Who am I? Analyze and understand your own culture first



As program and project managers, we are the ultimate task managers. We want everything done by the right people, in the right way, in the right time, for the right cost! Yet the human side of project management always seems to either be our lever, or be in our way! It gets down to communications, doesn’t it? And communications are only becoming more difficult when we are leading global teams with members from all over the world, some of whom we may never meet in person.

Yet our intercultural competence begins with a reasonable understanding of ourselves. Culture is a pattern for living. It is complex and abstract. It is the dominant shaping force on each of us. As the fish in the water is unaware of the water, we are unaware of the cultural rules that dictate our own patterns of interaction. We are members of multiple cultures. We must first understand ourselves and our own culture.

Using globally recognized intercultural models, analyze your own culture as a starting point for understanding. Once we understand our own culture, we can then begin to analyze, and finally understand other cultures, and the individuals within them. Finally, true cross-cultural understanding requires that the rules of culture be made explicit. Learn frameworks for understanding cultures and yourself.

Areas of Focus and Approach

Who Am I? Analyze and Understand Your Own Culture First presents a common sense approach to intercultural communications and competence for the global project manager. With the globalization of business, there has been a corresponding interest and growth in the body of knowledge comprising intercultural communications. Enter “intercultural communications” into an Internet search engine and over one million hits will appear! Although there is a broad range of information available, even the experts do not agree on common concepts. The global project manager will already have some knowledge of other cultures but may not have a strong conceptual framework from which to grow and continue learning. Therefore, the focus is on those foundational concepts useful and relevant for the global project manager. Understanding and applying the concepts presented here will help the global project manager to enhance his or her intercultural competence, critical to success as a global project manager in the borderless world.


Cultural intelligence is a new concept and builds upon the idea of emotional intelligence; the idea that it is important how an individual handles his or her emotions. Cultural intelligence is the capability to interact effectively across cultures. It takes time and effort to develop high levels of cultural intelligence, and some individuals may have greater potential than others. Components of cultural intelligence can be considered to be knowledge (of cross-cultural principles), mindfulness, and behavioral skills (Thomas & Inkson, 2003, p. 15). For our purposes, the terms cultural intelligence and intercultural competence can be used interchangeably.

To increase intercultural competence, we will adapt the following approach:

  1. The development of a global mindset,
  2. The development of self-awareness and knowledge of our own cultural preferences,
  3. The development of other-awareness (cultural values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors),
  4. Comprehensive cultural knowledge (social and business cultures), and
  5. The development of cross-cultural skills (Walker, 2003, pp. 34–36).

Our primary focus will be upon the development of self-awareness; you, the global project manager will start from the inside, out. In the interactive presentation, you, the global project manager will analyze your own culture using an international cultural model and see where it falls within a global spectrum. Learn your starting point for intercultural communications, and you will never think about culture in the same way again.

Our Learning Objectives

The key learning objectives for the global project manager are as follows:

  • To understand what a culture is and identify the multiple cultures in your work environment.
  • To understand the impact of cultures on the intercultural communication process and teamwork.
  • To learn how to identify your own culture, using a provided world intercultural model. Using the results of your own cultural analysis, to identify areas for further understanding and learning to advance your professional success.

Definition of a Culture

There are perhaps nearly as many definitions of a culture as there are cultures. Similarly, there are many diverse analogies used to describe a culture: an onion, an iceberg, or software programming! Mostly simply put, culture is something shared by members of a particular group. When defining culture, it is important to understand the difference between human nature, culture, and personality:

  • Human nature is universal and biological.
  • Culture is specific to groups and is learned.
  • Personality is specific to individuals, and is inherited and learned (Thomas, 2008, p. 28).

We can think of national culture, as the culture of an individual’s nationality. National culture is learned from an early age through interacting with one’s environment. Because national culture is so ingrained in an individual, it is considered to be the most influential force on an individual. Organizational culture is the culture of the organization (business) to which an individual belongs. Organizations attempt to define values and imprint those values upon their individual members. Finally, a co-culture or sub-culture is an additional group to which an individual belongs. It is important to note that culture is related to identity, this is one reason why individuals can be uncomfortable with other cultures, because it in some way challenges their sense of security or identity.

Importance to the Global Project Manager

Much of the expansion within the global business environment takes the form of projects, for example, an acquisition, an outsourcing of a product or service, the testing of a new market. After the initial project, the outcome of the project may be the permanent implementation of the product, service, organization, or new market into the enterprise’s ongoing operations. These initial temporary endeavors, i.e., projects, are most often managed by project managers, referred to here as global project managers.

For the global project manager, the importance of the ability to interact successfully with others outside his or her own culture is critical to the overall success of the project. The project manager achieves results by coordinating the efforts of others within a team structure. The team structure that the project manager crystallizes becomes its own culture with a common identity. A culture essentially can be considered to be the way that group adapts to solve problems together. For the global project manager, the team is typically comprised of individuals representing different national cultures. Intercultural competence then becomes a key competency for the global project manager and can be directly assessed using a variety of assessment tools.

Understanding Cultural Frameworks

Models for Understanding Cultures

There have been a number of models developed to facilitate the analysis, characterization, and understanding of cultures. Understandably, a greater amount of focus has been on national cultures, with perhaps increasing attention to the cultures of business (organizational cultures). While there is a significant amount of research available, none of the experts exactly agree, and some of them dispute the approach of other researchers. For this reason, it is important for the global project manager to focus on understanding the foundational concepts on which the models are based. Then the global project manager should select a model which is most useful to his or her own needs and business environment. It matters more that the model selected is understandable and useful to the global project manager, and potentially to the team, then whether or not it is the most widely accepted model.

Significant researchers and writers in this area of study include: E. C. Stewart (Samovar & Porter, 1991), and J. M. Bennett (Walker, 2003), Clyde Kluckhohn and F. Strodtbeck (Thomas, 2008) Edward T. Hall (1976), Geert Hofstede (2005, 2007a, 2007b), Charles Hampden-Turner (Walker, 2003), and Fons Trompenaars (1994). Brief explanations of two major models of interest for the global project manager are introduced here.

Cultural Dimensions by Geert Hofstede. Geert Hofstede is one of the most important and prolific authors on the subject of national cultures. Much of the work of subsequent researchers is derivative of Hofstede’s brilliant work. Hofstede’s studies identified and validated five independent dimensions of national culture differences:

  • Power distance (PDI),
  • Individualism (IDV),
  • Masculinity (MAS),
  • Uncertainty avoidance (UAI), and
  • Long-term versus short-term orientation (LTO), (Hofstede, 2007).

Controversially, Hofstede also statistically correlated the country scores on the five dimensions with data about the countries. For example, Hofstede correlated individualism (IDV) with the national wealth of per capita gross national product. Although in his writings, Hofstede himself admits his cultural bias; his books are an important cornerstone of cultural knowledge for the global project manager.

The Cultural Orientations Model: Another model that is more general and perhaps easier to understand is the cultural orientations model. The cultural orientations model has 10 dimensions:

  1. Environment: How individuals view and relate to the people, objects and issues in their sphere of influence
  2. Time: How individuals perceive the nature of time and its use
  3. Action: How individuals view actions and interactions
  4. Communication: How individuals express themselves
  5. Space: How individuals demarcate their physical and psychological space
  6. Power: How individuals view differential power relationship
  7. Individualism: How individuals define their identity
  8. Competitiveness: How individuals are motivated
  9. Structure: How individuals approach change, risk, ambiguity and uncertainty
  10. Thinking: How individuals conceptualize, (Walker, 2003, p. 57).

Distance between Cultures

Cultural distance is the measure of the degree of difference between two cultures. Cultural distance more specifically refers to how different each group member feels from other group members (Thomas & Inkson, 2003, p. 55). This concept makes sense to us because when we are very different from other people in a group, it is noticeable to them and to us. The greater the (psychological) distance between two cultures the more difficulty there will be in intercultural understanding. Experts in the field have tried to plot various national cultures on a graph (with cultural dimensions) or along a line. Distance between cultures then represents the diversity between the cultures. An example of how awareness of this concept is important for the global project manager is in the composition or management of the project team.

The Cultures in the World vs. the Cultures in Business

For the purpose of this paper/presentation, we will distinguish between national cultures (cultures in the world) and organizational cultures or business cultures. There is even a further cultural level in business often referred to as functional or departmental cultures, such as marketing. Just as the experts in the field may not agree on a model for understanding national cultures, there is even less agreement in the application of cultural models to business cultures. This could be because business cultural models are constantly evolving as businesses themselves evolve. Another reason could be because business cultures cross national boundaries. What is most important for the global project manager to understand is that a company is itself a culture; however, the company (or organizational culture) will have different meanings to individuals based on their national culture(s). In addition, the actual company culture may be difficult to identify because it may be different from the documented company values. Documented company values usually reflect management’s idealized culture, rather than the actual operating culture for decision making.

According to Hofstede, his five dimensions of national cultures, which are based on values, are not suitable for comparing organizations within the same country (Hofstede, 2007). Hofstede considered these two different fields of study, with national cultures belonging to anthropology and organizational cultures to sociology (Hofstede, 2007). Hofstede in fact created a new approach for organizational cultural differences along six dimensions:

  1. Process-oriented vs. results-oriented,
  2. Job-oriented vs. employee-oriented,
  3. Professional vs. Parochial,
  4. Open systems vs. closed systems,
  5. Tightly vs. loosely controlled, and
  6. Pragmatic vs. normative.

This is important to the global project manager because he or she is operating within the context of one or more organizational cultures, yet working with members of many national cultures. Awareness of what the company’s organizational culture is, and its meaning to individuals is needed. In addition, company practices may need to be made explicit or innovated for project success.

Interactive Exercises

Identifying Your Cultures and Membership

In the interactive presentation, as a starting point for assessment, each individual will explicitly identify their national culture and the co-cultures to which they belong. These different levels of culture could include: gender, generation, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexual orientation, corporation, work department, profession, and so on. Individuals do not tend to think of the groups to which they belong as cultures, and this exercise begins to awaken the mindfulness of observing and analyzing cultures.

These co-cultures are considered to be different levels of cultures, with national culture having the most influence, as it is the most ingrained. These different levels of culture then bring different levels of mental programming within individuals. It can be valuable to individuals to rank or prioritize the cultural levels to which they belong, and begin to identify the values and norms of their more important co-cultures. By developing this selfawareness and the ability to analyze their own culture(s) first, individuals can then develop the skills and awareness to observe systematically other cultures.

Analyzing Your Culture Using a Model(s)

The Hofstede model is perhaps the most well known of all of the cultural frameworks, and many of the other models are derivatives of it, breaking one of the dimensions down into further categories. With all the models sharing essentially the same core concepts, the model itself used is not significant, what is more important is the individual’s self-assessment. While individuals can read an analysis of their own culture according to a model, it is not until they think about themselves and their own values that they form a starting point for themselves. Therefore, it is the exercise of self-analysis which leads to self-awareness. As individuals gain skill, they can analyze other individuals within their teams, extending to stakeholders and customer groups. A recent publication provides many real-life experiences of using cultural differences models within the framework of global project management (Binder, 2007, pp. 251–252).

Each cultural dimension in the framework can be considered as a spectrum. Asking questions in the form of a self-assessment helps define where you and your (national) culture fall on the spectrum of the dimension. Only after you have a grounded understanding of your own weighting on the cultural dimensions spectrum, can you effectively analyze other cultures. From this starting point, you will be able to apply the model effectively to other cultures and adapt behaviors for cross-cultural effectiveness.

A global project manager can also self-assess his or her preferences as they relate to the cultures of business. A global project manager may find the greatest success and self-actualization in an organization in which he or she is an appropriate cultural match. Potential areas of self-assessment can include: organizational structure, organizational decision making, organizational pace, communication style, conflict style, approach towards innovation, ethical approach, pace of product development, and life cycle of business (McGarvie, 2009, pp. 196– 197).

In the interactive presentation, the self-assessment will focus on learning how to identify one’s own culture, using an intercultural model. Using the results of their own cultural analysis, each individual will identify areas for further understanding and learning to advance their professional success.

Understanding Intercultural Communication

Intercultural Communication in the Communication Process

The Link between Culture and Communication: The link between culture and communication is important to understand because it is through the influence of culture that individuals learn to communicate. Children learn to communicate in the same way others in their national culture do, not just in language, but in meaning. Culture cannot be isolated from the communication process, because it impacts both the communicator and the receiver of the message.

There are many different definitions and basic concepts in the field of cultural study which are referenced in the body of knowledge. For the foundational knowledge of the global project manager, some of the most significant concepts including culture as a private world, culture as a pattern for living, culture as mental programming, culture as a shared mindset, and the concept of worldview are shared here.

Communication Process: For the global project manager, an important key to success is awareness of the intercultural communication process. Global project managers understand the simple process of communications (sender, message, receiver, feedback), however, the process can be problematic when the two communicators are from different cultures. Potential barriers to effective communication in the intercultural communication process include:

  • Cultural frames: the window through which an individual defines him or herself, others and the world;
  • Ethnocentrism: Evaluating another culture according to our own;
  • False attributions: Attributing our own meanings to behaviours in other cultures which may not be correct;
  • Stereotypes: Generalizations that do not allow for exceptions;
  • Etiquette and nonverbal behaviours: Understanding the meanings of gestures, facial expressions and body positions requiring specific knowledge of a culture;
  • Other elements: Time and place, topic, status and power, style; and
  • Language: This can be a barrier even if individuals speak the same language, (Walker, 2003, p. 207).

The Layers of Culture

In a model of culture that is simple to understand, there are three layers represented in a circular ring:

  • The outer layer - explicit products,

  • The middle layer - norms and values, and
  • The core - implicit – basic assumptions about existence (Trompenaars, 1994, p. 24).

In this model, the explicit culture is what can first be observed about a culture, for example, the language, the food, the way people live, how the cities appear. It is probably because it is the most obvious that much of the literature related to cultural interaction focuses on this immediate layer. Prejudices mostly start on this symbolic and observable level (Trompenaars, 1994, p. 24). In the middle layer, norms refer to what a group (culture) treats as right and wrong such as written laws. This is in contrast to values which are the definition of good and bad. Values help individuals to make choices. Implicit culture, or basic assumptions about existence, is not visible and is, therefore, the most difficult to identify and understand.

Culture as a Private World

While our concept of culture tends to gravitate towards the idea of a group, or in business a project team, it is important to understand that for each individual, culture is a private world. The world each person creates for himself or herself is a distinctive world, not the same world others occupy (Samovar & Porter, 1991, p. 26). Individuals assign meaning to events and experiences based upon their own values and arrive at their own conclusions. It is these biases which constitute what has been called the “assumptive world of the individual” (Samovar & Porter, 1991, p. 26). This refers to the world inside each person’s head, a symbolic world which is the only world he or she knows. While some concepts of culture require the presence of two persons to create a culture, in this definition, each individual has his or her own unique culture, not fully accessible to others.

Culture as a Pattern for Living

Another important definition of culture is that culture is an all-encompassing form or pattern for living including perception, verbal processes, and nonverbal processes (Samovar & Porter, 1991, p. 14). Another way of understanding culture and its influence on intercultural communication is that culture influences patterns of thought. In fact, one of the definitions of culture is that it is a group’s common response to solving problems. In concrete terms for the global project manager, this means that he or she will need to understand that many patterns of thought exist and learn to accommodate them or leverage them for problem solving.

The Concept of Mental Programs and Mindsets

In terms of organizational behavior, culture can unknowingly influence individuals through mental programming and mindsets. Culture is a shared system of meanings which dictate what we pay attention to, how we act, and what we value, organizing meanings into mental programs (Trompenaars, 1994, p. 14). Within communication, and in organizations, how people behave is an enactment of their mental programs. This approach is described as phenomenological, which means that the way people perceive phenomena around them is coherent, orderly, and makes sense to them (Trompenaars, 1994, p. 14) .

Another classic term in this field includes the concept of “mindsets”—set ways of perceiving, reasoning and viewing the world that govern how events are evaluated and how decisions are made (Fisher, 1997, p. 2).

The Concept of World View

One of the most important concepts in the field is the concept of worldview. Worldview deals with a culture’s orientation toward such philosophical issues as God, humanity, nature, the universe, and the concept of being (Samovar & Porter, 1991, p. 16). Worldview issues are timeless and represent the most fundamental basis of a culture (Samovar & Porter, 1991, p. 16). The reason that the concept of worldview is so significant is that it influences beliefs, values, norms, attitudes, and uses of time and many other aspects of culture. Individuals in a culture are not necessarily aware of their own worldview, because it is so deeply imbedded, and there is a natural tendency to assume that others view the world as he or she does.

Practical Application

Models in Global Business – Individual Level

In global business and on an individual level, intercultural communication concepts are especially relevant to the global project manager. While once again, although the experts disagree, we can learn from the variety of conceptual understandings, processes, and tools they expound upon. There are a few key myths in intercultural communication which are valuable to understand:

  1. Myth: We’re Really All the Same: Although we share a common human nature and need for survival, due to culture individuals have fundamentally different ways of perceiving themselves, the world and their actions within it.
  2. Myth: I Just Need to Be Myself in Order to Really Connect: Although having good intentions can assist, simply retaining your own sense of identity does not guarantee success in intercultural understanding or communications.
  3. Myth: I have to adopt the Practices of the Other Culture in Order to Succeed: Individuals will need to adapt to other culture’s practices rather then necessarily adopt them and change your own fundamental perspective.
  4. Myth: It’s really all about Personality: Aspects of an individual’s personality, such as whether or not an individual is an introvert or extrovert can be attributed different meanings in different cultures. Therefore, personality alone does not guarantee success in intercultural interactions, (Walker, 2003, p. 203).

An additional incorrect belief is that it is sufficient to simply learn about the etiquette and business cultural practices of a specific country. While this is valuable information, without any context for understanding, the global project manager is left to memorize protocols, which are difficult to understand without context, or retain. An additional incorrect belief is that simply learning the language of another country will lead to cross-cultural understanding. Again, while language skills are valuable, without a cultural framework for understanding, an individual could still not be effective communicating. The development of a global mindset, self-awareness, and other-awareness are vital in addition to specific country and language knowledge. All of these elements together contribute to the cultural intelligence of the global project manager.

The Role of the Global Project Manager

As project managers we tend to rely upon our project management skills, planning, managing, and controlling, which produce the product of the project. But it is our “soft” skills (communication, understanding cultural differences, and team building) and the “informal” project management techniques (networking, influencing, and innovating) which are most essential for the success of global projects (Binder, 2007, p. xix).

There are three key areas in which cultural dimensions are defined to impact the global project manager: decision making, negotiation, and leadership (Thomas, 2008, p. 93). First, in terms of decision making, all decisions involve choices between alternatives. Many of these choices are made almost automatically by the global project manager because of culturally based scripts that he or she has (Thomas, 2008, pg. 93). Second, a significant part of every global project manager’s job is negotiation. Underneath every international negotiation that takes place is the process of cross-cultural communication (Thomas, 2008, p. 117). Third, as global project managers we need to motivate and lead individuals from different cultures. Motivation and leadership are heavily informed by culture.

While motivation theory and leadership theory have been studied and documented, much of the theoretical base of knowledge was developed in the West and may have limited applicability. The global project manager should ideally attempt to develop a cross-cultural model of leadership.

As global project managers, we can look across the project management framework and identify all of the touch points at which decision making, negotiation, and leadership are required of us. They are throughout the project management framework, from understanding the expectations of the stakeholders, to negotiating product requirements, to motivating the project team. While this scope may seem broad, it is perhaps more manageable for the global project manager to focus on continuing to improve his or her cultural intelligence, which will reap rewards across the project management continuum.

Our Learning Objectives – What We Learned

In summary, the first learning objective for the global project manager was to understanding what a culture is and to identify the multiple cultures in his or her own work environment. Next the global project manager learned the impact of cultures on the intercultural communication process and teamwork. Finally, the global project manager learned how to identify their own culture, using a generalized cultural framework. Using the results of the global project manager’s cultural analysis, areas for further understanding and learning to advance their professional success can be identified.

Binder, J. (2007). Global project management, communication, collaboration and management across borders. Hampshire, England: Gower Publishing Limited.

Fisher, G. (1997). Mindsets: The role of culture and perception in international relations. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, G. (2007a) A summary of my ideas about organizational cultures. Retrieved 11/22/2007 from www.feweb.uvt.nl/center/hofstede

Hofstede, G. (2007b) Geert Hofstede cultural dimensions. Retrieved 11/23/2007 from www.geert-hofstede.com.

McGarvie, B. (2009). Shaking the globe, courageous decision-making in a changing world. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Samovar, L. A., & Porter, R. E. (1991). Intercultural communication: A reader. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Thomas, D. (2008). Cross-cultural management, essential concepts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Thomas, D. C., & Inkson, K. (2003). Cultural intelligence, people skills for global business. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Trompenaars, F. (1994). Riding the waves of culture understanding diversity in global business. New York: Irwin Professional Publishing.

Walker, D. M. (2003). Doing business internationally, the guide to cross-cultural success. New York: McGraw-Hill.

© 2009, Anastasia Dzenowagis
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands



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