The Tower of Babel in a global world

Brueghel-tower-of-babelWe are living in a world that gets more and more global. You don’t need to travel to get exposed to it. Most likely you have colleagues, neighbors or friends who have been born in a different country or whose parents are from a different country. Being born and raised in the Netherlands, it always reminds me of the Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel, according to the Book of Genesis, was an enormous tower built in the city of Babylon, a cosmopolitan city. At that time, following the Great Flood, all people were speaking a single language and decided to build a very large eccentric tower. The people were not building the tower in worship and praise of God but in worship of the glory of man. God, displeased with the builders’ intent, decided to punish the people and confused their languages so they no longer understood each other and scattered them throughout the earth.

As project managers we need to be aware of the cultural and language differences to be able to successfully mold a team and deliver on the project objectives. Even though cultures might look similar minor differences might cause extreme tension in the team. In one culture a commitment is set in stone and failing to deliver is a personal loss of face. In the Dutch culture being late for an appointment is seen as a lack of respect for the other person, while in the Latin culture it is given that the other party will be at least 15 minutes late for an appointment. In the Dutch culture, it takes a significant time to become someone’s friend, however, after getting there they will walk through fire for you. Of course, every person is unique and these are generalizations.

To be a successful project manager you will need to understand these differences and be able to find common rules of engagement for the team so frustrations do not build and the team is setup for success. It comes down to managing expectations both from your stakeholders as well as from your team. It will save you a tremendous amount of trouble simply to gain understanding of the different cultural aspects you are dealing with within your project. When you spend the time to understand the difference upfront and making the team aware of them, you will save the project a significant amount of conflict situation later.

I would be very interested in hearing your stories.


1 thought on “The Tower of Babel in a global world”

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    Yes, it’s so important for project leaders to be global minded! I’ve been primarily working with Japanese businesses for the past 5 years. As Japanese businesses expand beyond Japan (there is no substantial growth INSIDE Japan due to the flat economy and population) they have been including people from around the world in their teams, and even as their business leaders. We do pretty intensive global leadership programs, and these require personal transformation, including embracing global diversity. We sometimes groups of people from the US, Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia all in the same program. The classic pattern I’ve seen is that everyone starts out believing that their group is right and the others are causing “the problems”. (Decision-making styles seem to be the biggest sticking point.) By the end of the program they all realize that they DO have problems, but their problems are NOT the other people in their own company. A commitment to work together to be successful emerges after this realization. It’s been an incredible education for me to work with these groups because I get to reflect on my own biases. I think I’m making progress towards becoming a global citizen who lives in the wondrously diverse and innovative Silicon Valley (50% of people who live here don’t speak English at home), a tiny part of California that just happens to be connected to the USA.

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