Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch

Several weeks ago I was in a meeting with a group of strangers, and upon introducing myself and sharing what I do professionally, someone asked, “What do you think is the biggest challenge for people being sent overseas?”  I thought about it for a few seconds. I considered the usual challenges:  the language barriers, the different leadership and management styles, the logistics of moving and possibly uprooting a family.  But in the end, the answer that I landed on was, “themselves.”


Below are five reasons why project managers often fail overseas, and ways we can create new thought processes around how to best achieve project success:

1. The PMBOK® Guide knowledge is necessary but not sufficient

In scanning the 5th edition of the PMBOK on the computer, the term “cultural awareness” came up only three times in nearly 620 pages. The majority of references including “culture” referred to organizational culture. This may create the false illusion that culture plays a small role in project success.

Project managers share important baseline knowledge. For example, “X3.7 Culture can impact the speed of working, the decision-making process, and the impulse to act without appropriate planning.”  Each knowledge area of the PMBOK has a “Tools and Techniques” section. However, we don’t often know which tools and techniques will be most effective in any given culture. And more importantly, why.

So, take time at the beginning of the project to brainstorm word associations with your team. Share thoughts on what risktimequality, or effective communication mean to everyone. Then, get on the same page in terms of how to manage the culture of your team.  This will mitigate some of the stressors that detract from workplace performance and project success.

2. Stakeholders extend beyond those involved in the actual project

In its most basic form, any description of project management includes a discussion about how to manage internal and external stakeholders. For example, addressing potentially differing needs, communicating effectively, and understanding their influence on the project.

In an overseas assignment, there are stakeholders too: the organization, the leader, and oftentimes the family.  The only way the organization can win is if the project manager and the family win. Therefore, the best return on investment is requiring that project management professionals going to another country, including with families, engage in appropriate cultural preparation to get ready for what they cannot possibly expect or know until they are there. Otherwise, they won’t know what to expect. Or, even worse, they will have unrealistic positive or negative expectations. If we wait until we are in it, then we’re already behind the learning curve and experiencing stress. It’s harder to learn and grow while experiencing stress than it is to engage in education prior to the event.

3.  A multicultural background does not guarantee global project success

As counterintuitive as it may seem, it is true.  Multicultural leaders may or may not be consciously aware of what it takes to culturally style-switch. The cultures with which they are already familiar may not be relevant to the project.  Managing across cultures may come naturally to them and at the same time make it challenging to relate to others for whom it is not natural.

Rather than focusing solely on a culturally diverse background, look for project managers who are skilled at building relationships throughout an organization. Look for those who reconcile many types of differences effectively, and who have succeeded as members or leaders of diverse teams before. These project managers will operate with a keen eye toward the cultural impact. Therefore, they will be in the best position to coach those alongside them who may be struggling.

4. Culture shock doesn’t discriminate

Culture shock is the expected reaction to the unknown. It’s a series of ups and downs that people experience during the transition process. Symptoms may include general depression, under or over eating, anger towards locals and inability to relate, or lowering of self-esteem levels. People feel discouraged and ineffective in areas of their lives where they once felt that they were productive and thriving.  We often tell ourselves that culture shock won’t have an impact on an assignment because a project manager speaks the language of the destination. Or, the person has already been working with this team remotely, has made several previous trips to the new country, or has successfully completed several other overseas transfers.

However, culture shock is a given in an international relocation. The variable is the degree of impact on the project manager, family, and ultimately the organization.  Someone who has already been on an overseas assignment may have already developed the transition skills necessary to move more quickly through the process. Investing time and resources in appropriate support for the project manager at the point of the organization is the way to win.  We can’t assume project managers will know that they need this and obtain it of their own volition. We often don’t know what we don’t know and are operating in “unconscious incompetence”.

5. Your brain doesn’t care what my brain thinks

It’s simple to understand, it’s not easy to process. Scientifically speaking, our brains like certainty, and even the smallest amount of uncertainty–including cultural differences in how we think and manage–can create distraction.

The best way to reduce the impact of this distraction on our projects is to check ourselves. Our brains are always either operating in a toward or an away emotional state. Successful project managers create toward states on their multicultural teams. For example, they are interested, receptive, willing to take risks, and able to see many options. In contrast, away states are threatening, distracted, risk avoidant, and low in confidence. Our attitudes and emotions are contagious. So, a project team that mirrors these attributes will be a higher performing team.

In the end, the ways in which we think about what we know, how we prepare, who we choose, and how we act can make all the difference in the world.  Luckily, unlike many project constraints, our thoughts are entirely under our control.