manager will lead high performing project teams through understanding the reasons behind the behaviour of other cultures and use this knowledge to bring teams together with a common purpose. There is an expanse of research available on the subject and a summary of some key practitioners is given below.

One common approach is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which codifies the way we perceive and act on information, using four scales to categorise an individual’s personality:

  • Extroversion–Introversion
  • Sensing–Intuition
  • Thinking–Feeling
  • Perceiving–Judging

As with many bipolar scales, this tends to emphasise the extremes in some cultures and middle ground in others.

Another influential researcher into teams was Meredith Belbin, who identified nine team roles that, ideally, need to be present in high performing teams. He says: “A team is not a bunch of people with job titles, but a congregation of individuals, each of whom has a role that is understood by other members.”

Geert Hofstede was instrumental in establishing Cultural Dimensions for International Business, initially based on research into IBM sites around the world, now extended to other countries. Hofstede says: “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”

The Five Cultural Dimensions

  1. Power Distance Indicator: An acceptance by the less powerful that power is distributed unequally.
  2. Individualism: (versus collectivism) The degree to which individuals are integrated into groups.
  3. Masculinity: (versus femininity) A measure of assertiveness and competitiveness against modesty and caring.
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index: Society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
  5. Long-term Orientation: (versus short-term orientation) Introduced for some Asian countries but extended to others.

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hamden-Turner’s work was driven by dissatisfaction with other models. Interestingly, they propose management is fundamentally about reconciling dilemmas. Intercultural working adds another dimension to these dilemmas, but also provides managers with the opportunity to get a different perspective on issues. Trompenaars says: “All cultures face the same dilemmas. They just deal with them differently.”

Seven Orientations of Culture

  1. Universalism versus particularism: What is more important, rules or relationships?
  2. Individualism versus collectivism: Do we function in a group or as individuals?
  3. Neutral versus emotional: Do we display our emotions?
  4. Specific versus diffuse: Is responsibility specifically assigned or diffusely accepted?
  5. Achievement versus ascription: Do we have to prove ourselves to receive status, or is it given to us?
  6. Sequential versus synchronic: Do we do things one at a time, or several things at once? This addresses the different way in which societies look at time.
  7. Internal versus external control: Do we control our environment, or are we controlled by it? This addresses the attitude of the culture to the environment.

As a final question: Which culture is hardest to understand? Your own, as it’s the one you rarely question.

Tips to maximise cultural benefits

  • Recognise each team member brings cultural strengths to the project, not just personal strengths.
    Ensure the team is aware that there are cultural differences, even by explicitly stating what they are.
  • Use the cultural lens to focus on different aspects of a problem to resolve issues and dilemmas.
  • Treat a project team like a tribe. Identify or create common rites and values to establish a shared interest or vision. Maintain frequent contact and communication between team members.
  • Where possible, allow team members to interact in their native language for idea generation and creative activities.
  • Use communication technology such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc to bridge gaps. Also note that mobiles can help tie groups together but exclude weak relationships.
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Gary Yorke
Gary Yorke is a senior consultant at MetaPM and chair of the PMO special interest group for the Victoria Chapter of the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM).
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