Problem solving with British project partners

A few weeks after starting a bi-national project, the first question marks appear on both sides and it is usually not long before the first disputes start to loom on the horizon. Even then, the assumption is that it is merely a question of some people not getting on with one another. Eventually, however, there is a realisation that these are not isolated cases but that everyone in the project team is so “strange”.

Knowing about the main cultural differences and then to work out individual communication and behavioural strategies in order to build bridges is the key to the success of a bi-national project. The following topics are especially important to understand your British counterparts.

Flow of information

The beginning of a good project communication is the flow of information. The British let information flow particularly well if there is harmony on a personal level in the team. You do not have to be best friends, but you should have a friendly, polite manner, you should not insist on your own opinion too much and carefully show yourself ready to compromise.

Communication routes in British companies are not really tied to any form of hierarchy but are intended to bring together people who work with one another. This means that communication travels in various directions and not only from top to bottom.

When gathering information you should proceed proactively and not expect the others to automatically supply the information needed. The British do not like filtered information. They prefer to decide for themselves which information is important and which is not. They object to others thinking for them and prefer to use their own brains. Basically it can be said that information is acquired by the obligation to collect as in many other cultures. There are also countries where the obligation to provide is paramount.

These different expectations when gathering information are often the reason for disputes in bi-national project work. If you are used to an obligation to provide it is easy to gain the impression that the British do not inform you correctly. Or you might even make the damaging assumption that the British deliberately keep back information. It is obvious that this can quickly undermine confidence in your counterparts.

Always actively approach your British colleagues, preferably in person. This not only promotes good relations, you also automatically receive the important information at a point in time which you have chosen.

Dealing with deadlines

There is certainly the awareness in British business culture for the necessity for deadlines and dates. However, the question is, at what cost? The British prefer to be flexible in reaching the deadline. They hold frequent meetings to see how far they are, for reorientation, to try and find out whether the deadlines are still realistic, to decide whether they ought to reduce the volume of the project to be able to keep to deadlines etc. By evaluating all these ideas they hope they can gain a more comprehensive picture of the overall situation and also judge more accurately where to set deadlines, whether they can be kept or even need to be revised.

These are joint projects which thrive on the exchange of ideas and are made up of various different stages which can be celebrated with a few rounds of Guinness. In other countries each team member has his own clearly defined part to play, coupled with his relevant profound expert knowledge. In this case, frequent discussion with non-experts is seen more as interference, which is time-consuming and unproductive.

Dealing with problems

The quote “Our team is well balanced. We have problems everywhere.” does not originate from a Briton but an American football coach named Tommy Prothro (1920-1995). However, it lends itself beautifully to illustrating the British attitude toward problems because it shows that they are open to mistakes and is at the same time an example of their type of humour.

In British business life it is not a sin to make mistakes as long as you recognise them, acknowledge them and learn from them. If you discover that a colleague has made a mistake, you only draw attention to it indirectly, if at all, you do not make any accusations. Confrontation is an absolute no go. The potential to learn from mistakes should have priority for everyone.

Iris Engler

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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