Published here June 2020


Musings Index

What Is Culture and How Do You Handle It?

Have you ever taken on a new project and found that you are now dealing with new people that you have never met before? Now you are wondering how best to handle them as a project team. Chances are that their responses to what ever you do will depend on individual group cultures, especially if the team is very diverse. Otherwise, it will be their collective culture, if the new team is pretty well homogeneous.

But either way, what is culture? According to Wikipedia, culture in the social sciences and humanities, may be defined as:

"Culture is an umbrella term, which encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities and habits of the individuals in these groups."[1]

Which statement is helpful but it is not very enlightening. Here I think Figure 1 — The Cultural Iceberg shows a good display of a typical cultural environment in a new situation:

Figure 1: The Cultural Iceberg[2]

This figure shows that what is visible, or relatively easily determined, is only about 20% of the full picture. Indeed, the other 80%, which is in fact much more particular to project team behavior, can be well below the surface, and hence difficult to see at first glance. Again, the diagram shows about thirty items altogether. However, not all appear to be particularly relevant to a new project situation, so instead we have picked out those that clearly are. That is to say, the following list are the issues or concerns that will be quite familiar to most experienced project managers, but nevertheless items that need a reminder when a new project team is being assembled:

  • Biases,
  • body language,
  • concept of cleanliness and tidiness,
  • concept of justice,
  • gender roles,
  • gestures
  • humor,
  • modesty,
  • personal space,
  • pride,
  • relations to authority,
  • rules of conduct,
  • self-concept, and
  • work ethic.

In a further leap of faith, these items probably represent about half of all potential concerns that will impact the relationship between the project manager and his or her new and unfamiliar team. The point is that these are the conditions that give rise to a "team culture" that can be carefully established and managed by the project manager upon taking charge.

How? You might ask. For those less familiar with cultural issues, the above list represent about 40% of the total — which still gives you plenty of coverage to work with. But in any case, the first step is to set a good example as the project leader. Then the trick is to build on the positive attributes that the newly assembled members bring to the team in the first place. Equally obvious is to discourage those attributes that are immediately counter-productive. Having said that, it means adopting a general management style to suit the particular project situation.

But as the project manger you may say: "I am far too busy to be coddling people this way!"

If you are a male project manager, that's probably true, so that is a very good responsibility to delegate — preferably to one of your female supporters, who are much more adept at dealing with these challenges. Of course, if you are a woman project manager, this is the sort of thing you will do anyway. It is just human nature.

Obviously, failure to attend to team management in this way can result in a rather disruptive team, instead of a very constructive one.

2. Found on Pinterest, 3/12/2020.
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