Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cultural differences in communication styles in distributed projects

How often did it not happen to you to ask somebody to do something, wait for the result, and then notice that what you asked for and what you obtained is different? More often than we want to admit, there is a big gap between what you think you have communicated and what the other party has actually understood. And this happens when you talk with your peers face-to-face. Can you imagine what happens when the same request is done across geographic and cultural distances?
There are a lot of things that one has to take into account when working remotely, and these go from process and procedures to interactions and time differences. For solving all these points, there are quite a few tools and tips that one can use. But all these tools and all the processes in the world cannot solve by miracle one of the most critical points: different communication styles.
The communication style is different from one person to another, based on their education, maturity, personality style, and so on. And there is a huge influence that one has also to factor in, and this is cultural differences.
Communication occurs at multiple levels, in all directions:
  • top-down, from the project manager to the remote team members
  • between peers, inside the team
  • bottom-up, from the team members to their remote project manager
At all these levels you may have communication issues, and the bigger the cultural gap the bigger the issues.

What you should do to solve this type of issues?

First, start by identifying the actual communication differences that you might have, based on your own observations in the past projects, or on the feedback from other people that worked with the same team before; you can also read specific literature about these differences.
Acknowledge these differences.
Cultivate the desired communication style inside the team, between the team members.
Plan your communications regarding the overall project objectives and current status, client interactions, how the client sees you - these are all important, especially if the team has no direct interaction with the client.
Foster an open communication environment inside the team, where all questions are allowed and it is not bad to let others know that one is stuck and needs help.
Clarify what type of communication you need from the team members in terms of status reporting (such as: progress, foreseen issues, next tasks).

I hope all these tips will help you in getting better when communicating with your peers, with your remote team members...

There are quite a few good articles that discuss communication, here is one that I recently found and liked: Culture Matters: Communication and Culture Tips for Global Managers.

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