This a classic case that is predominantly faced by global project managers who work with culturally diverse project teams with whom they share no similarities. According to PMBOK, a global project manager must require an ability to communicate, facilitate, negotiate, plan, budget, organize, motivate, manage, measure, monitor, think laterally and make decisions, which are predominately social activities. So before venturing out on any project a global PM must do a complete scan of social, economic, political, cultural and technological factors so that he is better prepared to mitigate challenges posed with global projects.
A careful analysis of this case reveals a gross lack of cross-cultural knowledge, personality stereotyping, miscommunication and poor decision making ability. The level of cultural awareness shown by Fred was not high enough to identify some of the more prominent cultural challenges, which were also consistent with the cultural dimensions showing the greatest gaps. Recent research has shown that it is not only important to try and understand the local culture, it is also important to identify the differences between that culture and the project manager’s own. During this process, the manager must be fully aware of the differences with cultural dimensions of environment, action orientation, emotion, language, space, relationships, power, thinking and time. The greatest problems and challenges reported were associated with the four cultural dimensions of thinking, power, time and emotion.
In terms of culture and diversity, the following factors are of great importance. They have to be understood in great detail, must appreciate the dissimilarities and leverage them as opportunity to build a culturally diverse team capable of achieving the project goals.
- Universalism vs. Particularism
Fred seems to share the belief that rights of the organization prevail over rights of a specific friend. In a predominant particularistic society like Japan, the rights of a friend i.e. employees is taken to be more important than the rights of the larger community.
- Individualism vs. Communitarism
Fred belongs to a highly individualistic culture where people are expected to make their own decisions and to take care only of themselves and their close family whereas the Japanese Communitarism societies are firmly integrated into groups which provide help and protection in exchange for a strong sense of loyalty.
Specific vs. Diffuse
Fred seems to be very specific with whom to build contacts and less explicit of what he or she expects from the work relationship.
Neutral vs. Affective
Fred was inadvertently neutral and reluctant to show what he felt while the Japanese being affective prefer to show spontaneously how they feel and to act accordingly.
Achievement vs. Ascription
Fred believes in achievement, a social status resulting from the individual´s success in building up a life of his / her own while the Japanese believed in ascription social status dependent on one´s descent, sex, age, or affluence.
Time Orientation – Past, Present, Future
Japanese culture is rooted in past and bases its future on past events while Fred comes from a culture oriented towards the future.
Internal Control vs. External Control
Fred has a predominantly mechanistic view of nature, people are seen as influencing the environment and not vice versa. Whereas the Japanese believe in an organic view of nature, meaning men / women are subjugated to nature´s dynamics & forces.
I will base my solutions on the analysis above since it reveals the fundamental root cause for the failures encountered so far by Fred.
- I. You are Fred, what should you do now?
Solution: The Japanese assignment is a big career jump for Fred that comes packaged with tremendous benefits and a promotion as managing director of Tokyo operations. This is an incredible deal and Fred has to make best use of this opportunity. Apart from the dissatisfaction from his wife and ongoing setbacks at office, Fred had not lost the game totally. He still can turnaround the situation and can position himself as a successful project manager as he proved before. So, in my opinion Fred should undertake this challenge and work hard to resolve the pressing issues at office and at home. Since Fred left the United States without much orientation or understanding of the Japanese culture, he had to face difficult situations on an on-going basis. He felt helpless and thought he was interacting with people from outer planet, could not openly communicate and understand their motives or thought processes. All this happened due to lack of cultural awareness, work ethics, and too much indulgence in task-orientation and not relationship building. When communication modes cross, miscommunication, unintentional messages, misunderstanding and frustration often result.
Fred in order to salvage himself out of this mess must work hard and take time for looking at possible differences and their consequences during the Start-up phase. Learning about cultural differences takes place at several levels: at the organizational, project level and on a personal level.
Typical activities could be:
- Developing an understanding of each other’s cultural perspectives,
- Must develop consciousness of the roots of cultural differences, to assess their impact, and to build structures, procedures and a working environment which promotes cultural synergy.
- Breakdown hierarchical management style and concentrate more on relationship building. Avoid generalizations.
- Finding out risks to avoid and opportunities to exploit,
- Jointly defining project goals and schedule,
- Defining an organizational structure for the project that takes cultural differences into account.
- Delegation of authority, responsibility and power is central for motivating and engaging project teams.
- Open up channels of communication, loosen control and solicit feedback from employees. Share business values with Japanese clients – of maintaining a peace and harmony rather than a candid exchange of opinions, arguments or confrontation. It was for this reason that the client sent their human resources head to develop that bonding initially.
- Arrange for additional meetings two or three meetings to understand the honest opinion of the other party. Agree up front on the rules of engagement and policies to do with managing mutual expectations and managing changes.
- Fred was trying to implement task-driven project management style in relationship-oriented cultures, since he was more concerned with schedules and results than creating time and opportunity for building personal relationships with other project participants. He should concentrate more on harmonious relationship building exercises.
- Eliminate uncertainty from employee tasks and responsibilities. Japanese prefer uncertainty avoidance.
- Understand the different perceptions of fundamentals of project management, especially time. Seek honest feedback about timelines and readiness before thrusting tasks on employees.
- Establish clearly defined roles and structure. Have social interactions with employees, better understand their preferences and perceptions deviate from individual achievement and instead recognize group effort. Make effective use of American employee who can understand and speak fluent Japanese.
- On the home front, he can hire some domestic help with sound English speaking skills who can act as a language interpreter, has rich local knowledge of shopping for groceries cheaply; can provide insight for outdoor activities and social events.
- Hire a language expert as coach who can train both Fred and his wife on Japanese language skills, customs and generally acceptable “behavioral” skills.
II You are Dave; Fred called you to discuss the situation. What should you do now?
Dave has strong faith and trust in Fred’s abilities as a successful manager. It was this confidence that made him offer this challenging assignment. Fred has a proven track record of successfully managing projects earlier and so should approach Dave with lots of optimism. He should not be weathered by the initial setbacks and instead should provide confidence and faith in meeting the project goals. Some of these actions include:
- Keep Dave abreast of the developments taking place in the Tokyo office. Provide him a detailed report of the progress made so far and the obstacles he has been facing.
- Inform Dave of your sincere efforts to win the new client deal and the lack of response from the client.
- Let Dave know of the cultural polarization existing in the Tokyo office and his inability to break the communication barriers
- Make Dave aware of the lack of formal training in Japanese culture, language and work ethics. Talk to him about the social isolation faced by his family and the difficulty in procuring basic grocery items.
- Request Dave to provide a global coach who can assist him with understanding the cultural differences, negotiation tactics and advise him of “do’s and dont’s” in Japanese culture and society. This can be useful for his wife too.
- Update Dave on the process improvements being made at organization and personal levels to improve communication, his efforts to learn and respect the cultural differences and his efforts to breakdown cultural challenges he is facing now.
- Seek complete support and backing from Dave, any additional resources who have been in such situations for knowledge sharing and any kind of external help which might help him in his efforts to lead successfully.
The above efforts will reinforce the confidence in Fred and Dave will definitely acknowledge and appreciate the efforts being made in this direction.
- II. Turn back the clock to when Fred was offered the position to Tokyo. What should have been done different, and by whom?
As evident from the case, Fred seems to have lacked any exposure to cultural diversity going by his recent project accomplishment in San Franciso. So Fred’s beliefs on cultural dimensions were in direct conflict with the Japanese and he had no clue about it. The initial analysis discussed in this paper clearly shows how from the get-go Fred was unfit to manage a culturally diverse group of individuals.
So when he was offered career promotion and benefits, it was a deal he could not refuse. He had some resistance from his wife, but finally accepted the offer assuming that the assignment would not be so difficult. So in haste he had to make arrangements for the transfer move and he had no time to learn about the Japanese culture, traditions, work ethics and their perceptions towards management. His only source of information was the encyclopedia. His family too was abruptly disrupted leaving no time to build expectations from this new move. All this eventually turned into a big frustration for Fred. His efforts to establish the new business was in vain and he received no co-operation from the Japanese staff. He was helpless and desperate to find answers to his situation.
From the onset when he was offered the position, a lot could have been done to overcome the grief he was in. Some of my suggestions include:
- Fred could have delayed his posting date until he felt ready to undertake this challenge. This delay would have provided him the opportunity to plan the big move, research and learn about the Japanese culture, request local expertise to help out with language interpretation, grocery shopping and exploring western social joints where they can spend some quality time without getting bored.
- Fred must have undergone some training on negotiations and dealing with Japanese businesses. This could have helped him understand the client expectations and in building mutually compatible business values.
- Fred must have thought of looking out for some part-time job opportunities in Tokyo for his wife Jennifer so that she is busy with her lifestyle in Japan. He also could have arranged in advance for some American cable channels at home so that they stay in contact with happenings at home.
- Fred must have held some initial consultations (over phone or virtually through we conferencing etc.) with overseas staff so he has a feel for their priorities and commitment. He should have contacted the American staff with Japanese skills so that he can understand in depth the work ethics of his Japanese counterparts.
- Fred should have developed a clear understanding of the various cultural dimensions and how his beliefs fit or differ with those of the Japanese. He must be aware of the dimensions of environment, action orientation, emotion, language, space, relationships, power, thinking and time.
- Fred must do a complete scan of social, economic, political, cultural and technological factors so that he is better prepared to mitigate challenges posed with global projects.
These are some of the prerequisites which must have been met before Fred embarked on this exciting undertaking in Japan.
- I. Make a list of reasons when you would or would not accept a foreign assignment for one year or longer.
Reasons to accept a foreign assignment
If I put myself in the shoes of Fred, I would be terribly excited about this new assignment. Though my decision will benefit me the most, it may or may not have the same degree of acceptance from the family members. Here are some reasons to accept this assignment:
- A great career move – incredible compensation, benefits and the lure of promotion to a Managing Director position
- Opportunity to acquire and build new skills and experience of working in a global environment
- Exposure to deal with challenges in culturally diverse groups , interact with stake holders and clients from different cultural backgrounds
- Children will be exposed to diversity – a new school environment, new friends and adaptation to new culture and society
- Experience new culture, food and overall the excitement to be with doing the abnormal way.
Reasons not to accept the assignment
Though the assignment looks exciting and quite appealing, it comes with its own baggage of problems.
If I were to reject the assignment it could be for the following reasons:
- Disrupting family life and ending up scrambling to re-settle lives in a completely, strange new country
- Fear of failure due to lack of cultural awareness and hidden risks. May ruin the reputation and credibility built so far.
- Lack of preparedness and inability to put in new efforts and hard work to learn new language and culture
- Strong resistance from family members to relocate
- Inability to meet expectations of a smooth and decent life in the foreign land.