Working with Diverse Culture

When I was an engineer I mainly work with engineers from the Philippines and Japan. When I moved to my new company a few years ago, I started working with engineers from different countries around the world. At some point there were more 10 countries in the team.

As an Engineer, the programming language was our common language of communication. We share our thoughts in code reviews directly online. BUT as a project manager, I have to get information which are not necessarily code discussion and those are the times that can be a real challenge.

As an amateur on management I was lost most of the time. I did have some amazing mentors when it comes to Project Management but they also come from different countries which have different cultural background. Their style is still different and my team is also different. We need to find a balance and create our own team culture. Erin Meyer’s Book : The Culture Map is a lifesaver for me.

I’m not going be to discussing about the book, but how as a team we tackle each challenges and created our own culture.


What is communication? Well, according to Oxford “It is the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium”. Simple right? I wish.

When working with people with different cultural background, you need to set the ground rules for communication among the team members. As someone from Southeast Asia, I tend to be on the High-context side of communication. When I was an engineer, I did not to concern myself too much of this. The code speaks for itself, most of the time 😉 . I discuss technical things with fellow engineers based on the requirements and that’s it. BUT as a Project Manager, I need to talk to different stakeholders and most of the time they are not Japanese. Some are more direct than others and they don’t like to beat around the bush. Whether or not they are Japanese or Non-Japanese, I need to be able to communicate the project information as clear and direct as possible to avoid confusion.

BUT let me get back to the team. The leadership of the team was composed of members from France,Australia, Japan and Philippines. A good combination of High and Low context communication style. We cannot let our work/project suffer for lack of communication, so it was decided that when it comes the team will try to be as Clear, Precise and simple as possible (Low-Context). This means that wether the information is positive or negative, it will be shared the same way. Unfortunately, some people are not very good at dealing with Negative feedback (see next topic).

It was not an easy feat, but constant feedback from members and leadership slowly improved the communication style of the team. Of course the leadership have to make sure to set a vision/goal for the team and constantly follow it up. The support of management play a very important role in this as well.

On a personal note, when it comes to work I lean towards the Low-context style of communication but a personal matter, I tend to go back to Semi-High-Context style.

Culture Map, page 39
Low-Context : Good Communication is precise, simple, and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. Repetition is appreciated if it helps clarify the communication.

High-Context : Good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines. Messages are often implied but not plainly expressed.

Negative Feedback

“Mr. XY is absent again? We have a review about his module today. I guess I will have to reschedule this.” This happened more than once already so I escalated to the manager about this situation. During my consultation with the manager, I realized the day before we were sharing project situation and giving the good and bad situation to the team. Each member was ask why they were delayed and how we can find a way to get back on track. I was the only Non-Japanese in the team so we were not even using very direct communication. It was during these meetings that the next day, the engineer will always get sick. I was baffled by this situation and to test a theory, I tried to give him a negative feedback (in a nice polite manner) in our next sharing and sure enough , he was absent the next day.

I cannot call him out on this behaviour because that would be harassment and mean. We were also concern about his mental health. The project requires time and lots of effort since it CANNOT and MUST not be delayed. With the help of the leaders, it was decided to rotate some of the members of the team. It was a risky move for the project but a better option than having someone get sick because of negative feedback or too much stress of the project.

The change was actually a good decision. The engineer was taking less leave of absence, looking less stress and the project was released successfully.

It was an eye opener for me and a really good lesson to remember about how each individual manage negative feedback.

Negative Feedback if not given properly can cause great stress and even mental issue to the receiver. Reaction’s differ from person to person or culture to culture but sometimes, you tend to forget these things as you manage more and more members. One thing I do specially if it is a new team and I have not worked with them before is too set 1-1 meetings and explain that when I’m sharing negative feedback, I’m not trying to be rude or mean. I’m not attacking you as a person, I’m just sharing my observation with regards to the team and the project. But people tend to forget so you have to regularly remind them.

On a personal note, I’m not also very good with negative feedback. I always tend to get into a defensive mode instead of listening with an open mind. It does not make me sick but it does makes me angry and that anger push me to show that person that I can do better. The output is sort of okay but my process is still not admirable I guess :D. It’s still a work in progress for me, one day I will be able to handle it with ease.

I don’t think there is a proper guideline for this but trying to keep an open mind and calming tea always help 😉

Women in Leadership

“You are too aggressive!” The reaction from a male colleague after I was asking him about some project issues.

Looking back , I wonder if my colleague will say the same thing if the person giving him the feedback is a male. His reaction might be different but he left already so I will never know.

BUT there will be a chance that someone in your team will have issues about having women in leadership and it’s a sensitive topic and you will need management support. As a Project Manager, you are not a people manager so collaborate with your Manager or your Team’s manager in case this kind of issue happens.

On a personal note, I don’t like competing for leadership. If someone, male or female wants to lead the team, I will gladly give it to them. My only request is “Don’t come running to me when you mess this up !, Good Luck !”

Know what you are capable of, be confident and say what’s right but politely.

Cultural Background

“Idel-san, in India we usually take time to have some tea and interact with other members.” A colleague suddenly approached me while I was trying to be busy 😀

Me: No one is telling you not to have tea or talk with other people.

This was just a light conversation with a colleague from India who joined the team after about two months. Even the manager who was sitting near me popped in to join the conversation.

We all have different Cultural Background and sharing it with the team is a good way to get to know each other. You don’t need to be best-friends but it’s a good start to understand why a person acts the way he/she acts.

There was a time where a team in Tokyo have a “Weekly Tea-Time” where they spent at least 30 minutes sharing their countries traditional food and a relaxing chat before tackling some work.

Another one is Valentine’s day, even though most of the members are Japanese, we still celebrate it the Japanese way. Meaning the female gives the guys chocolate and by March it’s the opposite.

How does the management reacts to this? No violent reaction that’s for sure 😉

This kind of cultural exchange among the team actually strengthen the bond of each members and made them more comfortable to communicate with each other. With better communication works gets done faster , so productivity goes higher.

I’m not an expert on this subject. What I have written here are based mostly on my experience. A few books that have helped me are The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier and The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.

I will be working with different more people with different background in the days to come and it will still be a challenge and I will probably be pulling out my hair every now and then because of frustration BUT it’s all part of learning and Learning is always fun 🙂


Becoming a Project Manager

Idel, you have switch to the dark side .

Did I really? If you read my old intro page, I was a programmer or software developer by profession for around 15 years till , as my colleague said, switch to the dark side which is Project Management.

The BIG Question now .. WHY DID I SWITCH??

To say it bluntly, because it was something new for me and a BIG challenge. As a Software Engineer, I don’t have to deal with human interaction. I only need my PC , my code and as long as I have all the requirement needed I’m happy in nice corner of the virtual world writing my codes.

Why Project Management?

One thing I like about my company, is the opportunity to try other career paths. I mentioned to my manager that I was interested in Product Management moving forward with my career. I want to give it a try before deciding on becoming a tech lead.

BUT mid 2016, a project which some of my teammates are working on was in trouble. They needed someone to be able to communicate with the team in India, Tokyo and Osaka. Someone who understands the system and can speak both Japanese and English. It was a temporary thing. One week later, Project Sponsor asked me to be full time Project Manager for the project. It was a scary request since I don’t have any idea about the role itself. My choice was a “YES” or a “yes”. I choose the latter of course.

As Boss Panda mentioned ,” Try Fast, Fail Fast” I plunge head on and I have never looked back ever since.

What skills do you need to be a good Project Manager?

This is the very common question I get and to be honest I don’t have a direct answer. This always gives me a pause.

If you need to understand Project Management : PMP, Prince 2 and so on are all available online. There are also lots on training in Udemy , Pluralsight and so on. You can even get certificates to prove that you have the basic knowledge. I don’t have those certificates except for the one offered in the company itself.

BUT is it enough to say you are a good project manager? Definitely not.

Success of the Project is of course the priority as a PjM BUT how you get there is also important. PjMs are not people manager BUT we need to work closely with all the stakeholders so having a good communication , trust among each member is one of the things we need to established.

We work closely with different managers to keep the team motivated, resolve any conflict. We also need to gather information timely to make decision making faster and accurate as possible. We need to be aware of each member cultural background to avoid stepping or offending someone’s culture.. etc. These are just some the interpersonal skills that I have to cultivate to improve.

You need to find a balance between your hard and soft skills to make sure you are leading the project team in the right direction. In this regards, it’s a constant improvement. I’m constantly learning from all the people I have worked with.

Will I ever go back as an Engineer?

As of this writing, maybe not BUT even though I don’t write codes anymore, I still prefer working with Software Engineers and learning about new technologies they are working.

It’s fun working with different team and different individuals. Being a PjM, I get to be able to do this. It’s not easy, it’s even frustrating and annoying sometimes that you want to pull out your hairs. But at the end of the day, you work together as a team and deliver something good.

What’s next for you?

Since last year, I have joined in-house training group to train employees in Project Management. This was also another challenge which I enjoyed a lot. It was scary, giving training, mentoring members and even giving final reviews. BUT meeting all these people, working with different senior project managers is really a great way to learn. Everyday you learn something new, for now that is enough, who knows in the next few years.

Till then.