By Yasmina Khelifi, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP
As I shared in , 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:
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:
As a global project manager, it is key you discuss the ground rules and values with the team from the onset:
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.
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.
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.
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?
By Yasmina Khelifi, PMP, PMI-ACP
I first experienced the transformational impact of diversity during a six-month internship in Japan in 2000. The experience made me question every action and learned behavior I had previously made without a thought: how to greet people, how to make a request, how to thank others, how to celebrate, how to apologize and, more importantly, how to collaborate. It opened the door to a stunning new world.
Since then, I’ve reveled in managing projects in an international environment. Diversity on project teams is an invaluable source of innovation and growth for individuals—as well as for projects.
Personal Benefits of Diversity
Throughout my career, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work in diverse and inclusive environments. And I've learned so much as a result.
First, these experiences taught me humility: By delivering projects in the Middle East and Africa (MEA), I’ve worked with people who speak multiple languages and learned how to collaborate with people from different cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. These experiences also helped me question the status quo: For example, in my technical field in France, few of my colleagues are female, while most of my Chinese colleagues are female engineers.
My sense of empathy was reinforced: Technical or political constraints can disrupt projects, but despite it all, the teams worked hard to meet their goals. These experiences also ignited my curiosity and encouraged me to broaden my views. I learned to ask open-ended (non-judgmental) questions and to fight against biases.
Surprisingly, interacting with people in other cultural environments also pushed me to better understand my own culture and myself. This introspective journey forced me to step back and grow into a more dynamic, informed and empathetic project leader.
Project Benefits of Diversity
Diversity isn’t just about ethnic or cultural differences—it also means embracing people with varying ages, gender identities, professional backgrounds and levels of experience.
For example, when I first began to work as a project manager, I had a team member close to retirement. His role was instrumental in the team: He calmly listened to our issues and acted like a mentor, sharing his experiences to help guide our decisions.
Conversely, I wanted to improve a project status, but I did not know how. I talked to a younger colleague, and he offered to review it. I surprisingly discovered he was proficient in designing documents.
A few years ago, I worked on a very diverse team, as far as background and experiences are concerned. They were not engineers; some had marketing backgrounds, others were not college graduates, one studied history and managed the supply chain.
During our working sessions, we often strongly disagreed and faced various misunderstandings. But I cherish these projects, because we worked collaboratively to reach a compromise, despite our differences. It also fostered a feeling of belonging and true team collaboration.
Diverse project teams force you to explore and adopt new ways of working. When I began to work in MEA, I discovered new digital communication tools that allowed me to forge a bond with my team and deliver project information to remote team members.
Being inclusive brings fresh perspectives that enhance creativity and spark innovation. It also keeps your project team from falling into a rut of the same old ideas and solutions.
Don’t Fall into the Diversity Trap
Let’s be clear about the diversity business case. Hiring someone only for the sake of diversity is counterproductive.
When I was hired as a SIM Delivery Manager for MEA, a new colleague assumed it was because I speak Arabic. Unbeknownst to them, I cannot speak Arabic. But I do understand project management. Reducing my experiences and knowledge to a cultural fit was demeaning and hurtful.
Undoubtedly, knowing a language and a culture helps to build trusting relationships and offers a competitive edge in our global environment. But this cannot make up for a lack of project management skills.
Inclusion must have a rational and objective basis:
The desire to boost public image or sway public opinion to appear open-minded and tolerant will not add value. Instead, work to embrace qualified individuals who bring something fresh to your team.
How do you foster and celebrate diversity within your project team?