Culture soups, managing diversity
Project and program professionals managing and coordinating stakeholders within international initiatives would strongly benefit from an approach that can support them in managing the inherent cultural diversity. I will be discussing this topic with Omar Zein, friend, and colleague and author of the book Culture and Project Management, in which he provides effective frameworks and case studies to make culture a real and tangible entity: a dynamic mix of ingredients, like in a soup, culture soups.
Omar is a cross-cultural management and leadership consultant with the specific focus on the areas of project and program management. He was born in Saudi Arabia to Syrian parents, moved to the United Kingdom at the age of 13 and is currently living and working in London, UK, and Turin, Italy.
We share the common interest in understanding the dynamics of cultural influence on multicultural and cross-cultural project management practices and here we would introduce how our cultures affect the effectiveness and efficiency of organizational change initiatives, in every business sector.
– why do we see ourselves as ‘culture soups’?
The more globalised the world becomes, the more that cultures mix; socially, politically and professionally. This is so marked in the past two decades that the demographics of many major cities have reached a level of diversity making it difficult for tourist or new visitors to identify the ‘original’ or ‘third generation’ inhabitants of such cities. The implication of such diversity goes beyond ‘learning’ about other cultures. Indeed, while travel and foreign movies act as a tool for learning about specific cultures, being in the midst of cultural diversity does not. What it does, however, is continuously expose each and everyone within the diversity to the cause-and-effect of working and socializing with different cultures. In other words, to the interplay between what each individual member of the diversity consider as ‘norm’, and how that makes them act or react when they work and communicate with others who adhere to different ‘norms’ (the norm being tone of voice, formality of working relationship, details of reporting, mode of decision making, or anything that we consider as the correct way of behaving or doing things).
At this point, it would help to construct a reductive story to understand the relationship between diversity and the culture soup. Consider a large metropolis that experienced healthy economic growth resulting in many job opportunities in the 1960s, and as a result, a large number of people from all over the world started to immigrate there. Initially, everyone was fascinated by the others’ culture. How they dressed, how and what they eat, how they greeted each other, how parents addressed their children and how children addressed their parents, and so on. A year on, most of the immigrants have found work and started to interact with each other daily, their initial fascination has worn off and they have now become concerned with appropriately performing their jobs; that is, performing their jobs in the way they each think it should be done; according to the cultural norm of their origins! Here, we can imagine the endless heated discussions and arguments with culturally diverse colleagues:
‘please stop asking ME for information, you have to speak to my boss first!’
‘who told you to do this? The GROUP never discussed it?’
‘the meeting starts at 9.00; not 9.10!’
‘just because its the director that asked for it, that does not make it an approved modification!’
‘you call this a project plan?! The most detailed activity is a WEEK!!!’
Five years have passed and thankfully, most of the now settled immigrants have adapted to each other at work. Changing positions on what the norms are; accepting different ways of doing things; abandoning older ways of doing things; becoming more flexible towards what they once considered a non-standard behaviour and most importantly of all, becoming open to the possibility that others’ norms and practices may actually be better than their own; so they start considering options and opinions, and as a result, become more professionally mature and efficient. Consider that in many global cities around the world, the above have been going on for decades. Many members of these cities can no longer be identified by their national origins nor by their genealogical origins. They have all to an extent become culture soups. Nowhere are the benefits of flexibility and adaptability of the culture soups more evident than in large multicultural projects and programs; whereby members of different stakeholders from different cultures have to work together for a determined period to time to efficiently deliver a product or result; with little time to get to know each other well and assimilate as a group.
– how can we manage cultural diversity?
To manage something, one must first understand enough elements of that something. In the case of cultural diversity, both object and subject are part of that something. That is, to manage cultural diversity, one must first understand their own cultural orientation and only then look to understand others’. This is what cultural awareness is, and it is the foundation on which managing cultural diversity can build.
Any claimed approach or tool that does not build on comprehensive cultural awareness is misguided and doomed to failure. Once we have such awareness, we automatically become sensitive to others’ perspectives and can with reasonable contemplation understand their point of view. Cultural tuning – which is the term Zein uses for managing diversity – automatically flows from there.
This tuning can be outlined as:
- Becoming aware of your own cultural orientation
- Being openly observant without prior prejudice
- Understanding the link between culture and practices at work
- Questioning and verifying both your observations and cultural understanding
- Elaborating various options to counter specific cultural conflicts
- Contemplating as the people manager, how to implement the chosen option with a view to achieving the best overall outcome, both for the project and its team.
There is not such thing as the stand-alone tool for managing diversity: the six steps outlined above are simply an attempt at rationalising the way to cultural awareness; with the aim of acting as a clear guide to the multicultural manager when facing diversity.