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Episode 390: Conflict Resolution on Multicultural Projects (Premium)

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Karin Bruennemann
Karin Brünnemann, PMP

Are you currently managing a multicultural project?

Well, no matter if you answered “yes” or “no” to this, today’s interview with Karin Brünnemann ( is for you. We will look at what culture is, how cultural differences can lead to conflict, and how culture affects the various dimension of conflict on projects that we learned about when we last spoke to Karin. Most importantly, we will of course also discuss approaches for conflict resolution.

So… if you answered “Yes” to my questions “Are you currently managing a multicultural project?”, then you are going to learn a lot about culture, conflict and what to do about it.

And if you answered “No”, then you will learn that your answer was in fact wrong and that you should have answered “Yes” in the first place. You are in fact managing a multi-cultural project even if you don't think you are.

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner:  Hello and welcome to this Premium Episode #390. I’m Cornelius Fichtner. As always, Premium means that this is an interview that is reserved for you, our Premium subscribers so thank you for your financial support of the Project Management Podcast™.

Are you currently managing a multicultural project? Well, no matter, if you answer yes or no to this, today’s interview with Karin Brunneman is for you. We will look at what culture is, how cultural differences can lead to conflict and how culture affects the various dimensions of conflict on projects that we learned about when we last spoke to Karin.

Most importantly, we will, of course also discuss approaches for conflict resolution. So, if you answered yes to my question, “Are you currently managing a multicultural project?” then you are going to learn a lot about culture, conflict and what to do about it. And if you answered No, then you will learn that your answer was in fact wrong and that you should have answered ‘yes,’ you are managing a multicultural project.

And so, put on your national costume and enjoy the interview.

Female Voice: Project Management Podcast Feature Interview. Today with Karin Brunnemann, PMP, Intercultural expert.

Cornelius Fichtner: Hallo Karin. Willkommen zurück!

Karin Brunnemann: Dobrý večer, Cornelius, ako sa maš?

Cornelius Fichtner: OK, now you have surprised me [laughs] That was Slovakian?

Karin Brunnemann: It was Slovakian, yes

Cornelius Fichtner: OK. Wonderful and I think that’s very good beginning of this discussion because we want to talk about conflict in multicultural projects and to get us started with this, when I read your bio, I saw that you have lived in nine countries and you worked in 26 countries. What is your personal take away when it comes to culture and conflict?

Karin Brunnemann: Yes. Thank you, that has been my career, so far but I’m still adding to both lists. I’m not finished with moving and travelling yet.

First of all, of course projects are handled differently across different cultures. Living in Slovakia, I call Bratislava my hometown although I was not born here, I’m a member and founding member of Project Management Institute (PMI)® Slovakia Chapter and yes, there are differences in terms of working in projects here in Slovakia. I have been living and working in projects in Colombia, in Guatemala, in Scandinavian countries, in Spain, in Portugal, in Turkey, et cetera.

So definitely, project management as such and conflict management in projects is handled differently in different parts of the world. However, you asked me for my take on culture and one of my lessons learned from my worldwide travel that culture is so much more than just nationality and in project teams, this holds especially true because we work with different departments and sales people people are totally different than accountants, and again totally different than warehouse managers.

We’re also having a professional culture. But we’re also having organizational culture so the organizational, where I do the project, if this organization cooperates with suppliers, with customers, they’re working in different companies some of them are small, some of them are big, they might work with official organization or government and institutions who again have different organizational culture. There are industry sector cultures so automotive companies might work in general differently from an education company for example. So my take from my travels is, yes they’re all different but it’s not just nationality. It’s so much more. So a multicultural project management does not mean only multinational project management.

Cornelius Fichtner: How far do I have to travel before differences in culture begin to matter?

Karin Brunnemann: Oh I have to go upstairs to my neighbors.

Cornelius Fichtner: [laughs] So this close, huh?

Karin Brunnemann: Well actually I don’t think I have to go upstairs, I can stay on the same floor. [laughs]

Yes. It’s sometimes amazing how similar people are if you travel far away. For example, the organization I worked for. They have a large work force in Sri Lanka. People there, they work according to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) standards so we have an immediate understanding. However, if I might work with another company in Slovakia, they might work according to a different standard and we have a different understanding. Since our overall topic is “Conflict”, such differences in understanding can of course lead to conflict. So, it’s not just managing project in China or India or South Africa, Uzbekistan, Honduras that leads to potential conflict in project, we have to really be very observant that other cultural aspects can actually, even at home cause cultural conflict.

Cornelius Fichtner: Since you are living in Slovakia right now and you’ve been all around the world, is Project Management done differently in Slovakia from a cultural perspective than elsewhere?

Karin Brunnemann: Yes, it is. It’s not so much about the standard. I mean, we have, as I said before, the PMI® Slovakia Chapter, all the members they work according to the PMBOK® Guide standard but the understanding, the interpretation of such standard can be different and we have to consider that it’s always people working with those standards. The standards have to be filled and yes there are quite big differences between Slovakia and the US and between other countries and regions all over the world as well.  

Cornelius Fichtner: Alright, let’s bring it back to the central topic of our discussion. I think we’ve outlined the topic of culture quite well and our primary discussion really is conflict in multicultural projects. Let’s take a look at the culture and conflict in which aspects of conflict can I find cultural differences? 

Karin Brunnemann: Basically in all aspects, you can find differences starting with the understanding of conflict. It can happen that I have a heated, animated discussion with a fellow team member in a project and that for me and for the other party is just a normal discussion but somebody from a different culture might already perceive this as a conflict. So we don’t all have the same understanding of what conflict is which is very basic thing than of course the emergence of conflict. Why does conflict come into being and there we have some additional risks of conflict is bringing up. If we’re working in a multicultural environment and these risks can for example be in communication. There can be misunderstandings, misinterpretations –we have to be careful that even if English is the project language, there are hundreds of different Englishes around the world. Australian English is different from Canadian English is different from US English is different from UK English. And now imagine you have a multinational project where 80% of your team members don’t even have English as their first language or the native language so there might be a lot of misunderstandings.

You can have different assumptions. It’s very, very difficult to know your wrong assumptions and if you want to be culturally competent, you need to learn how to elicit your own assumptions. I’ll give you a very easy example. When I go to restaurant and I order some food, I assume that it will be served on a plate and I get a knife and fork with it. I don’t tell the waiter to please bring me a steak and serve it on a plate and bring me a fork and a knife—this I assume this. Now, I travel to China and I go to a restaurant, I order food, I might be very surprised because I don’t get a plate, I get a bowl and I don’t get knife and fork, I get chopsticks instead. Only then when my assumptions don’t work anymore I realize that I have this assumption so it’s very difficult for us also. This is so deep inside us. We don’t think about it. We don’t think that we need to say that food has to come on a plate. Another thing is unclear intentions. We don’t know what people are aiming at and that can lead to us misinterpreting what people really want. We think they want something bad but they really want to help us. Then of course we have all different values. We have talked a bit about this in the last session of this podcast. Can women be Project Managers everywhere in the world? I think they cannot. Also lack of trust. The more different people are from us, the less we usually trust them. We’re always looking for things we have in common and if we can’t really find anything in common, we don’t really trust and all this can lead to or enhance conflict. Then of course the conflict itself, the process of the conflict, the course the conflict takes can be different in terms of how fast does it escalate, does it escalate at all? How easy it is to deescalate, etc. Last but not the least, the way we manage conflict can be very different starting from the question, “Who has the authority to manage the conflict?” Is it usual that the conflicting parties solve it themselves? Is it okay to tell the Project Manager to ask for help or is it not okay? So you see there is a lot of a cultural differences involved in conflict management in projects.

Cornelius Fichtner: In the first interview that you and I did, we learned a lot about the theory of hot-cold, constructive - destructive then also how to handle it to avoid compromise, collaborate —all of these –let’s maybe walk a little bit through these here. You already mentioned that culture influences, our understanding of conflict. What you consider to be a conflict, I don’t, it’s just a normal discussion. Is there any other way how culture influences the understanding of our conflict?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete PDF transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

PDUs: Power Skills, Project Manager Soft Skills, Conflict Management

  • Last updated on .
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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