A Project Manager’s Guide to Workplace Cultures and Their Influences

A Project Manager’s Guide to Workplace Cultures and Their Influences
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Project Manager Soft Skills

Soft skills involve communication techniques and the ability to relate to team members from various backgrounds and locales. Digging deeper into the needed skill set, it is quickly apparent that there is another skill the project manager must add to the already cumbersome tool belt: Cultural understanding of workplace dynamics.

Transcending location-specific idiosyncrasies, cultural differences and language barriers, workplace culture is unique to departments, companies and even teams within these populations. Thus, the project manager has to discover how to:

  • Establish a productive work environment for all team participants.
  • Value the contributions – and modes of contribution – from all departments.
  • Cause buy-in into the project and the task or the role the team plays.
  • Apportion work loads in keeping with ability and scheduling; offer constructive feedback.
  • Balance workplace cultures to everyone’s advantage – not to one department’s disadvantage.

This is a tall order, especially for a new project manager or one who has not actually given much thought to the presence of workplace cultures. If this identifies your take on project management in general, it is time to get a closer understanding of the cultural makeup of the various players you might encounter.

Workplace Cultures

Cornell College identifies workplace culture as something that is “reproduced over the generations, often without self-conscious effort.” It would make little sense to ask one department involved in the project to buff up on speed or responsiveness, if this is simply countercultural to the way it does business – and has been doing business for years or perhaps even decades.

To adequately participate in the balancing act the project manager must now undertake, information gathering about the various departments should include:

  • Temperament of workers (i.e. laid back or strict).
  • Size of the department the project team will be involved with.
  • Number of long-term workers (they are the ones who have sub-consciously bought into the workplace culture and kept it alive).
  • Work ethic (a department that comes in consistently ahead of schedule has a different work ethic than a department that barely comes in on time).
  • Egalitarian or repressive chain of command.
  • Preferred mode of communication (personal contract and meetings vs. impersonal emails or text messages).

It is virtually impossible to number all of the different workplace cultures the project manager may encounter. Some are extreme, while others may merely have an undercurrent that tinges business interactions. Within the confines of academia, the book “Athena Unbound” recognizes two basic types of departmental cultures:

  1. Instrumental: Extremely old-fashioned in approach; rigid.
  2. Relational: Risk-taking and cooperative.

In the workplace, the project manager may observe similar attitudes. For example, an accounting department may be extremely conservative and task-driven; numbers are either correct or incorrect and output is tied directly to timely input. In contrast, an art department is flexible and thrives on creativity; input may result in a variety of outputs and a conservative, task-oriented project manager easily has a hard time dealing with the laid back attitude of the artists.

Incorporating Workplace Cultures into Your Project

There are three basic methods of creating a cooperative whole from a variety of cultures:

  1. Share the vision.
  2. Get the buy-in.
  3. Adjust benchmarks.

For lack of a vision, cooperation fails. The rigid department – just like the laid back one – must understand the project team’s vision of the process and finished product – not just the desired end result. Each department must translate this general vision into a personalized departmental vision. In this manner, the project manager produces the buy-in needed to create cooperation. It is crucial to have buy-in at the managerial level and at the seniority level (especially if senior workers are not in management).

Department meetings, consistent communication and also charting of the benchmarks are just some of the methods that a buy-in becomes possible. The project manager should plan on custom-tailoring presentations with the workplace culture of the department she is addressing in mind. (If meetings are the preferred mode of communication, they should be used frequently.) Finally, it is vital to adjust benchmarks for best success. For example, a rigid department does not need a number of smaller benchmarks for schedule adherence; the odds are good that its contributions come in ahead of schedule. The relational department, on the other hand, needs more benchmarks to stay on track.

The project manager is wise to recognize that there is no “right” or “wrong” workplace culture. Each has its own merits and works for the people within its environment. Working with the cultures – not against them – virtually guarantees success. In the same vein, trying to change culture or forcing project participants to work outside of their culture likely leads to project failure.