Section 4.5. Culture Matters


4.5. Culture Matters

We've talked about traits on a personal levelwhat creates job satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) and how people tend to approach work. Another important element in understanding and managing your team is to recognize that we often operate in a multicultural environment. Today's teams are likely to be diverse. That diversity includes people of different races, religions, national origins, ethnicities, gender, ages, and languages. If you're managing a team across geographic boundaries, you know how time differences and cultural and language differences can all make managing a highly productive team that much more difficult. In this section, we'll discuss some of the challenges and discuss ways to address those challenges. If you manage a diverse team, this section will give you several important skills as a starting point to improving your cross-cultural management skills.

4.5.1. Managing People From Different Cultures

Managing people from different cultures is becoming more and more common as technology brings together people from across the globe in real time. It's not unusual in some companies to have a project team comprised of people from several countries. This leads to challenges that involve time, language, and culture. While we can't address every possible nuance of communicating across cultural boundaries, this section will highlight some of the common challenges and give you tools to begin to explore and address these challenges.

4.5.1.1. Culture and Language Differences

Language and culture play a huge part in how people communicate. Though English is becoming more universally accepted as a primary language in business, that doesn't mean that everyone who speaks English as a second language is comfortable with English. If you took a few Spanish or French classes in high school, think about how comfortable you would have been sitting in a restaurant in Spain (or Mexico) or a high-powered business meeting in France having a conversation with native speakers. It's important to remember that even though others may speak English, they may not be entirely comfortable with the language. This is critical to recognize because it means that business conversations that take place over communication links (phone, video conferencing, etc.) must be paced so that native and non-native speakers are comfortable. One of the common observations made about Americans in international business settings is that we talk a lot and we talk fast. We like to talk ideas out, think out loud, discuss, debate, and conclude. To those whose culture does not emphasize that, it can be daunting. Couple that with English as a second language and these non-native speakers can quickly get lost in a rapid-fire business conversation. It also means that phrases, idioms, and slang that we might use without thought will be confusing and perhaps even offensive to these non-native speakers. To avoid these potential problems:

  1. Learn to pronounce and spell names. OK, this is incredibly basic, but you'd be surprised how many people say, "Hey, will you get that UNIX guy from Bangalore on the phonewhat's his name, I can't pronounce it, it starts with a P." Learn to pronounce your team member's names. Even if you have to ask twenty times how to properly pronounce someone's name, it's better than saying, "Hey, is the Indian guy on the line right now?" Ask them if they use that name or another name. For instance, in the Philippines, it's not uncommon to have two first names and several surnames. As a result, names are often combined into unique nicknames. Maria Luisa Hernandez Fuentes Marquez might be known as "Malu" (a combination of Maria and Luisa). You may also run into difficult situations where the person's name is not a desirable name in the U.S. such as names that are slang words in the U.S. or names such as "Baby" or "Boy" that seem odd or inappropriate to use to address a team member or employee.

  2. Create meeting agendas that are short and concise. This helps keep everyone focused on the important topics and helps prevent rambling and straying off course.

  3. Keep conversation focused on the meeting agenda. If it rambles and includes unrelated topics, non-native speakers may become confused about the conversation.

  4. If discussion is needed, make sure to specifically ask your team members from around the globe for their input. Some cultures are reluctant to speak up unless directly spoken to. Make sure you consciously request their input. This will also help ensure they comprehend the discussion and are participating fully.

  5. Clarify terminology. Don't assume that others understand what you mean by words such as "meeting," "report," "presentation," or "deliverable"these things may mean entirely different things in other cultures and making everyone comfortable with the common business language you use is critical for success.

  6. Avoid yes/no questions. Ask questions that require an answer. This helps ensure the questions are understood and that the responses are based on understanding rather than confusion. Some cultures are naturally more inclined to say "yes" to a yes/no question, even if they're confused or don't understand.

  7. Avoid jokes and sarcasm. Jokes and sarcasm usually don't translate well and non-native English speakers may become confused, or worse, insulted if they do not understand the tone or the nature of the humor.

  8. Listen more than you speak. Americans like to talk and talk some more. If you're the project manager and your team is comprised of people from around the world, spend time actively listening to what is being said and to what is not being said.

  9. Ask for negative information. In some cultures, it's rude to mention problems; it's considered a sign of failure. Americans are fairly open about discussing problems and brainstorming solutions, so make sure you take time with people from other cultures to encourage their honest assessments. This is critical because with a global team, you may not find out about a problem until much later than you might if you were working with a local team.

  10. Communicate frequently. Managing a successful project involves making small, incremental changes throughout the course of the project so it stays on course (more on that later in this book). These small changes are even more necessary when you're working with a global team. If part of the project team is 6,000 miles away, it will be harder to notice when the project is slipping off course. Frequent communication is part of the key to keeping a global project on track.

  11. Learn about the culture. You'd probably be surprised by how many global project team managers don't bother to learn about the cultures of their team members. Things that Americans consider normal business matters may not be so normal in other countries. Asking someone to work on one of their national holidays without regard for that holiday would cause the same problem as if you were asked to work on Memorial Day or July Fourth. You might still need to have that person work on that national holiday, but you would recognize it the same way you would with an American team members"I'm sorry you have to work on that day, I know you were looking forward to a day off." Learn about "hot button" issues and behaviors that are considered polite (or rude) so you can interact with team members in a manner conducive to getting results.

  12. Invest in cross-culture awareness training for your team. If you're going to be working with people from other countries for extended periods of time, you would do well to get some formal training to develop openness and awareness of cultural perspectives. You and your team will not only learn a lot about how other cultures work, live, and think, but you'll also learn a tremendous amount about the assumptions you make about how people work, live, and think. It can be a deeply enriching experience and it will certainly improve your team's efficiency and success.

  13. Learn to use meeting time and non-meeting time wisely. Many productive global teams use face-to-face (or virtual face-to-face) meetings to handle hot issues or to develop group understanding and personal commitment. They use non-meeting time to work on tasks and to perform tasked-based communication. By understanding the best use of meeting and non-meeting time, you can use precious meeting time for developing the group and allow the task-based communication to happen through e-mail, document collaboration, instant messaging, etc. Don't rush through the process and team building parts to get right to the tasks. Spend time building a cohesive team; it will be an investment that pays back major dividends for you.

  14. Invest in communication technology. It almost goes without saying that you need your cross-cultural teams to be able to communicate effectivelyin real time when possible (though with time differences, this is clearly a challenge). Using collaboration software, communication technologies such as net meetings, video conferencing, instant messaging, e-mail, blogs, wikis, and collaboration management tools will greatly enhance the team's efforts. While nothing can replace the occasional need for face-to-face meetings, intelligent use of these communication and collaboration technologies will help bridge the gap. And remember that the lone guy/gal in the outskirts of Belfast or Mexico City needs to be just as connected as the team in Atlanta, Georgia.

The IT Factor…
R-E-S-P-E-C-T

If you learn to value and respect cultural differences, you'll manage cross-cultural teams more effectively. People around the world want to be respectedfor who they are and what they bring to the table. Showing respect by learning to pronounce difficult names, understanding what's important to various team members, and including everyone on your team equally is not all that difficultit just takes time and willingness to make a conscious effort. Once you do, you'll be rewarded by a broader global view and a cohesive team that is ready to take on the challenges of the project.


4.5.1.2. Values Differences

Americans work hard and play hard. Other cultures take a different view of work, play, and life. Even within the U.S., different regions and subcultures view work, play, and life slightly differently. We cannot simply assume that what is important to us, our company, or our clients is the same in other cultures, whether those cultures are across town or across the world.

Successful cross-cultural teams work well together by recognizing and respecting the various cultures. The IT project manager must ensure the team is productive in a culturally appropriate manner. He or she must also know which issues are performance-related and which are cultural. It's also important that the project manager avoid alienating employees or accidentally offending them. Part of this involves understanding the values and mores of other cultures and working with those in an effective manner. Again, there are numerous challenges here, but we'll highlight a few to get you started.

  1. When yes means no. In many cultures, it's rude to say no. When posed a yes/no question, some people will answer yes when they actually mean no. As mentioned earlier, one of the ways to avoid this and to get better information is to ask questions that require an explanation rather than yes/no.

  2. Work ethic. Many Americans work long hours and put their lives and families second. In many countries, family is far more important than work or career advancement. Understanding the relative importance of work and family (or work/non-work time) is important in terms of motivating and rewarding a cross-cultural project team. Asking someone to work overtime or not allowing time off for an important family event can be absolutely unimaginable in some cultures.

  3. Managing conflict. Americans, for the most part, are fairly comfortable with debating a topic or disagreeing with someone in a business setting (assuming the right environment). In other cultures, disagreement, conflict, or heated discussions are avoided. Understanding how to manage conflict on a cross-cultural team is important because some of the conflict may not surface in ways you're accustomed to. Many Americans will voice their dissatisfaction, in private or in public, in order to hammer out a resolution. In some cultures, there may be no outward sign that there is a problem. Well, let's revise that. To you, the American project manager communicating from 6,000 miles away, there may be no recognizable sign there is a problem. It's entirely possible that folks from that other culture in the same room may instantly recognize the problem, even if it's not verbalized. Understanding how to recognize dissent and conflict on a cross-cultural team and how to manage it is critical to success.

  4. Personal information. The amount of personal information people are willing to share about themselves varies widelynot only from culture to culture, but even within cultures. Many Americans are seen as being fairly open about themselves and this can lead to embarrassment or discomfort by other team members. Conversely, Americans may tend to view other cultures as standoffish, distant, remote, closed, or secretive if they are not naturally inclined to talk about themselves (or talk as much as we do about anything). Some Americans may view other cultures as being too emotional, too "touchy-feely," or too open. Ensure that all team members respect appropriate boundaries.

  5. Criticism. How and when constructive criticism is given varies widely from culture to culture. In some cultures, any negative feedback is devastating and is a sign of abject failure. In other cultures, that same feedback is just part of the job. Learning the language of criticism and constructive feedback is vital since not everyone on your project team will be perfect all the time. Your criticism should be delivered in a way that corrects the problem without demotivating (or devastating) the recipient. This can be tricky, but taking time to learn how this can be handled smoothly will make your team more effective. We'll look at that in more detail later because you'll need to manage your team's performance and do so without destroying people's egos along the way.

  6. Individuality. As much as we might want to lump everyone from a particular culture into one category, that's not any more appropriate than lumping all Americans into one category. Are all Americans the same? Of course not. Every individual is different and may not follow all the cultural norms you expect. Remember that when dealing with cross-cultural teamsunderstand and respect their culture and work with each person as an individual.

4.5.1.3. Feedback In A Diverse Environment

Successfully managing your cross-cultural team means investing time and resources into understanding other cultures and informing your team about the various cultures represented. It also means learning to effectively guide your team through the project cycle. This frequently requires giving feedback to team participantsboth positive and negativeto get the needed results. In this section, we'll look at some of the common problems encountered with feedback and then provide specific solutions you can evaluate using with your cross-cultural team.

If you've managed a cross-cultural team, one of these scenarios has probably already happened to you. If you haven't yet managed such a team, this is an example what you might encounter:

  • A newly hired team member continues to skip an important step in a critical procedure. Each time you try to correct the problem, you meet with subtle resistance.

  • One of your team members gave the wrong information to a client. When you corrected him/her, he/she left the room quickly and quietly.

  • A deliverable turned in by a team member is way off the mark even though you believe you clearly and repeatedly explained what was expected.

These are all examples of situations that required feedback, but that didn't turn out as expected. If you've encountered one of these types of situations, you may have walked away shaking your head in confusion. What happened? What went wrong? Let's look at some of the common cultural elements related to receiving feedback:

  • Saving Face Team members from some cultures may view negative feedback as shameful. You may notice inappropriate laughing, smiling, or blushing. They may try to avoid feedback by not making eye contact, by missing meetings where criticism might occur, or by simply clamming up.

  • Maintaining Harmony In some cultures, maintaining a harmonious environment is paramount. This can contribute to people saying yes when they mean no. If a team member continues to say yes, but repeats the mistake or undesirable behavior, chances are good there's a communication problem going on.

  • Respecting Authority Some cultures have an absolute respect for authority, which means they are likely to follow your feedback, instructions, or criticisms to the letter. In the U.S., it's not uncommon for someone to discuss or even disagree with feedback from an authority figure if they believe the feedback is incorrect. Some cultures will not question the instruction or feedback, even if it is blatantly wrong, out of respect.

  • Blaming Fate Some cultures believe strongly in outside or external control of events. They may truly believe that fate (or something similar) was at work. Americans typically believe they control events and often view the blaming of external factors as avoiding responsibility.

  • Relating vs. Working Some cultures value the relationship between people at work as much or more than the tasks they are assigned. Americans are typically fairly task-oriented; we want to get the job done as quickly as possible. Other cultures may find this off-putting, rude, or cold. In other cultures, creating and maintaining the relationship is as important as what gets done. Employees from these cultures may feel that their relationship with the boss, their seniority, or their status in the group is more critical to success than following the task-oriented procedures given in the feedback.

  • Separating Self From Results Some cultures view results and self as inseparable, so to criticize one's work is to criticize that person. In the U.S., managers are taught to correct the behavior and not to make it personal. In some cultures, correcting the behavior is inherently personal and you cannot criticize work without also criticizing the person.

  • Emphasizing Group versus Individual Americans are known to be focused on the individual. While we may work well in groups, we fundamentally define ourselves by our individual uniqueness. In other cultures, the group is far more important than the individual and individual tastes, desires, and preferences are sublimated to the group. In this setting, having one's performance singled out, for positive or negative feedback, is embarrassing and to them, perhaps even inappropriate. If they are singled out for praise, they may be viewed as disloyal to the group.

Now, as you've read through this list, you might be thinking, "How am I ever going to successfully manage a cross-cultural team?" Well, the good news is that with a bit of effort on your part, you can understand, appreciate, and leverage cultural differences to create a highly effective team. Let's discuss a few ideas you can consider using when you have to provide feedback in a cross-cultural team setting.

  1. Build a relationship first. If you have developed a relationship with your team members before giving feedback, you're more likely to understand their cultural biases and conditioning so you can find the most effective way to provide feedback.

  2. Assure the individual of your respect. This is closely related to building the relationship, but it's important that the individual receiving feedback understand that you provide the feedback out of respect. This can help mitigate some of the negative cultural values associated with criticism.

  3. Try to emphasize how the feedback will benefit the recipient. If the person understands what value or benefit is in it for them, he or she is more likely to be receptive to the feedback. This applies to anyone in any culture, but is doubly important in cross-cultural communication.

  4. Use the passive rather than active voice. In the U.S., we're taught to write and speak in the active voice, which can be intimidating to people in cultures that are used to the passive voice. The active voice starts with the word "I" or "You". The passive voice omits these. Here are some examples (active then passive):

    • "You didn't finish the report on time" versus "The report was not finished on time."

    • "I asked you to report back to me by 3:00 P.M." versus "The report was needed at 3:00 P.M."

    • "You gave the wrong information to the client" versus "The wrong information was given to the client."

    • "You were asked to help Noelle with that task last week" versus "Noelle needed help with that task last week."

  5. Use an intermediary. In some cultures, authority and criticism are a difficult combination. In some instances, you may be able to use an intermediary to deliver the feedback. While we in the U.S. might view that as ducking a responsibility, in some instances, it can allow the recipient to save face. You might ask an appropriate intermediary, "I'd like to help Jawara, but I'm don't want to offend him. What would you suggest?" or "Yi Min, would you work with Jawara to find a way to address the vendor issue?"

  6. Keep it private. In an American meeting, it might be fine to say, "Hey, Bill, what were you thinking when you told the vendor they could deliver the computers two weeks late?" Bill might take it as a friendly jab, but get the message that he'd made an error. In cross-cultural teams, you should avoid these kinds of exchanges. Instead, talk with the person privately and in a low-key manner. Keep your voice soft, slow your rate of speech, and reduce the potential for embarrassment or defensiveness.

  7. State what you do want. Rather than stating the negative"Don't do this again"frame the feedback in a more positive manner. "In the future, please use this new procedure."Again, this is subtle, but can avoid someone losing face. And it never hurts to state exactly what you do expect so there are no assumptions made about expectations.

  8. Give feedback to the group. If you are dealing with a culture that is very group-oriented, you would do well to give the feedback to the entire group rather than the individual. Though to our American minds this may not make sense, to some it is the only acceptable method of providing feedback.

The IT Factor…
Slow Down

The American culture is known for being fast-faced and results-oriented. There's nothing wrong with that except when it clashes with the culture of key project team members. Then it becomes counter-productive. Rather than changing your style, work to tone it down a bit. If you slow down, listen a little more and communicate in a more deliberate manner, you'll probably do just fine.

Amy Buttery is a global training director for a large, international outsourcing firm that supports numerous global technology companies. In her job, she manages people (staff and project teams) from several countries, including India and the Philippines. Her team is multinational, multigenerational, and multicultural. As a natural leader and communicator, Amy had the skills she needed to be successful in this type of global setting, but she still had her work cut out for her. Her advice to global IT project managers: "Whatever you know about communications and managing a team goes triple for global teams. Communicate more often using more methods. Be very aware of the language you use, make sure everyone has the same understanding of terminology, commonly used phrases and jargon, and listen more than you talk."


Though this is not an exhaustive list of potential pitfalls and solutions, it will give you food for thought. Taking time to understand the culture(s) you're dealing with shows respect and will help generate far better results than if you ignore cultural differences and assume everyone is operating under the same set of assumptions you are.

4.5.2. Managing Across the Generations

We've looked at working with teams that include people from different cultures, but what about when those different cultures are generational? In the U.S., we have Boomers, GenX, GenNext, Echos, and many other terms for the various generations currently in the country (and consequently, in the work force). Dealing with teams that include people in their 20's, 40's, and 60's can make for a very interesting team dynamic. In this section, we'll explore some of the differences between the generations and discuss strategies for working effectively regardless of age. The good news is that some of what you learned earlier in this chapter about dealing with cross-cultural teams can be applied toward working with generational differences.

We all know that there are certain stereotypes about different generations. Younger people may see older people as too cautious or too slow; older people may see younger people as too reckless or too fast-paced. Certainly, generational stereotypes have some basis in truth, but not everyone in a generation behaves in the same manner. When we discuss generational differences in this section, we will be relying on stereotypes based in truth. Still, many people in the generations we'll discuss might not fall into this neat definition. If you can find ways to recognize and leverage generational differences, you'll have a more functional team when it's all said and done.

  • The Silent Generation The group was born in the U.S. before 1946. In business today, they are the oldest workers. Their generation generally believed in honesty, loyalty, and an honest day's work for an honest day's wage. They are generally reliable workers who arrive on time to work and to meetings and enjoy taking the whole weekend off from work.

  • The Boomer Generation The Baby Boomers were born roughly between 1946 and 1960 (there are various opinions about the exact years on all of these, all years are approximate). These folks were children of the 1960's and 1970's with the counterculture, hippies, Woodstock, and the Vietnam War in the forefront of their formative years. Many have maintained some of the values from those timesopenness, tolerance, and acceptance. They are often noted for their desire for material success and their pursuit of spiritual experience or knowledge. They have been portrayed in the media as the "Me" generation due to their focus of personal success and pleasure.

  • Generation X These folks were born between 1965 and 1977 (those between 1960 and 1965 are sometimes termed "cuspers" because they fall into either group). They are typified by a strong connection to tradition and traditional values, which in some ways is a response to their parents' rejection of traditional values. Their parents were often busy with themselves (they were, after all, the "Me" generation) and their care was often left to othersdaycare, after school programs, babysitters, nannies, extracurricular activities, and self-care (the term "latch key kids" was coined for these kids). This resulted in a generation that was highly self-reliant. In addition, they grew up with technology and are more comfortable than any preceding generation with computers, the Internet, cell phones, and other emerging technologies.

  • Generation Y These folks were born roughly between 1978 and 1988. They came of age during an expansive economic cycle and as a result, they tend to be a bit more optimistic than their older GenX siblings. Like GenX'ers, they are also very comfortable with technology, having been raised with PCs, the Internet, tiny cell phones, and television remotes. They tend to be more oriented toward the "common good" and work to make positive change in the world.

There are other variations, different terms, and additional segments of the population that researchers may define and describe, but we'll stick with these large segments that are commonly discussed. Now that we've identified broad trends, you may begin to imagine some of the inherent problems you might find on a team that has a mix of generations. Some of the common "complaints" are described:

  • Older people are too rigid, too slow and don't understand technology.

  • Middle-aged people are in it for themselves and don't "get" technology.

  • Younger people act before thinking, they don't care about the rules, have no respect for authority, and have short attention spans.

You may have heard these types of comments; you may have thought them yourself. You probably know people that fit these stereotypes completely and others who don't in any way fit their generational description. As a project manager, you'll have to learn how to manage these different types of people in order to get your team up and running. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Have the team members talk about themselves, what they value, how they approach work. Understanding differences makes them more manageable.

  2. Ask team members to identify their strengths and weaknesses and pair up team members so they can learn from one another in two-way mentoring.

  3. Define your team's mission clearly and concisely. Generational issues are less likely to rear their heads when everyone understands what must be done and why.

  4. Define each person's role clearly so that everyone understands who's doing what and why.

  5. Leverage uniqueness. Find ways make the best use of each team member's background, skills, experience, temperament, work style (as discussed earlier in this chapter), and interests. By making it about the work and not the personal style, you can develop a much more effective team.

  6. Ditch job descriptions and titles. Sometimes on a team, it's more effective to divide up roles, responsibilities, work, and tasks based on skills, interest, ability, and availability rather than by job title or job description. This can provide a bit more latitude for everyone to gravitate toward what they can do best rather than what their job title says they should do on the team.

  7. Help the team create conflict-resolution guidelines. The possibility for conflict arises anytime two or more people work together. On a cross-generational team, the natural methods for addressing conflict may vary widely. Having the team discuss and develop methods for resolving conflict before it arises can help bridge generational gaps, especially those related to communicating and dealing with interpersonal conflict.

  8. Create a team environment that fosters respect, courtesy, and kindness. With or without generational issues, working in a courteous environment brings out the best in everyone.

Learning to recognize and respect generational differences will make you a better project manager. Learning to leverage generational differences will make your team a more effective project team. While everyone from one generation may not be exactly alike, the culture and environment in which they were raised does have a significant and lasting impact on people of a particular generation. That said, it's also important to understand these same generational boundaries do not apply generically to people of other cultures. For instance, 20-year-olds in India or Japan may be equally adept at technology, but their view of the world and their approach to authority, team members, and job responsibilities may be dramatically different than their U.S. counterparts. If you're working with a multigenerational, multicultural project team, you certainly have your work cut out for you. If you can find ways to encourage and enhance the best traits of each, the team will have a rich, rewarding experience and you'll have a highly effective team.

Cheat Sheet…
The Pace of Work

Younger workers, for the most part, are always connected. They regularly check e-mail, talk on cell phones, and surf the Internet to find information, entertainment, and answers. It's not unusual for them to mix a bit of business with pleasureon the weekends they may be likely to log in from home and respond to a few e-mails then go out for pizza with friends. Older workers typically like more defined boundaries between work and home. Neither style is good or bad, but as an IT project manager, you'll need to learn to balance this. If your own style is to be always connected, you must be careful not to negatively judge team members who choose to "disconnect" over the weekend (unless, of course, there's a specific need for them to check in). Conversely, if you're the type that likes those defined lines between work and home life, don't expect your younger team members to do the same. Recognizing those preferences and allowing them to co-exist within a project team can be a bit of a challenge at first, but over time it will add to the team's productivity. Watch for signs that one group is negatively influencing or judging another group. For instance, if younger team members are always connected, watch that they don't begin excluding team members who don't check in even on days off. A sub-group culture can begin to form that excludes others and that can be detrimental to the team. Keep your eyes open to different work styles and make sure the team remains cohesive.





How to Cheat at IT Project Management
How to Cheat at IT Project Management
ISBN: 1597490377
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 166

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