The Importance of Cultural Awareness for Global Project Managers

June 10, 2021 by Rose Cook

I’ve been talking a bit about diversity and cultural awareness lately. In fact, last year we formed a Diversity Council and Committee named FlexSIDE. Our aim is to raise awareness about diversity in general – not just cultural, but also gender, sexual orientation, age, people with disabilities, etc. However, it was noted that the skill of cultural awareness is especially important for our Project Managers who are leading global teams. 

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”

Mahatma Gandhi

We’ve discussed in many past newsletters the importance of communication. We recognize it as a critical component of successful project management and have discussed the challenges, especially with team members working in remote locations. The past year has only increased the difficulties of keeping communication channels open with so many additional people working from home and many fewer team members on-site. During this unprecedented time almost all of my meetings became video chats or conference calls. There are often time zone differences to consider, not just nationally, but internationally as well. It can be a full-time job just getting everyone remotely located connected in real time. A friend of mine regularly speaks to her counterpart in the UK and while her day is just beginning here, her UK team member is close to wrapping things up for the day. 

“Diversity is about all of us and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.”

Jacqueline Woodson

As difficult as it can be keeping everyone on the same page, it’s even more of a challenge when managing a multicultural environment. PM’s must be ever mindful of their team members differing perspectives due to culture, lifestyle and beliefs. Things such as gestures, eye contact, physical contact, language, nonverbal communication and values can differ greatly in a multicultural setting. I recently read an article on “Business Analyst”, titled  The Importance & Stages of Cultural Awareness in Project Managers — Business Analyst Learnings that defined four stages of cultural awareness that people may go through:

  • The Parochial Stage: The feeling that your way is the only and best way of doing things. You ignore cultural differences because you’re not aware that there could be other options.
  • The Ethnocentric Stage: You’re aware that there are other ways of doing something, but disregard the cultural significance of another option believing your way is still better.
  • The Synergistic Stage: You’re aware that there are other options and choose the best approach depending on the situation.
  • The Participatory Third Culture Stage: You work with different cultures to create new ways to meet the demands of the situation.

“We are all different, which is great because we are all unique. Without diversity, life would be very boring.”

Catherine Pulsifer

While I’ve only provided limited explanations of each stage, I was especially awakened by the concept that we can tend to be “ethnocentric”. Who doesn’t want to believe that their way is better? The fact is, regardless of culture, lifestyle or beliefs, there are often many roads leading to the same place – all with pros and cons that require careful evaluation so the specific needs and demands of the situation can be met. Project managers help to bridge the gap of a multicultural team by bringing everyone together in understanding of the differences in thoughts, beliefs and approaches. 

“A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.”

Islamic Proverb

Personally, I like to learn about the unique qualities each team member brings to the project and I very much appreciate the differences. In my experience, more challenges can be resolved with many different thought processes and approaches than can ever be resolved with like-mindedness.

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