In my last post, I talked a bit about culture and how hard it is to assimilate culture. In this post, I’m going to talk about why assimilating culture, in practice, generally doesn’t matter.
We talked a lot about culture in class last night, which is a very interesting topic when held in a cross-cultural class… my current IS class has one Korean, one Nigerian, one Saudi Arabian, a Malaysian, some Chinese, a Jamaican, and four Caucasians. I don’t know everyone’s official status in regards to nationality (that is, I don’t know how many of the non-Caucasians are naturalized Americans vs. student visa holders), but everyone non-Caucasian has a thorough grounding in their native culture, so there were a lot of viewpoints in the discussion.
We were discussing a paper written in MISQ a little while back illustrating conflict problems in cross-cultural software development. Given the wide variety of destinations for outsourcing projects nowadays, some people might consider this to be a pretty important topic. I pretty much think it’s a bunch of hooey, and apparently most of my classmates agreed; the “culture of the geek” was way more important to IT workers, in our collective opinion, than anyone’s individual ethnic or religious background.
Yes, there are some obvious cultural norms that must be accepted when one is running an outsourced project, but there are cultural norms that must be accepted if you run in-house projects. Usually, these are either blatantly obvious conditions, or completely unimportant. For example, if you have a bunch of orthodox Jews on your software development team, you should pretty much plan that they aren’t going to be available on the Sabbath. Duh. If you’re in the US and you have a member of your team who hangs an Irish flag in their cubicle and wears a shirt that claims he’s a staunch supporter of “The Boys In Green”, you ought to consider it likely that he’ll be distracted during the World Cup if Ireland is in contention, and the odds are non-trivial he’ll be late to work on 18th of March, particularly if he’s young and unmarried. Unless you have someone who’s idea of “culture” is “being a racist”, the odds that this is going to really impact your team significantly is marginal.
A non-ethnic example: if you have someone on your team that has been married for, oh… say, 18 months or so, it may not be a bad idea to consider the fact that they may be asking for maternity/paternity leave, and that they may be severely sleep deprived for 4 to 8 months sometime in the next couple of years.
If you want to consider yourself a good manager, project or otherwise, you have to consider your employees as a bunch of individuals. Generalizing “by culture” is shorthand for saying, “I’m a lazy PM”. If you have a project that’s outsourced to Jamaica, shrugging your shoulders and claiming “everybody is on ‘island time'” is shorthand for saying, “I’m not interested in finding out more about how to motivate the individuals on my team” or, “Honestly, that 8 am meeting wasn’t really important, was it?”
Assimilating a culture fully (usually by immersion) is difficult and can have wonderful payoffs in understanding ethnic art, literature, and *causal* reasons for cultural norms. This is great if you’re a professor of literature, an art critic, planning a national marketing campaign in Swaziland, or just like assimilating other cultures (a goal worthy in its own right). It’s hardly necessary for your understanding of your team to the extent you need in order to motivate them. It doesn’t really matter *why* one of your team members prays five times a day, only that you take that into consideration when managing the team member. Consider it a necessary habit, and allow for it. If you’re looking to motivate someone, you don’t have to dive into their ethnic, religious, and social status like a researcher, all you have to do is talk to them.
Dipping into a culture briefly is a good idea, because you want to find out the obvious social norms. Thinking that understanding a culture is necessary to managing effectively is silly; understanding the people is necessary, but culture is only a part of the makeup of an individual.
I know pacifist Irish who don’t drink. I know Jews who go to Temple and eat bacon. I know Catholics who use birth control. I know Asians who are bad at math, but good drivers. There are independently-thinking Muslim women, Indians who don’t expect their children to become doctors or engineers, white people who can dunk, black Republicans, Montana Democrats, conservative feminists, golfers who are poor, and probably out there you can find someone under forty who doesn’t look like an idiot smoking a pipe. Take the time to get to know your people, and you’ll find lots of surprises.