The Risk of Miscommunication in a Global Project Team
Publication: Project Management Institute
(Times change and so do links. The original link to this post is no longer available online.)
Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch and Conrado Morlan

8:30 a.m. Members of your global project team are all in town and you arrive at your office for the 9:00 a.m. meeting, which by your U.S. standards should begin promptly at 8:55 a.m.

Agenda? Check. Technology working? Check. Breakfast on its way? Check.

At 8:50 a.m., you head to the meeting room and find Lucy, who arrived five minutes earlier and is casually preparing with her feet up on the table, but nonetheless ready to go.

8:55 a.m. Vijaykumar from India, Abdul Azim from the Middle East, and Masao from Japan arrive engrossed in a conversation that you cannot really understand due to the different English accents.

It’s 8:59 a.m (you are already four minutes behind schedule, you think to yourself) and Fatima from Brazil arrives.

In what seems like an eternity, 20 minutes pass, and you receive a phone call from reception asking permission to allow your last colleague Iván, from Argentina, permission to come upstairs.

Before the meeting even begins, the obvious question starts to percolate in your head: How will this team finish the project on time when they cannot even agree on the meaning of “9:00 a.m.”?

Project managers should count risk identification and prevention among their most important activities. In a global project context, risk management becomes more complex. Multicultural teams should pay particular attention to the risk of miscommunication.

Here are three ways to mitigate this risk:

Timing is everything.

For some cultures, time is money, and each minute can be assigned a value of loss or gain. Other cultures are more comfortable with less-structured senses of time.

The realities of life across the world impact how people’s time is used: Traffic makes arriving on time a near-impossibility in one location, but efficient transportation networks make that a non-issue in another.

It is essential to be cognizant of other cultures’ theoretical views and daily realties concerning time. As a project leader, you need to suspend judgment when the members of your project team seem to be operating not only across different time zones, but also different time realities.

Is that a “yes – yes” or a “yes – no”?

When lacking the advantage of a shared language, a common tactic is to boil communications down to simplistic levels, often resulting in an excessive amount of yes/no questions. However, many cultures, in order to avoid conflict, tend to use a “yes” response to indicate that they hear you, even when the answer to the question is “no.”

The “yes” may be accompanied by subtle contextual cues (tone of voice/silence, eye contact/avoidance, facial expressions) that indicate that it is, in fact, a “no.” Keep yes/no questions to a minimum and opt for more open-ended questions instead.

“You can say you to me.”

There is a famous account of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl meeting the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan for the first time and proclaiming, “You can say you to me.”

In order to understand the humor of this statement, consider that many languages distinguish between formal and informal words, titles and grammatical constructions for “you.” Chancellor Kohl was implying a friendly relationship and demonstrating it through the “informal you” that gets lost in translation to English—where there is only one “you.”

While learning the language of every colleague is neither a viable option nor a necessity for most, knowing whether a language includes elements such as this will provide insight into how that person might view working relationships with others.

Today’s project managers need to not only focus on how to mitigate risks associated with project requirements, but also the risk of miscommunicating within the global project team. As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As part of the plan for your next project that includes a global team, integrate a cultural awareness component to mitigate communication risks stemming from different cultural attitudes, experiences and behaviors. If you treat the risk of miscommunication in your project as “one size fits all”, you might soon find yourself without a project to manage.