Company culture, especially in large corporations, is typically seen as machinations of soulless bureaucracy. Everyone’s afraid of upper-management and stakeholders, nobody trusts HR, and did we really need a Zoom meeting referendum on whether we should have more Zoom meeting referendums? Couldn’t that have been an email?
So yes, there are often a lot of flaws that come with overarching company culture and structural organization. Project managers, being simultaneously middle-management and ground-floor soldiers, need to be able to navigate this world of red tape bureaucracy while motivating and inspiring their teams to deliver the best results.
In this article, I’m going to lay out some ways that project managers can not only adapt to company culture, but ultimately better it as the bridge between workers and stakeholders.
Project managers need a thorough understanding of functional management, and helping workers utilize various productivity techniques to get the best out of everyone involved in a project. A project manager needs to be able to recognize the ways different people respond to different empowerment techniques and productivity strategies.
For example, studies show that millennial workers crave ongoing feedback. This doesn’t mean that millennial workers are praise-seekers, but that they’d prefer knowing how management judges their performance, and areas they can improve. For upper-management that treats workers like conveyor belts in a factory, it can seem tedious to have to give workers a “performance review” or qualitative feedback on an individual level.
This is where project managers come in. Project managers are in a much better position to build relationships with workers, and be able to pinpoint strengths and flaws of each individual person. So a project manager may need to recommend the Pomodoro Technique to one worker, and motivational quotes to another.
It’s very empowering to lead others to victory, but project managers often need to make sacrifices along the way. However, highly successful project managers often share a few key personality traits in common.
• Highly successful project managers are usually people-centric, which means they have the ability to connect with and manage people in different ways. A project manager knows when they need to be assertive, motivational, empathetic, aware of people’s needs, strong negotiation skills, and the ability to act as a go-between for workers and upper-management.
• A desire for improvement and staying current with productivity techniques, management platforms, and educating themselves through project management courses.
• A strong ability to piece together complex and even abstract pieces of information, and determine the best course of action. For example, figuring out the most productive platforms for specific projects, integrating workflows to new platforms, and figuring out what risks and hurdles stand in a project’s way. Project management is very much a “think quickly on your feet” sort of responsibility, while also having the ability to plan ahead and have contingency plans.
• All the most successful project managers have a strong work ethic instinct, and they lead by example. This trait will invariably rub off on team members, especially if workers see that the trait is authentic.
At the end of the day, a project manager’s success comes through others. This is the old “orchestra vs. conductor” trope, where people wonder just what the heck the conductor actually does.
The answer is pretty simple - the conductor leads the band, giving cues to each section to bring everything together smoothly and seamlessly. Have you ever seen a large orchestra without a conductor? It easily becomes cacophonic noise, rather than an organized symphony.
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Depending on their exact role, project managers act as team leaders, employee motivators, and middle-management. It’s a difficult balance for project managers to be in, depending on company culture, because it brings up the age old question of whether or not managers can be “friendly” or even “chummy” with employees.
Is it appropriate for upper-management to go out for drinks with the workers after office hours? Probably not. Is it appropriate for a project manager to do the same? Well that becomes a bit more nuanced and full of grey-areas.
Project managers have to be good team leaders and motivators - which means they need to be charismatic, personified, and sympathetic to legitimate complaints of workers.
On the other hand, project managers need to deliver results and communicate with upper-management, which means they can’t be too friendly with employees - only a bit more friendly and approachable than upper-management.
So in companies where employees feel mistreated or neglected by upper-management, project managers can either be seen as friend or foe by employees, when they really need to hover in the frenemy zone. Let’s give a concrete example.
Let’s say Tony is a project manager for a digital creative agency, responsible for a team of contractors that upper-management doesn’t often interact with. Upper-management expects results and views workers as commodities, while employees are very much human beings. Tony needs to be approachable and friendly with the workers, while still getting the best work out of everyone possible, to make upper-management happy.
A good project manager should be able to motivate and coach their team to success, and if everything is running smoothly, there’s absolutely no reason for them to not be on friendly terms with their team. However if a project manager resorts to bad management tactics, like micromanaging, pushing workers too hard, and replacing workers when they fall behind, the P.M. will quickly end up on the bad side of the workers, although upper-management might think nothing wrong of it.
So where ethics are concerned regarding the gap between employees and employers, project managers have to fill an in-between role in making sure workers aren’t being saddled with more than they can handle, which causes work-related stress, anxiety, and burnout.
Project managers need to sometimes have uncomfortable conversations regarding workplace culture with upper-management that the employees aren’t privileged to have. But they can’t do it too often, or else the project manager is being too friendly with the employees and taking stances against upper-management.
In today’s digital world when companies are more multinational than ever, project managers need to be able to understand cultural differences and expectations in the workplace. Certain social etiquettes may be expected when communicating with foreign clients, for example, and this also applies to remote workers in other countries.
Speaking personally, I once project managed for a translation company - which meant I needed to interact with contractors and clients from various nationalities. We had Germans, Italians, French, Brazilians, Koreans, Chinese, and many others.
This is workplace diversity taken to a whole new level. It was easy for me to witness different cultural attitudes regarding the workplace, and I needed to adjust my approaches to communication with clients and contractors depending on the nationality I was dealing with.
I’m not saying I went into Zoom meetings with Japanese clients in full kimono regalia. But for example, observing that Italians take their coffee breaks very seriously, and Germans are incredibly industrious during contracted work hours, but will typically refuse overtime hours. Some Asian cultures may find it shameful to say “I don’t know”, and reply to questions with diversions.
Not recognizing these cultural nuances in multinational workforces can make or break project success.
In companies with a multinational workforce, project managers need to be able to recognize cultural differences, and be able to meet workers and clients of different cultural backgrounds on neutral grounds. When you have a multinational company, either online-based or with physical offices around the world, project managers are often the intermediaries that need to understand and navigate through differences in vocabulary, interpretations, and misunderstandings.
Project managers need to be fluid and adaptable to specific contexts of corporate culture within any given company. Some companies may be laxer than others, but overall, every organization has its hierarchy, structure, and way of internally dealing with matters.
A successful project manager is able to identify these nuances in company culture, and operate within the parameters of both company culture, and national culture (especially in multinational companies, as mentioned above). Again, it’s a tight-rope balancing act between serving the needs of the stakeholders, and leading teams to success while acknowledging cultural differences amongst people.
For example, a project manager needs to be able to identify and work within these criterias of corporate culture:
⁃ Which stakeholders hold the most sway when it comes to organizational decision making? Will a project manager need to go through several layers of people for approval, or a single person?
⁃ What are the criteria (schedule, cost, quality?) and values that can possibly affect acceptance?
⁃ What are the best methods of communication between project managers and stakeholders? Zoom meetings, lengthy documents explaining details and processes, or short and concise updates?
After identifying these various nuances, a respected and successful project manager may be able to address flaws in certain aspects of a company’s culture, and discuss possible alternatives with upper-management that can increase productivity and benefit overall company culture.
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