Project Management: Coping with Culture
Not so long ago, project managers working in Irish small or medium-sized enterprises worked with teams that were exclusively Irish. In other words, the people you dealt with all shared the same culture. When doing their PMP® training, those project managers found the Manage Project Team process easy – just keep abreast of how all the counties were doing in GAA and avoid getting embroiled in the civil war (Saipan!) and everything generally went smoothly.
However, those in the multi-national sector will be familiar with distributed development projects, where sites around the world are involved. This makes cultural differences explicit, but today’s Ireland means that co-located, domestic teams often include people from many countries and many cultures.
So today’s PMP® needs to take culture seriously and it is well worth building up your understanding of what culture is and how it affects the workings of the team. Our guide on this journey is Geert Hofshede, who published his book, “Cultures Consequences” in 1984. In that, he describes four dimensions of culture, but he continued to study the subject and today lists six dimensions. An awareness of these dimensions will help us to deal with team members and stakeholders across the globe.
It is always good to begin by defining what the subject is. On page 21 of his book, Hofstede offers two interesting definitions of culture: “The collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another” and “culture is to human collectivity what personality is to the individual”. This latter definition really highlights the issues we face as project managers. We know that different people respond to different management styles, so we have to appreciate that different cultures also work best under different forms of leadership. The six dimensions help us to tailor our engagements to suit the cultures involved. PMPs® will understand that what we want to do is analyse our stakeholders – particularly our team members.
1. Power Distance
Power distance is a measure of the power and influence one person has over another, as perceived by the subordinate person. How this manifests itself is in the way team members behave towards the project manager. If you come from a culture where a person with power is deferred to, you will try your best to appease the boss. This can be very frustrating for a PMP® as this sort of team member tends to hide problems and over-commit. One technique to overcome this is to get the person to work closely with someone at the same level, so that you can get realistic status reports.
2. Individualism versus collectivism
We are familiar with individual achievement – the U.S. culture probably exemplifies it. Individualism means big egos and enormous self-belief. Sadly, some people from these cultures are not as good as they think they are and need careful managing to harness their enthusiasm, without bruising their egos.
Those from cultures where decisions are made collectively can appear as indecisive and slow-moving. It is useful to understand that these people actually want to be part of the decision-making process; their reluctance to decide on their own is just cultural. Having people from a collective culture on board will encourage group discussion and can lead to better team dynamics.
3. Masculinity versus femininity
This refers to the expected gender roles in society. “Socialization means that both men and women learn their place in society and, once they have learned it, the majority of them want it that way” as Hofstede says in page 180. If you are a female project manager, you might have met some male team members who have difficulties coping with a female boss.
Modern management, where the manager is regarded as a support service for the team may help diffuse this, but it is an issue that does call for some cultural education on the part of the team member. Culture is difficult to change, but it is reasonable for cultures to understand and work with each other. Some people from male dominant societies cope with the cognitive dissonance brought on by having a female boss by declaring her an honorary man!
4. Uncertainty avoidance
As part of our PMP® training we met the concept of risk appetite. Some cultures and, indeed, some project managers, thrive on uncertainty – they find it makes life interesting. People who work in agile environments enjoy the way products and services emerge from regular feedback loops. However, there are cultures where this would be a nightmare. Being uncomfortable with uncertainty means a genuine need for rules and regulations and a total reluctance to step off the beaten path.
If you find someone like this on your team, make sure they get a role where uncertainty is low. If you have work that is repetitive and has no surprises, you will be glad to find someone who is culturally suited to it. These people tend to work hard and have a “time is money” attitude. However, look out for aggressive behaviour; this comes about because of uncertainty in their lives – it leads to stress.
5. Long-term versus short-term orientation
This was originally called Confucian Dynamism, but it relates to the way different cultures plan their lives. We are familiar with the way U.S. companies fixate on quarterly results. Several CEOs have made great names for themselves by posting record numbers four times a year. However, when they leave, the companies seem, invariably, to slump. This is not because of the lack of leadership but rather the short-term thinking that produced the great quarterly figures – costs are slashed, assets are sold off and investment is curtailed. Short term cultures live in the past and the present and have great regard for traditions.
The oriental societies have a more long-term philosophy and are looking several years to the future. They tend to save more and be more willing to adapt in order to have a better position down the road.
In a team, these can provide complementary dispositions: The short-term fire-fighters and the long-term strategists.
6. Indulgence versus Restraint
Different societies have different attitudes to recreation. Some are all for – we Irish have a reputation for mighty drinking sessions, filled with music and laughter - whereas other societies frown on any sort of public displays of frivolity.
This is not usually a problem in the workplace, as it pertains to leisure, but project managers should be aware of this if they are planning any sort of team-building exercises (remember the Develop Project Team process from your PMP® days?). If you are used to Irish teams, you might think a major pub session will consolidate the team, but you might find your restrained people horrified to see you leading the troops in a drunken rendition of “There is an Isle” in the small hours. In their eyes you will lose face.
So culture is something that affects all aspects of team operation – day-to-day work, decision-making and even opportunities to let off steam. While it is a sensitive area and gives you plenty of opportunities to put your foot in it, it also can help you with role assignments. Remember Captain Kirk in the first Star Trek movie? He wanted a Vulcan as science officer.
However, be careful not to stereotype. Not all Americans think in the short-term and not all Japanese like collective decision-making. The fact that these people have moved to Ireland suggest that they want to escape some aspects of their culture. In looking at culture, do not forget individual personalities.
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