Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Cultural Diversity and What It Means to IT Managers

Recently I sat in on a meeting between a group of IT developers (contractors) and Federal program managers. Just a routine project review.

As I looked around, it struck me that we were really quite a diverse crowd. In the room were people from China, Viet Nam, India, Russia, Somalia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Iran, as well as a few U.S.-born folks.

This kind of diversity has become quite normal for our industry. In that sense, the IT business is a real meritocracy, where talent is valued regardless of race, creed, or national origin.

Yet this diversity can also make a manager's job more challenging, for not only is there a constant need to understand and deal with various personality types, but also, increasingly, a need to recognize how cultural differences can come in to play in one-on-one and group dynamics.

As an illustration, one time I was working with a customer that had engaged a leadership training and organizational development consultant to help them to build stronger project teams.

The consultant was talking about motivation, and used psychologist Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" to argue that the desire for self-actualization is the ultimate motivator; that is, the individual's desire to realize his full potential, or to be all that she can be.

Well this made good sense to me, and indeed many people accept Maslow's hierarchy as practically self-evident. Yet for many of the participants in the training, the idea of self-actualization being the universal, deepest need was highly questionable, if not completely off base.

For although Maslow's hierarchy may reflect a deep truth for Western cultures, it has little relevance to much of the world's population, particularly those cultures that engender a collectivist rather than individualistic worldview. In a collectivist culture (e.g., Japan, India), community or group needs have a much greater moral weight than individual needs - fulfilling group needs is more personally rewarding than fulfilling one's individual needs. This difference is not merely philosophical; not simply a matter of how one thinks, but rather is deeply ingrained and felt, and part of one's being.

In fact, the collectivist - individualist contrast is but one of many dimensions of cultural difference that social scientists describe.

For example, anthropologist and organizational behavior expert Joerg Schmitz identifies no fewer than ten "cultural variables" that make up a cultural profile:

Environment - viewing people, objects and issues from perspectives of harmony, constraint or control
Time - focused on the past (tradition), present (immediate action), or future (planning)
Action - reflective, relationship oriented (being), or task oriented (doing)
Communications - largely non-verbal and implicit (high context), or explicit (low context)
Personal space - public or private
Power - egalitarian or hierarchical
Individualism - collectivist or individualistic
Competitiveness - cooperative or competitive
Structure - flexible or ordered
Thinking - deductive or inductive; linear or systemic

There's a lot for an IT manager to consider here! Perhaps step one is simply to make sure that we're not wearing cultural blinders - that we are at least open to the possibility that our various employees and coworkers may each have a fundamentally different way of seeing things that is just as "right" as our own perspective!


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