A Product Manager’s quest for Cultural Awareness

Have you ever wondered what Cultural diversity is and why you need to care about that? I am pretty sure the answer is yes but haven’t given a lot of thought specifically on Cultural Diversity.

In this age of Globalization, many of us have worked in truly diverse and multicultural teams across the globe. As a product person I am privileged to have worked with teams or team members hailing from Canada, US, Mexico, Lithuania, China, Pakistan, Srilanka and many other European countries. I was introduced to the topic of Cultural Diversity in my Organizational Behavior class during my MBA. Even though I was aware of most of the cultural differences, yet I had my preconceptions that led to confusions and awkward discussions with team members and sometimes with my bosses. Gone are the days of culturally homogeneous teams where like-minded individuals worked towards a common goal.

Organizations are moving towards heterogeneous, culturally diverse teams because by bringing together individuals with different backgrounds and perspective, they are creating a competitive edge in the market.

However, ineffective leadership and cultural amnesia can blunt that advantage and lead to team conflicts and misunderstandings. Quite often at our workplace, we start differentiating “Us vs them” based on how people from different cultures behave or act. Many product managers judge their Developers or QA’s based on what they see and then think of ways to correct them. Somewhere in our subconscious we already assume that “We are right” and things need to be fixed because that’s what managers ought to do. Our misbeliefs stop us from building a great team and becoming a great product manager. Out of the many nuances that I have seen I will share few of them.

  • I had a pretty diverse product team. One of the developers was from an East Asian origin. I had always seen him disengaged or reluctant to speak in Scrum rituals like Daily Standups, Planning or Retrospectives. In one of our one-on-ones, I was surprised when he said most of the team meetings did not have a structure and quite often discussions go in tangents. I asked him why he doesn’t express his opinions or raises concerns and to that he mentioned that he never gets the opportunity to speak in those meetings. Also, he doesn’t feel comfortable cutting off other teammates when they are speaking. In their culture they wait for someone to finish their sentence or thought else it would be considered disrespectful.
  • As a Product manager working with other Product managers on a larger solution in a bank, my manager once called me out for my mistakes in front of my peers and leadership team. I was completely taken aback and thought that my manager was insensitive and mean. What he was trying to do was to be honest, transparent and help me, and my team improve. In India reprimanding someone or providing negative feedback is reserved for private discussions. Anything like that in the public domain is unthinkable.
  • A Canadian business analyst working for a Japanese car manufacturing company quit his job three months after joining. He wasn’t comfortable working for a manager who was micro-managing and very detailed oriented. She used to make him do numerous revisions of the product requirement document even for a rough draft.Their team policy for punctuality was that anyone who is late to work, even by 5 minutes, should send an email to the whole team apologizing for that. Unfortunately he had to do that almost once every week.

The Culture Within

Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher had coined the term ‘global village.’ He believed technology would transform human inter-connectivity and eventually shrink the world into a village. In today’s date it’s true that people have all the information in their fingertips, and any big city is a microcosm of all the world’s cultures. I have known a Product Manager who has lived and worked in more than 9 countries around the world. He was quite confident of being culturally prudent and could handle conflicts arising out of cultural diversity. Interestingly he used to complain about not getting the same amount of respect from his subordinates in Canada as he used to get in East Asia. Most of us are deeply immersed in the culture in which we are born, or we were brought up. So we keep holding our biases and stereotypes without having an inkling that they are etched in our brain.

Cultural differences create the biggest roadblock to communication and team productivity eventually leading to conflicts. As a product manager we need to possess the skills to manage multicultural teams. To effectively manage a multicultural team and make it a high performing team. Product managers need to be aware of the cultural diversity and should be competent to handle sensitive issues constructively.

Misconception

Cultural Diversity is not always equal to Team Diversity

People often confuse themselves with the different aspects of diversity. A team might have diversity based on gender, age, faith or any disability but not on Ethnicity or Culture. It’s fair to say that diverse teams are not always culturally diverse. We need to delineate hype vs truth when it comes to workplace diversity and inclusion. We need to fight our stereotypes and find ways of eliminating these cultural blocks before they become part of institutional biases.

Cultural Dimensions

In the 1970s, Dr Geert Hofstede in his seminal work on comparative cultures came up with a framework defining different dimensions that reflect the impact of culture in the values of the people of that society. It also defines the affinity between those values and individual’s behavior both inside and outside the workplace. This was a result of a massive survey that he conducted in 50 countries involving 117,000 IBM employees studying the differences in national values of transnational corporations around the world. Before diving into the 6 cultural dimensions it’s important to understand what culture means. There are so many different definitions of culture but the one that sticks with me is:

“Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.” (Hofstede 2005)

The cultural dimension framework helps provide a comparison scale for all the countries based on their cultural aspects. One can go into the details in this website: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries

A careful perusal of all the dimensions help us develop a better understanding of ourselves as well as of others in a multicultural workplace or team. However from a Product Manager’s perspective, I would use the Pareto rule and highlight the most important two dimensions that lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.

Power Distance

“Power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” The basic assumption behind this index is that people in our society are not equal and the perception towards these power inequalities changes from culture to culture.

As you can see that the centralization of authority is completely different between high and lower power index countries. So a team member comfortable with a strong hierarchy might not offer any opposing opinion, creative idea or even raise concerns about leadership or company policies. In a low power distance country where participative culture is promoted, such a behavior would be considered as non-committal, reserved or elusive.

In a high power distance country such as India, subordinates expect their bosses to give them direction and believe that great leaders are supposed to be the ones with all the answers. One of my Canadian friends frustrated with managing a team in India says that all the problems in his teams are being pushed up and he has been trying desperately to push them back to the team. While working with teams from USA, UK or Canada one can notice a lot of pro-activeness among team members in tackling problems before going to their managers. Also, in such countries individuals who would be impacted by any decision are being consulted before the decision is being made unlike high power distance countries.

In many Easy Asian countries its a common notion that “Boss is always right.” As they say, it’s a reciprocal obligation. A typical boss protects the subordinates, coaches them and takes care of their interests in return for their loyalty and diligence. In these countries a person’s reputation, dignity, honor in the community or workplace is of paramount importance. So rebuking someone in public or blaming an individual in front of their peers is considered as “losing face” (In Japanese: mentsu wo ushinau). So Chinese, Japanese and other East Asian countries try to avoid any embarrassment that might lead to losing face. When an American factory manager fired one of his Chinese supervisors in front of his peers, he lost their trust. On digging deeper into this he understood that he should have done that in private and help save the supervisor’s face.

Few years back when I was working in India my boss had asked me to fill up a 360 degree survey for him. I was confused and not sure what would be the repercussions if I provided an honest feedback. Not only I but the whole team shared the same feeling. Any bad feedback could be a career limiting move. In most western countries 360 degree feedback is not only encouraged but the feedback is sometimes shared with the whole team.

Managing Power Distance

a. Product Managers should encourage open forums for discussing product decisions, scope or project related feedback from team members. This might be quite common in low power distance countries such as Denmark or the Netherlands but not in countries such as UAE, Egypt, China or Brazil

b. Build trust among individuals from high power distance cultures by letting them know that speaking up would not call for any punitive measures. Opinions from team members would always be appreciated and taken into consideration. Psychological safety always helps individuals to share their thoughts with others in a workplace.

Uncertainty Avoidance

This index measures the extent to which members of a culture tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty about future events. It should not be confused with risk avoidance. This index helps understand people’s liking towards controls, rules, regulations or unpredictability, unstructured and ambiguous situations.

In High uncertainty avoiding cultures the uncertainty in life is considered as a continuous threat that needs to be taken care of urgently. That’s why such cultures have rigid behavioral codes and beliefs and non-conformist ideas are not tolerated. When there is any challenge that needs to be dealt with, people often talk in circles because they tend to be careful about the emotional state of other people involved in the decision making. Eventually, they tend to find a consensual solution without upsetting anyone. In a low uncertainty avoidance culture, challenges are mostly dealt head on in an objective manner with lesser concern for someone’s emotional state. Due to the low risk tolerance attitude, decision making also differs between the two cultures. A manager in Japan or Greece would be interested in all the available data, statistics and feasibility studies to detect and eliminate the risk factors involved in any project. On the other hand a Swedish manger would go ahead with the project knowing that things might change.

In 1996, Gouttefarde compared the values of French and American management styles trying to understand the difference between the two styles. French culture had high uncertainty avoidance compared to the American culture. Therefore, French leaders were less likely to fire long-time employees whom they considered as stable forces for the company.

Uncertainty Avoidance & Stress

When a team member hailing from a high uncertainty avoidance culture is put in a role that has no clear goals and no clear leadership direction then he/she is more likely to experience tension or stress.

Managing Uncertainty Avoidance

a. Raise social awareness within the team about the importance of culture and ownership. Actively integrate diversity management so that minority groups shouldn’t feel alienated.

b. Managers should understand the level of uncertainty tolerance of the team members and tailor tasks that conform to their values and beliefs.

c. Provide autonomy with explicit boundaries so that individuals with high uncertainty avoidance can feel comfortable to take control of situations instead of relying on their managers.

d. Include team members in decision making, which will help enhance their feeling of control during chaotic situations.

e. Encourage direct communication between team members so that misunderstandings do not lead to escalations.

Conclusion

As a product manager we need to understand that cultural values are deeply ingrained in a person’s mind and it is very strenuous to find out one single way of managing a melting pot of culturally diverse teams.

First, we need to understand our own culture and its beliefs and values. We need to examine the biases, stereotypes, prejudices that we have been harboring in our subconscious mind.

Secondly, “One size fit all” ideology for communication and leadership strategy would not work everywhere. It’s easier said than done but Product managers have to develop the ability to sense cultural cues. They have to act as cultural brokers. In an HBR article, Sujin Jang beautifully describes cultural brokers :

“Who are these cultural brokers? They’re team members who have relatively more multicultural experience than others and who act as a bridge between their mono-cultural teammates. These brokers come in two profiles. First, they can have multicultural experiences that map directly onto the cultures they are bridging between. For example, in a team with mostly Indian and American team members, a cultural broker could be someone with experience in both Indian and American cultures. I call such individuals cultural insiders. The second type of cultural broker is someone with experience in two or more cultures not represented in the team — say, Australian and Korean. I call such individuals cultural outsiders.”

Lastly, learning Cultural Humility will help us build the cultural competence to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds in a reciprocal manner. Below is a documentary by San Francisco State professor Vivian Chávez on the principles of Cultural Humility:

As a product manager I strive to eliminate my cultural blind spots, false assumptions and act as a cultural broker. If you have experienced cultural diversity at your workplace then please share them in comments.

References

1. Cultures and Organizations. Software of the Mind: Geert Hofstede,1991, Maidenhead, U.K.: McGraw-Hill.

2. Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context, Hofstede, G. (2011).

3. The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business; Erin Meyer, PublicAffairs 2014.

4. Indulgence and Long Term Orientation Influence Prosocial Behavior at National Level; Qingke Guo, Zhen Liu, Xile Li and Xiuqing Qiao , Frontiers in Psychology, Sep 2018

5. National Culture and New Product Development: An Integrative Review; C Nakata, K Sivakumar — The Journal of Marketing, 1996 — JSTOR

6. Navigating the Cultural Minefield, Erin Meyer, HBR, May 2014

7. When Culture Doesn’t Translate, Erin Meyer, HBR, October 2015

8. The Most Creative Teams Have a Specific Type of Cultural Diversity, Sujin Jang, HBR, July 2018

This post has been published on www.productschool.com communities.