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Transcript from Episode 116: “How Best to Manage Projects in a Dispersed and Multicultural Workplace” with Melissa Lamson
Tell us a little about yourself, Melissa. How did you come into this world of inclusivity and diversity?
I started my career in diversity and inclusion, it was really interesting for me to think about how we could be more socially responsible to the communities that we live in and what that would look like from a corporate or company perspective. And I’ve been interested in that pretty much all my life. I came from a family of social change activists and it was always something that I was thinking about, it was top of mind. And when I started my career in the art world, I thought it would be just interesting to support artists and to look at and appreciate artwork from the perspective of what kinds of commentary and messages were being shared about community and society through art.
Then I started to get even more interested in doing some volunteer work on the side with “Let’s say Peace” organizations or organizations that supported parents or helping to eradicate poverty. And from there I started doing some reading and I realized that this was really my passion and I wanted to try to make some kind of career out of it. But I didn’t know 25 years ago what that career would be. So I did a Master’s in something called intercultural relations, which is the study of culture and how cultures interact. Primarily that was business-focused, and about cross-cultural global teams, how they can be more efficient and effective and successful. And then I’ve always sort of married the cultural differences, if you will, with the topic of diversity and inclusion because I don’t believe that you can leave out the power dynamics or the other dimensions of diversity from culture.
So, if you’re a woman of a particular age, of a particular culture, cultural or ethnic background, that will say something about you versus, you know, a man with a particular sexual orientation from also, again, another cultural background, so there are lots of dimensions there that make up a human being and therefore the way that they have preferences around interaction and work style, etc. In sum, today I work with leaders and also employees to refine professional skills and create more effective teams and I do that globally.
When we have such a variety, what’s a good starting point to bring everybody together?
Well, I like to always tie it back to culture and values in terms of the organization as well as maybe the team, so I think that if a company, kind of, grounds itself solidly in where we want to be known for as a company if you will, and how we want to operate and how do we want to present ourselves to customers and partners. I think we can use that as a starting point to then have conversations around what that means when we’re working in a global, cross-cultural, multidimensional, geographically diverse team.
And so, for example, if we say what we want to offer, maybe, offering the best service to our clients is a particular value or cultural principal of an organization. What does service mean and what does that mean across cultures and across other dimensions of diversity? So, I think to start with that and then open up for conversation around what are the three things we are going to do to operationalize that value within our team and what makes sense to us and in the markets that we serve. Then I think that’s an ideal way to start and then, of course, to carry through with those values and culture.
What other tools and methodologies could project management use across different cultures to ensure that we maintain that good path that we set out?
There are lots of tools and frameworks. I think any platform that is standardized to be used globally in terms of Microsoft projects, whether you’re using particular charts or time management tools. All of those are really useful from a tactical standpoint if you will. I think certainly the major platforms, especially today, they’re becoming more and more important. The major platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc.
Some of the better platforms to have that conversation or to be able to hold meetings around what you’re working on, from a project management standpoint. But the research shows that you know, 10 maybe, 10 to 15% of the time it is really a question of technical tools or methods in terms of getting project teams globally to work well together and it is really the people-focus that causes the potential downtime or miscommunication to get things done.
In this kind of multicultural setting, we can’t see the people’s eyes around the table with conference calls and video calls, how do you manage a disruption in the team, conflict or people saying “Yes, yes, yes, that’s done” maybe concealment when you know that in fact, it’s not. How can we manage that?
I guess a couple of different things. One of the things is really ensuring that when you’re starting up a project team that you don’t skip the stages of team and teams, in terms of forming, storming, norming, and performing. In that forming stage, you’re really spending time getting to know each other, understanding each other’s expertise, what they are bringing to the table. And then defining those roles and responsibilities and project tasks. So, oftentimes because we’re moving so quickly and we’ve got a lot of smart people on our teams, we just sort of make the assumption that “Ok, everybody knows what to do” or “We can just jump in and start working” and that can work but it’s certainly better to spend a little time sorting that all out and setting expectations up front.
So, when you do get into conflict, every team will go through it to some degree. In that storming phase, they may have some sort of debate or disagreement but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like to also say that if you have, in the forming stage a way of solving conflict already built-in, so when we have a conflict, this is how we are going to do to resolve it. That can be useful, too, I think when you are in that state where you’re hearing or feeling some push back or maybe everyone just being too nice, that you actually dig in and start to mine that conflict. Like what is going on and how do people feel?
And the more you open the questions I think it is important that you say instead of: “Is everybody doing well?” or “Are there any problems?”, you say “OK, what is it that we need to work through?” or “What could improve the way we’re working together?” or “What would be most efficient for this project?”. So you instigate more of a conversation to gather more data which also allows people to feel more included and engaged and part of the process of either solving or just creating more efficiencies.
How can you include people more at that stage, without calling out somebody?
That’s really tricky. I think in group settings that will work or could work more in North America and Northern European contexts, for sure, where people will feel as though they can jump in and participate and contribute. In other cultures, it may not be the norm or they may not feel as comfortable and generally across all cultures, if there is a conflict or some mistrust in the organization or team, then people may feel like they need the silence, to just keep their head down or it may be problematic for them. I think, in order to do that, I would have a lot more individual conversations.
So instead of having one meeting a week for an hour or two with the team, you really dial in each individual team member and say “Hey, I’d really like to get your perspective, what do you think, before we have the group meeting?”. And the best practice is that you should communicate three times more often, or let’s say three times intentionally with team members who are remote or virtual, then if you just have them in the same office because you have to replicate that bumping into people in the hallway of the coffee corner or water cooler, whatever it is. Sometimes those offline informal convos are some of the richest, so if you can mimic those throughout the week, in between meetings that will certainly up the trust level and also hope you got real information about this going on with the team in a project.
How do men and women behave? Do we work differently in this environment?
I don’t necessarily think that people operate differently in a remote environment from how they are. I think they bring your personality, culture, gender, and so on, to the table there. However, across the board it’s different because you don’t have the same nuances and you don’t get to see people’s eyes all the time, so you don’t know how they reacted or whether something is connecting. But some of the general tendencies and I am very careful here, not to stereotype, particularly today when gender is such a fluid, becoming more fluid and dynamic thing. I think this is what’s really interesting generally and how fluid all of this is becoming in terms of culture, gender, and sexual orientation, etc. But, in any case, I still believe there are differences where we are socialized differently, there are different expectations placed on us and how we communicate.
And I would say, generally, women do seek more harmonious interaction, they seek to console, they seek more to collaborate and oftentimes companies actually lean on those, what I call, feminine energies because of that listening element and that caring element. And that can translate very well, especially into a virtual or remote environment. With the more masculine energies, while those are also obviously an advantage because there’s more direct communication and there’s more emphasis on focus, decisions are potentially made more quickly, hierarchy is followed a bit more which can be really comfortable across certain cultures like just getting things done and be more direct as a leader. All of that, you know, both qualities, feminine and masculine, are really necessary and to master the skill of being able to flow between both and show up with both to your team which is most likely going to be a mixed team, is really useful.
Find out more about Melissa Lamson at lamsonconsulting.com