Project Management Institute


cultures crossing



Variety might be the spice of life, but sometimes even the simplest cultural misunderstandings can sabotage a project team's solidarity, as Ray Wu, PMP, recently learned.

The doctoral candidate in management at the University of Phoenix, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, recently worked on an IT outsourcing project with Tata Consulting Services in India. Team members from India traveled overseas for training on the company's organizational culture as well as its IT system. During the process, one Indian team member kept shaking his head from side to side.

This gesture has very different meanings for the two cultures.

“The American manager thought the Indian man was disagreeing with him,” says Mr. Wu, whose dissertation is on cultural and emotional intelligence. “The manager lost his cool and scolded the Indian team member and spoke with the Indian-based office supervisor about the incident.”

The outburst and lingering tension were unnecessary, of course. One key piece of the emotional intelligence puzzle was missing. “In the Indian culture, shaking your head is like saying, ‘Yes, I am listening and agreeing,’” he explains.

The relationship between the manager and team member was damaged before it even really had a chance to develop. “Other team members were present and overheard the exchange, making it difficult for the Indian team member to stay without losing face,” Mr. Wu adds.

With so many organizations taking advantage of globalization and project teams becoming increasingly diverse, successful project managers must perfect their ability to read facial, verbal and physical cues that reveal how a person is feeling—a skill known as emotional intelligence. And it's no longer sufficient for project managers to simply have a solid grasp of emotional intelligence; they must know how to be emotionally intelligent across cultures.

“Emotional intelligence is the foundation for all leadership and project management, but it's absolutely critical with global teams,” says Sheila Madden, senior vice president for global talent management, GlobalEnglish, Brisbane, California, USA. Her firm operates in 17 countries around the world and provides digital on-demand solutions to help organizations develop their employees’ business English skills. “Emotional intelligence is critical to engaging diverse team members. If the team is engaged, you maximize innovation, creativity and productivity.”

Without it, assumptions are made, team members get offended and projects derail.

“When working with a global project team, cultural misunderstandings can cost an enormous amount of money in terms of time lost, failing to deliver what the client needs and lost future business,” Ms. Madden says.


img TIP Take a step back. “Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense emotions in a project team and defer one's own emotions for a better outcome—instead of being temperamental in a situation, for example,” says Ray Wu, PMP, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.


As Mr. Wu learned, “an innocent gesture in a certain culture may feel highly offensive for a member from another culture,” says Shahul Korikkar, PMP, IT operations and data center head for petroleum titan Emarat, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

With so many different cultural nuances spanning the globe, it's virtually impossible to be familiar with them all. “That's where emotional intelligence is just so critical,” Ms. Madden says. “Having the foundation of emotional intelligence allows you to recognize what you don't know as well as what you do.”

Emotional intelligence is about behavioral competencies—which can be learned, developed and coached—rather than emotions. Those competencies include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Project managers must have a good grip on these before they can understand and work with multicultural teams.

Self-awareness involves knowing your strengths, weaknesses and natural biases, says Anthony C. Mersino, PMP, author of Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers: The People Skills You Need to Achieve Outstanding Results [AMACOM, 2007]. “You have to be able to see yourself as others see you,” adds Mr. Mersino, IT program manager and president of Project Advisors Group, a consultancy based in Northfield, Illinois, USA that specializes in troubled program recovery and emotional intelligence for project managers. He personally has learned to adjust his high-energy personality when working with individuals from cultures that tend to be less direct and more discrete, like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Project managers should solicit feedback and advice from team members regarding their strengths and weaknesses related to emotional intelligence, Ms. Madden suggests. “Emotional intelligence gives people the confidence to say things honestly. For example, tell them, 'I feel really uncomfortable in this particular situation, and I know you do this really well, can you give me some guidance?’” she says. “Engage people in collaborative, real-time development.”


img TIP Get it in writing. To better predict and manage cross-cultural emotions, put together an operating agreement that details how the team will work together, says Sheila Madden, Global English, Brisbane, California, USA. it should address issues such as conflict resolution, how issues are escalated, how often updates are given and communication tools.



When working with culturally diverse teams, project managers must balance the study of a specific culture's typical gestures, personality traits and emotional tendencies with getting to know team members on an individual level.

To get a grasp on cultural mores, all that's needed is a bit of curiosity and some initiative. “Call someone up from the particular country and ask, ‘What are the key things I need to know?' Go online and find out about a region,” Ms. Madden says. “Find out the right way to ask questions, the right words to use, the right communication channel to use, and if you should ask things in a direct or indirect way.”

As for team members, project managers must engage with them one-on-one. “As you get to know each other, and as team members open up, they will talk about their upbringing,” Mr. Wu says. “That's an opportunity for the project manager to ask questions about their culture.”

That's just the beginning. Once a culturally diverse team is brought together, the emotional intelligence radar has to switch into high gear. In group situations, that requires “asking questions, observing who jumps in and who doesn't, and who you have to put in some more effort to engage,” Ms. Madden says.

When dealing with a team member who is less responsive and more subdued, project managers should:

  • Use empathy and engagement to understand the source of the lack of engagement. Is it cultural? A lack of common language? “You can't come up with the right solution without knowing the real source of the issue,” Ms. Madden says.
  • Assuming the issue is cultural, approach the person privately and share your observations. “Let them know that you value and need their opinion and input, and want to partner to find a way for their contributions to benefit the team,” she says. “It is also important to honestly communicate that collaboration is a requirement.”
  • Create a safe environment. “Provide training and compassionate, heartfelt discussions about what would work best for them relative to participating,” Ms. Madden says.

When misunderstandings do arise, be proactive. “Discuss and resolve them as soon as they are noticed,” Mr. Korikkar says.

Encourage team members to learn about their peers’ cultural idiosyncrasies and how those might influence their thoughts, speech and behavior. Discourage ethnocentricity by explaining its consequences and how one's own social environment can lead to misguided views of other cultures.

“Ethnocentricity leads team members to develop an ‘us and them’ mentality over time that is adverse to team cohesion and degrades synergy in daily interactions,” Mr. Wu says.



By asking questions about team members’ personal lives and interests, project managers will inevitably find commonalities, whether it's children of the same age or interest in the same sports team.

—Anthony C. Mersino, PMP, Project Advisors Group, Northfield, Illinois, USA


Cross-cultural emotional intelligence is a necessary qualification for a true team leader. The good news is that it can be developed.

“Emotional intelligence is not innate, but it can be improved,” says Ray Wu, PMP, a doctoral candidate in management in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.

Sometimes, though, your own upbringing can stunt its development, argues Shahul Korikkar, PMP, Emarat, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Here are six ways project managers can nurture these skills:

1. Approach multiple cultures as project risks. “One risk is someone's sudden resignation, often caused by irreconcilable differences from the rest of the team,” says Mihaela Vlad, CAPM, IREX, Braila, Romania. “Another risk is the project manager's incapacity to bulld a cohesive team because of too many differences.”

2. Be empathetic. Put yourself in others’ shoes. On one project, Anthony C. Mersino, PMP, Project Advisors Group, Northfield, Illinois, USA, worked with members of an offshore development team from India who have a daily 90-minute bus commute. “Typically, you wouldn't hesitate to ask someone to come in early or stay late every once in a while to meet a deadline,” he says. “Culturally, individuals from India often have a difficult time saying no. We could have really inconvenienced them with something we usually wouldn't think twice about unless we knew about them and their housing situation.”

3. Simplify the language. Avoid slang and colloquialisms, and instead incorporate written messages with visual representations like charts and diagrams as often as possible, Ms. Vlad suggests. “Without common language, we don't have the potential to use emotional intelligence,” adds Shelia Madden, GlobalEnglish, Brisbane, California, USA.

4. Find common ground. By asking questions about team members’ personal lives and interests, project managers will inevitably find commonalities, whether it's chlidren of the same age or interest in the same sports team, Mr. Mersino says.

5. Help team members feel relaxed and at ease. Icebreakers early in the project work well. Try asking each team member to share his or her worst job experience. “It's a way for people to connect and let their guard down,” he says.

6. Take an interest in the culture. On his current team, Mr. Mersino works with several people from Russia who frequently speak to one another in Russian. He's taken the initiative to learn some of the language and to use it with them. “They can't believe someone would take the time do that,” he says. It's also considerate to send a simple greeting on special days like national or religious holidays, Ms. Vlad says.

Failing to tune in emotionally can have widespread effects, including low group cohesion, decreased productivity, communication avoidance and flock mentality, he adds.

“Not taking emotions into account when managing cross-cultural teams leads to team members feeling unvalued and uncomfortable,” adds Mihaela Vlad, CAPM, Braila, Romania-based regional training coordinator for IREX‘s Biblionet, a five-year program to develop a modern public library system.

Globalization has shrunk the business world, making multicultural emotional intelligence a must. Remember: In China, the loudest duck gets shot— but in the United States, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. PM

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