Project Management | Entries from September 2014

Navigating Cross Cultural Business Communications

Cross Cultural TeamWith today’s advanced communication tools it’s easier and less expensive than ever for people from different cultures to communicate with one another.

Although business professionals across the globe converse face-to-face or screen-to-screen, it doesn’t mean that their particular cultural mores and language discrepancies won’t interfere with their ability to effectively communicate. In order to manage an international project with multiple teams, complete an acquisition or otherwise manage a prosperous business, it’s critical to be sensitive to other cultures and improve business communication skills to fit the conversation.

A recent article in Chief Learning Officer magazine argues that there are a number of flaws in the way that many businesses undertake their cultural sensitivity training. Improperly designed cultural training programs can create a larger divide by adding to the “us versus them” narrative that the training should dispel. Many programs are more focused on avoiding offensiveness rather than successfully navigating different cultures to advance business goals. The author, Susana Rinderle, advocates for more training that stimulates “authentic relationships” and “effective communication.”

Follow these tips for improving effective communication skills across cultures.

Be Aware of Cultural Timelines

Project managers and other business personnel should be conscious of what their foreign partners’ calendars look like. Certified IT project manager and project management instructor at Merit Career Development Prince Knight explains that project timelines should acknowledge cultural holidays and other periods, otherwise there may be delays and missed deadlines that better cultural awareness could avoid. As examples, Knight notes that the entire month of August as a popular vacation time in Europe, Christmas is an extended holiday period in Scandinavia and in the U.S., and September as a busy back-to-school time.

Knight also advises people to acknowledge cultural differences within their own country, since many U.S. companies have diverse employees from different cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds.

Strive Toward Universal Communication

To ensure effective communication, businesses should work toward succinct, universal speech and writing that is consistent and identified so that all team members understand. Many companies conduct business in English or other major languages. However, fewer problems arise from language issues than from idioms or expressions that are “lost in translation” or misunderstood. A famous gaffe involved American and British businesspeople negotiating an agreement. All was going well until the Americans attempted to wrap things up by asking for a “John Hancock” on the document. The British were confused. “Who is this, John Hancock?” they said.

Frequently checking with cross-cultural counterparts and recapping the conversation can help ensure that everyone is on the same page and there won’t be misunderstandings, but it’s also smart to eliminate some common mistakes.

  • Cut the small talk - Although chit-chat is common in offices around the U.S., small talk in another culture or language may just become confusing and not the ice breaker you’d hoped for, Boston World Partners explains in an article posted to “The weather is not the catch all topic you think it is, neither are sports,” the article advises. “Both are a favorite way to start a meeting here in Boston (It’s 100 degrees! Did you see the game last night?) But if you’re doing business in a climate with very little variation or extremes, the weather is probably not something people naturally discuss. It’s also worth noting baseball is a sport where we play a world championship against ourselves and possibly Toronto. Once you leave the continent, most people just don’t care.”
  • Avoid idioms, analogies and phrases - Speaking of sports, there are a number of sports analogies that can easily play into casual business conversations, but when you’re working with other cultures where a given sport isn’t popular, talking about “hitting a homerun” can come off as confusing or—worse—potentially insulting. Before you try to explain your thoughts or ideas, think through what you’re going to say and filter it for any It’s also a good idea to do some research on the other cultures’ common phrases and misconceptions—there’s a lot to learn from past business embarrassments.
  • Prepare for varied emotions or behaviors - Just as different cultures have various expressions for common thoughts or events related to popular culture, people also express themselves and their body language differently. The University of Colorado’s Conflict Research Consortium explains that in some cultures behavioral constraint expectations can make “reading” another person difficult, while in other cultures people may react more strongly when arguing or debating than expected based on the cultural norms.

Analyze Differences

One of the most effective ways to improve cross-cultural communication is to take an analytical look at what makes two cultures different. Merit Career Development’s 2-day Cross-Cultural Communications course tackles this head-on by exploring the Big Five culture differences exposed by business: time, space, things, friendship and agreements.

By looking at these differences in small groups and analyzing their effects on thought, emotion and communication, people are more truly culturally sensitive and can have a more fruitful dialogue with other cultures.

Business Ethics in the Age of Technology

Business Ethics in the Age of Technology"Business Ethics” is a dangerously murky term with real and profound effects. Ethics are a vital part of every decision, not just hiring practices and the handling of corporate resources.

With the prevalence of social media and the ease of accessing information through technology, training your employees on ethics is more important than ever. Every single decision has the chance to drastically affect how the public perceives a company.

Companies that have invested in ethical compliance education for their entire staff have achieved praise from critics and fervent support from consumers. Conversely, companies that have shirked this responsibility have been met with exorbitant legal battles, vocally dissatisfied customers, and critical condemnation.

Although many aspects of business ethics seem obvious, every decision made has an ethical component. Without a clearly defined and understood corporate code of ethics, seemingly insignificant decisions can lead to enormously expensive legal gray areas.

You can never take it back

In an attempt to solidify his core demographic, Mike Jeffries, the CEO of clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, publicly belittled the people he felt did not fit the company’s image. During an interview, he casually condemned those who did not meet the brand’s image as being unworthy of wearing their clothes. Consumers found this statement to be offensive and unethical, resulting in a 15% drop in sales and a 10% drop in share price. However, the remarkable part of this incident is that the backlash came six years after the comments were made.

In 2013, social media websites brought the CEO’s comments to a much larger audience than imagined at the time of the interview. The permanent and public nature of social media and electronic record keeping changed a forgotten comment into an irreversible and hugely expensive PR nightmare. Almost every major news outlet picked up the story and these articles still appear prominently with a simple Google search of Abercrombie & Fitch.

The CEO’s unethical comment, along with ethical issues of racial discrimination in hiring practices, have resulted in millions of dollars in legal fees, a diminished clientele, and highly expensive restructuring of ethical training and policies for A&F. However, offhand remarks or discriminatory hiring practices are by no means the only unethical actions with drastic tolls on businesses.

Who Owns the Information?

Poorly drafted IT policies regarding the ownership of information created on company computers can also place a business at risk of being perceived as unethical. The lack of clear policies and workforce training regarding the content of e-mails, accessing social media, and personal communications on company computers create easy opportunities for issues of harassment. Only proper training in ethical use can help shield a company from liability.

Ethical decision-making has a direct and profound impact on a company’s brand and can result in substantial expenses if not handled properly. Taking ethical compliance education seriously, drafting and implementing clear policies and guidelines are of vital importance in today’s business.

With successful startups like Uber, giants like Comcast, A&F, and the Livestrong Corporation being crippled by unethical behavior, business ethics are a pressing need in every workplace.

Interested in safeguarding your business from ethical issues? Click here to learn more about Merit Career Development’s business ethics training courses and consulting services.

Create Project Management Training with a Focus on Fun and Engagement

Engaging Project Management TrainingIn order to get the most out of your training investment, project managers should use fun, engaging teaching methods that employ interactivity. Here are four examples of training techniques that help teams learn better.

1. Involve Corporate Culture

Every business has a specific culture among its employees, services and leadership. Training that doesn’t take the organization’s culture into account can come off as boring and out-of-touch. Chief Learning Officer (CLO) magazine recommends that managers engage employees through understanding and adopting the corporate culture as their own.

“Understanding a company’s cultural strengths, then effectively tapping into the energy and emotional commitment those strengths engender in employees, provides incredible momentum to accelerate transformation,” CLO explains. “Learning leaders can instill a sense of employee pride and commitment. Look for ways to connect workers to something larger than a new policy on paper.”

Using culture as a tool is a subtle but powerful leadership technique that can bring people into the conversation. This can mean appealing to pop culture—a marketing firm implementing metaphors or examples from “Mad Men”—or the office culture. Integrating culture into training reinforces a sense of community, but it can also be played for humor. Does the office have a notoriously small kitchen? Is there a row of coveted parking spaces in the lot? Use these as corporate “in-jokes” to reinforce the content of your presentation.

2. Take Advantage of Simulation Training

It doesn’t matter how important the information being taught is if it’s put into practice. Simulation training allows you to teach, test, and improve your team’s habits for quick decision-making in high-pressure situations without the risks of an actual crisis.

Customized simulation training solutions engage a team more than standard presentations because they force employees to learn and apply the information in real-time. With multiple team-based training sessions, simulations they’ll work under accelerated timelines. For example, by turning weeks into minutes within the realm of the simulation, the ticking clock function of simulations allows employees of a pharmaceutical company to balance Food and Drug Administration approval deadlines with website redesign projects ahead of launch within a span of a few hours. This allows employees to have real experience about prioritizing one project over another and managing time and resources.

3. Leave Room for Improvisation

While practicing a training exercise or presentation is important for effective execution, Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications, explains in Training magazine that leaving space for improvisation in your presentation can be an excellent tool for engaging a diverse team. Yorton suggests starting light and negative. Discuss ten bad team management ideas that people have experienced. This can be fun and will bring people into the conversation. From here, you can talk about why these didn’t work and bridge the conversation to new ideas that will work. Everyone’s brains will be firing on all cylinders as they improvise fresh ideas.

By using the same techniques that improv comedians use, Yorton argues that corporate managers can think better on their feet, be more receptive to new concepts, and come up with cost-effective solutions that are out-of-the-box. This method can help engage employees because it’s focused on participation from everyone and thinking about concepts from different angles.

4. Incorporate Cross-Training or Cross-Teaching

It’s important for team members to understand their own roles. Set some time aside during your training to allow each member to teach or explain their role and how it affects the other employees. Not only will this improve tolerance among team members, but increased understanding can help streamline tasks through the project. Rather than burdening the project manager with questions, team members may be able to better communicate issues directly among one another.

Cross-training or cross-teaching improves engagement among team members in multiple ways. Not only do they get a chance to learn about other positions, but they’re also involved as presenters within the training session.

Think back on the most memorable lectures, classes, or training sessions you’ve experienced. Chances are, they engaged you because they shared certain qualities: Entertainment, a feeling of inclusion, hands-on practice, or improvisational exercises, to name a few. Take these qualities to heart and make them a part of your own memorable management training.