Project Management

The Power of Diverse Project Teams (Part 2): How To Elevate Your Cultural Awareness

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By Yasmina Khelifi, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP

As I shared in Part 1 of my look at diverse project teams, global projects have become the norm in many industries, and a rich source of performance. Business is done in global English, so in a certain way, that influences the project’s culture. Fortunately, cultural diversity is still present. How do you become more culturally self-aware without falling on the traps of prejudices or wrong assumptions?

Over my career, I’ve been asked the following questions:

  • How long have you been living in France?
  • Were you hired because you speak Arabic?
  • Do you want to improve your French?
  • What’s your origin?

These questions may be full of good intentions, but can also sound naïve. How much can we guess from a family name? Family names have histories, and sometimes you inherit a name from past generations with whom you don’t have any links; or you may have typically French names but with foreign origins. For instance, one of my colleagues I've been working with for ages recently told me her mother was Polish. As the last name was French, I wouldn't have guessed it.

More importantly, how do the answers to these questions help you to become culturally more self-aware? Don't they reinforce our biases? (For the record, I was born in France and don’t speak Arabic.)

Here are four ways I’ve experimented to embrace a learning mindset:

  1. Set ground rules to ask personal questions

As a global project manager, it is key you discuss the ground rules and values with the team from the onset:

  • Show respect and kindness
  • Respect boundaries
  • Shall we use first names or last names? At the beginning of my career, one British colleague asked me: “What’s your nickname?” I discovered afterward that nicknames are commonly used in some cultures (but not necessarily in France, for instance). With the strong influence of English in business, we tend to use first names and nicknames, but it is better to check.
  • Another tricky aspect is the pronunciation of names. Fortunately, some social networks give you the possibility to record your name—though that doesn’t guarantee your name will be pronounced currently. You’ll have to be tolerant and accept deviations.
  1. Learn by asking

Include snippets of diversity learning in your day-to-day project activities with small actions; this can also be an indirect way to ask people.

  • Talk with colleagues when they have days off to understand what they celebrate (and how)
  • Include the main festivals/celebrations/holidays in the project calendar
  • Is there an intercultural club that organizes presentations at your workplace? If it doesn’t exist, why don’t you set one up? Or ask one member of your project team to make a short presentation about their countries/workplace as part of a small talk or happy hour session.
  • Since the pandemic, I’ve asked project team members to send me pictures of their countries. I display the picture in the “sharing video” tool at the beginning of our conference meeting. It helps us “travel” and ignites curiosity to other realities.
  • When I took part in events organized by our British colleagues, I was pleasantly surprised by the diverse questions about cuisine.

Don’t push back if you feel the colleague does not want to talk. Just because the projects are more international doesn’t mean we can ask any question.

  1. Learn through intercultural/language courses

For a few years, I’ve taken part in many intercultural courses—although some of my colleagues told me that can be stereotypical. It’s true that if you begin with a course without having had any practice, you might have some prejudices. Going back and forth between practice and theory enables you to take small steps and adjust—and learning will stick.

Learning languages is also my passion. Through this, I could discover a lot. Talking to people in their languages (or learning some words) forges stronger connections.

  1. Learn by practicing

Practice makes perfect. Through working with some of my African colleagues, I discovered how their societies are mixed. They have national holidays for Muslims and Christians. They are also comprised of many different ethnicities. For instance, Côte d'Ivoire is represented by more than 60 ethnics. It gives me humility to face my knowledge gaps.

Volunteering is another great way to learn as you go. You can deliver several projects with worldwide peers in a short period.

Global teams raise a set of challenges, but also provide a rich human experience. What other ways do you become more culturally self-aware in your project teams?

Posted by Yasmina Khelifi on: July 01, 2021 03:05 AM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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Yasmina's conclusion is so beautifully put " Global teams raise a set of challenges, but also provide a rich human experience"

Navigating through the challenges and experience of diverse teams is quite a nice experience after all... I speak English, French and Pidgin and have had language challenges (especially with team members from Northern Africa ) but this comes with a good experience of understanding their culture too

Dear Yasmina
Very interesting theme that brought to our reflection and debate
Thanks for sharing and tips.
I am convinced that the best way to learn a language and/or a culture is to experience it at its source.

thanks Yasmina, like very much the point of "learn by asking", we are sometimes afraid of asking and a simple question can lead to a world of unknown possibilities at that moment: knowledge about the person, the issue, the context, the uncertainties...
Actually the "5 Why's" is a central methodology in problem solving.
As I read somewhere: "a simple hello can lead you to a million things"; same applies to questions.

Hi Kwiyuh, thank you for sharing your experiences and I'l happy they resonated with the blog. Stay safe, Yasmina

Hi Luis, thank you for your insights and taking the time to read the blog. So true! Stay safe, Yasmina

Hi Manuel, thank you for your feedback about asking questions. That is a hard part but it is such a big learning source. Stay safe, Yasmina

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