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Why Project Managers Must Have Cultural Literacy When Dealing With Locals

Project Manager must understand the local culture, respect and acknowledge the importance of it especially from the employee point of view

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Typically, when thinking about managing a project with multi-cultural and multi-religious team members, and adding a few international team members into the mix (which is becoming a common practice in Malaysia), we often dwell on geographic factors simply because some of the team members are not based locally.

What ends up being neglected is the importance of managing and understanding diverse cultures. Psychological commitment is part of culture from the individual belief which cultures around the world impact the organizational behaviour of managers and employees quite differently. Since there is a lack of acknowledgement of diversity within project management standards, let’s review what diversity means and what significance it has on project teams.

A basic definition of diversity is visible and subjective differences between people. In a working culture, diversity is differences in values, personality, and work preferences that become progressively more important for determining similarity as people get to know one another better. There have been many studies that agree diversity is a success factor in projects. Most organizations today understand the benefits of diversity and they strive to implement a diverse workforce. Diversity must be recognized and nurtured as the organization’s greatest asset, and the ability to attract and work with diverse talent must be seen as a critical competitive advantage as part of project success factors.

According to Fred Luthan in his book title Organizational Behavior: An Evidence-Based Approach, culture is a set of core values shared by a majority of the organization’s members. Culture is the knowledge, views, arts, ethics, laws, and customs shared by a specific group of people. When bringing together different people from different cultural backgrounds, there is a risk for misunderstandings and conflicts on projects. 

Several challenges can arise within project teams related to global and cultural issues. The main issue is the cross-cultural conflicts. As highlighted in the article Project Management in Practice – Why Project Managers Need to Have Local Knowledge, some workers will not commence work at an inauspicious period of day which varies by the day of the week and geographical location. Therefore, culture can impact the speed of working, the decision-making process, and the impulse to act without appropriate planning.

This poses a challenge for the project managers when they are dealing with people and situations in counties where the laws and ethics are different than what they are accustomed to.  A basic guideline here is for the project manager to comply with all applicable laws and follow the code of ethics for the organization they work for and the project manager should adhere to the ethical standards. As for cultural matters, managers need to make a concerted effort to adapt their organizational culture to match the culture of the countries in which they operate.

Perhaps the most important thing the project manager can do is get interested and educated about the culture of people within their team. One technique is to reach out to local resources that may be from the country where the project management team is located, to help to understand the culture and important communication differences. Whatever education method is used, the PM has to understand there will be differences in communication and behaviours from team members outside of their home country. Differences in culture among team members are not a bad thing at all. Differences can be leveraged to attain greater performance. The most important way is to emphasize the higher-level similarities among members. In the diverse background and multicultural work environment, OB helps the management in understanding, predicting, and controlling human behaviour at work. In fact, most big companies (like Google for example) are able to attract and retain their best people because they give a lot of attention and care to their legendary cultures and values.

Despite culture becomes a critical factor in defining project success, and multicultural competence becomes critical for a project manager, they need to show a genuine interest in the culture and values of their team members. Showing genuine interest in others is a universal leadership principle that goes beyond managing multi-cultural teams and it helps build trust. Project Managers also need to get educated on the diverse team members’ cultures so they can recognize what approaches will build team unity, engagement, and effective communication. Last but not least, Project Managers need to be flexible and respectful of other cultures and make project-related decisions based on that core value.

A project manager can blend local context without compromising the overall goals of the project. As a project manager, he or she must acknowledge individual differences in personality and culture shape preferences for rewards, communication styles, reactions to leaders, negotiation styles, and many other aspects of behaviour in organizations. Project Manager must understand the local culture, respect and acknowledge the importance of it especially from the employee point of view to follow their customs, i.e. main religious practices, festivities, etc. and prioritize accordingly during the decision-making process throughout the project phase. This can be done by having an attitude toward diversity programs that range greatly across countries, with the idea of what constitutes a “diverse” workforce differing by culture and the demography of the country.

In a diverse culture organization, it is the most important aspect that the project manager ensures all employees understand the goal and target of the project. Clear communication on all these issues is imperative to avoid claims or misunderstanding. Once goals and targets are understandable across the organization, it is up to the project manager to re-emphasize them to the employee especially during making a tough decision. Effective project managers require a balance of ethical, interpersonal, and conceptual skills that help them analyze situations and interact appropriately.

Workers in Malaysia may not be working on certain days due to cultural or religious obligations, they may not work on new things on certain days and to some extend may have taken long leave to observe festival or celebration. Since the group of a worker comes from different places, the date that being mentioned above may be different from one ethnic group to another ethnic group depending on their origin and religion. A good project manager will take it as an opportunity for a creative workaround rather than drawbacks. A project manager can reduce the risk of work stopped due to cultural obligation by having mix ethnic backgrounds from different races and religions in the same group that do certain functions in a project. If some of the team members of the group need to take leave to observe certain rituals base on their beliefs, the other team member can cover and ensure the work continuity. In project management, it calls risk mitigation. It is a risk response strategy whereby the project team acts to reduce the probability of occurrence or impact of a risk.

The other mitigation that can be done by the project manager is by offering special reward an employee that voluntary offer themselves continue working on certain days that they supposed to observe their cultural or religious ritual. Rewards take several different forms including money (salary, bonuses, and incentive pay), recognition, and benefits.

The project manager can also show the traditional authoritarian style of leadership known as McGregor Theory-X Leadership by implementing a risk avoidance strategy whereby the project team acts to eliminate the threat or protect the project from its impact. As a highlight in the article Project Management in Practice – Why Project Managers Need to Have Local Knowledge risk avoidance strategy can be done by putting in the clause of an employment contract where the employee that accepts the job offer can only observe official public holidays gazette under the law. 

To handle such a diverse workforce, it is recommended that managers have a hybrid leadership style that has at a minimum mix of these attributes i.e. democratic, strategic, transformational, team, cross-cultural, facilitative, transactional, coaching, charismatic and visionary. Refer to Exhibit I, Summary Continuum of Leadership Styles to understand further what is the characteristic of a hybrid manager.

Exhibit I: Summary Continuum of Leadership Styles

Project managers have to find a balance between accommodating local culture and strive to ensure a project being delivered within a time frame with minimum cost. Despite that kind of pressure, still, the autocratic leadership style is phasing out as the organization cannot afford the manager of this leadership style to dictate everything that their employee does this with results in creating a working environment that does not foster creativity and innovation among the employees. This will demotivate the employees and make them dissatisfaction as illustrate in Exhibit II, Two Views of Job Satisfaction (Two-Factor Theory). 

Exhibit II: Two Views of Job Satisfaction (Two-Factor Theory)

However, once the decision, target, direction, and mission & vision of the company is set, some level of autocratic foresee as a must to ensure all employee stay on the course. The manager also must not have a Laissez-faire leadership style, at least not all the time as employees need to be reminded, guide, and motivate periodically to ensure they stick to their own and department key personnel index (KPI) to ensure goal and target for the project as a whole can be achieved within the expected timeline.

Therefore, by implementing a project management strategy of risk mitigation and risk avoidance, chances of harmonizing local context in project management are possible. To further increase the success rate, the project manager shall adopt hybrid manager behaviour and attitude in implementing those project management strategies to ensure project goal and the target can still be achieved despite adopting local context.   

Reference List    

  1. Brealey, R. A., Myers, S. C., & Marcus, A. J. (2001). Fundamentals of Corporate Finance, 3rd Edition. Phoenix: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
  2. Luthans, F. (2011). Organizational Behavior: An Evidence-Based Approach (12th ed.). New York: Mc-Graw Hill.
  3. Passenheim, O. (2009). Project Management. Ventus Publishing.
  4. PMI Publications. (2013). A Guide to The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide), 5th Edition. Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.
  5. Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2013). Organizational Behavior (15th Edition ed.). New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

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Professional with more than 15 years' experience in managing multi-discipline oil & gas facilities improvement projects with a profound interest in corporate strategy & planning and stakeholder management. Ameirul is a winner of Carigali Hess Operation Excellence Suite Award 2018. An MBA holder and obtained Professional Certified International Project Manager, PCIPM from American Certification Institute. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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