Dealing with cultural diversity in project management

a dilemma in communication

Purpose/Main Theme

This paper attempts to pinpoint some of the problems that project managers' encounter especially with people that come from other cultures. Verbal and nonverbal communication problems will be highlighted, a model will be developed and analyzed, and a proposed solution given. Attempt will be made to examine some of the cultural issues with women from other countries who work with us and how well they should be understood and treated in order to manage conflict effectively. And there will be an interesting discussion on how Gen Xers, Veterans, and baby boomers from different cultures should work well together more than ever before in order to set good examples for Nexters who will be managing different projects in the near future.


Multiculturalism in project management in the 21st century is an issue that project managers must focus their attention on in order to be successful. Thorough understanding of other people from other countries that work with us is a challenge that almost all project managers face daily. And this creates problem in management because of the varied levels of misunderstanding. Instead of running away from this problem, it must be viewed as a challenge or a positive thing and be embraced.

Managers communicating with their team members, stakeholders or sponsors spend a highly significant amount of time (approximately 90%), scheduling and attending meetings, planning, analyzing risks, negotiating and resolving conflicts to mention a few. Generally, project managers are not educated or attuned to cultural diversity.

Culture can be defined as a shared set of attributes of any group, by which this group organizes its living together, its environment and its solution to the questions of the society. There are distinct features in which cultures differ from each other: the national character, perception, thinking, language, nonverbal communication, values, behaviors and social grouping to mention a few. Today, our society is so diverse and no doubt has resulted in creating numerous problems for an average project manager. Usually, the problem with verbal and nonverbal communication within a team is not only caused by the reluctance of Project Managers (PMs) to learn about the cultures of members of their team but also is as a result of the “cultural arrogance” of people from different parts of the world who found themselves in these countries and carry with them or loaded with their own ideas, terminology and ways of doing things and do not want to respect the values of their adopted countries.

Minority women come from all parts of the World and many of them are very visible in our workplaces. Some of the traits they display at work are shown below:

•   Standing up when a project manager comes to them for questions or issues.

•   Looking down when a project manager is talking to them is a sign of cultural respect as supposed to shyness!

•   Not interrupting when a PM is talking.

•   Not complaining even when things are not going on well on the project.

•   Not arguing with you: this does not necessarily mean they understand what you have said or that they are in agreement with you.

The points above if not well understood by project managers usually constitute serious problems.

Another dimension to workplace issue today is the examination of four generations below:

•   Veterans: It is generally believed that this group belongs to people born between 1922 to 1943.

•   Baby boomers were born between 1944 and 1960.

•   Gen. Xers were people born between 1961 and 1980.

•   Nexters were born between 1981 and 2002.

Many of us in USA, belong to the first two groups, which are arguably not as diverse as the last two groups. Most project management problems that have to do with both verbal and nonverbal communication today is as a result of the reluctance of the first two groups to properly understand the differences of their teams' varied composition.

Gen Xers are culturally diverse and were born to working women. This group perceives the world more differently than the first two groups and usually does well in understanding issues with multiculturalism and is better able to resolve conflicts quickly.

Nexters are highly cultural and may be the most productive of all the groups. They need little or no need for diversity training because they have grown up with it. They constitute about 45% to 55% of the current workforce.

Project managers—it is this last group of people that we really need to set good examples for in order that the workplace of tomorrow will be better than what it is today.

Gen. Xers should be ready and willing to cooperate with baby boomers and veterans still left in the workforce to make the future of Nexters a better one.

We all owe it to each other to do our best today in order to improve tomorrow. This will result in a win-win situation for everyone us in terms of increase workplace productivity, effective communication, meeting deadlines, cost reduction and tension-free environment.


Everyday in workplaces throughout the world, misunderstandings develop among different people working for the same company and this is usually as a result of the way people treat each other or interpret each other's comment.

Cross-cultural literacy involves openness to change and flexibility.

The United States Bureau of Statistics reports that women and people of color will represent approximately 70% of net new entrants to the workforce by the year 2008! Project managers, is it not important for us to understand the best way to manage these people!

More than ever before, the World is now a global village and there is a constant migration of ideas, people and information across different geographical boundaries.

Often Project Managers are faced with an enormous task of dealing with a lot of people from different countries with varied colors, cultural beliefs, and ideological/religious background coupled with different accents. Questions for consideration by an average Project Manager regarding the team should be the following:

•   How do I interact effectively with people in my team?

•   Do I give a particular person an opportunity to work on my team?

•   How will these people from different races interact on the project?

•   What is the best way to handle communication among the team who happens to come from different Countries?

•   How do I resolve cross-cultural conflict among them?

Meaning to the Audience: Why do They or Should They Care?

For effective communication, project managers should be aware of the culture and needs of the people in their team.

What Problems Are They Having?

•   Majorities of Project Managers do not understand the culture of the people they work with.

•   There exists a vacuum in channeling communication among team members especially when there are conflicts.

•   Sometimes Project Managers ignore the needs of the team members.

•   Misinterpretation of ideas and opinions usually arise among various people within the team, which ultimately leads to project delay and or poor quality product delivery.

What Opportunities Are They (PMs) Missing?

•   People all over the World are very easy to deal with. However, it is good to understand a little bit about their culture.

•   Better understanding of different races opens the door for improved team communication and effective project management.

How Can This Subject Help?

•   Create a better awareness for an area in cross-cultural communication that is usually ignored or overlooked by many projects managers.

•   Help project managers think globally as opposed to focusing only within their locality.

Analogy (Culture Variables?)

Accent: The way American pronounces things like water, computer, forty is different from the way they are pronounced in other countries of the World. Americans write 40 as forty whereas it is fourty in Britain. The same thing goes for color, which is colour in England.

Anybody that pronounces or writes contrary to what you believe would be said to have an accent or do not write well. All these minor differences should be noted when writing or communicating to people in other parts of the world.

Silence: People from some cultures like Nigeria, India, Japan to mention a few, feel comfortable with silence and discreetness, particularly with confidential information. They particularly admire someone who gives careful thought before answering questions or making a point. Americans talk to share feelings, Afro-Asians keeps quiet to share feelings. For North Americans, silence represents a breakdown in communication; for the Indians and Africans, silence represents harmony in communication.

A Japanese proverbs says, “Those who know do not speak—those who speak do not know,” whereas in the western world, silence is seen as embarrassing and is quickly filled up with speaking.

The British way of speaking quietly might be understood as secretive by Americans.

Saudi Arabians usually lower their voices when talking to us as a sign of respect but an American PM will try unconsciously to raise his voice in order to signal to the Saudi Arabian person to speak up and this is interpreted by the Saudi person as screaming.

Gestures: A pointed finger or waving is considered an insult in Greece, Nigeria, Ghana or India whereas, this is not so in other cultures. Snapping your fingers is considered vulgar in Belgium and France; it's a pastime in the United States. Pointing the soles of your feet in the direction of a Thai will offend, but dropping your feet up on the desk of a Canadian may show camaraderie and relaxation.

Eye contact: In many African Countries, for example Nigeria, to show respect an employee may look down or away from his or her manager. In USA, Canada or Britain, employees show respect and confidence by maintaining eye contact with a boss to show interest and attention. Avoidance of eye contact in USA, Canada or Britain to mention a few may indicate low self-esteem, shyness, dishonesty, evasiveness, disrespect or boredom.

Be alert to watching gestures of others and aware when those of other cultures seem offended at your own gestures. Better, if you plan to visit a particular country, study a travel guide for appropriateness in gestures.

To be a competent project manager in the 21st century, there is the need for intercultural competence acquisition for project managers. Project Managers should be motivated to communicate effectively with someone from a different culture other than their own.

Project Managers should allow their attitudes to be challenged by recognizing that the other person has the freedom and the right to be different, whatever their opinion is. (Should they? Or should they be aware of the differences, tune in to them, but help the entire team to foster cultural acquisition that is acceptable by the company paying the bill?)

To know something about the country/countries members of your team come from can often be helpful in team interaction. This is a kind of “door opener” in conversation, which promotes understanding within the team.

Project Communication Model

As shown in the exhibit, above the water are issues that project managers deal with daily (such as leadership, influencing the organization, negotiation, communication, problem solving and meeting to mention a few. Below the water are behavior, attitude, belief, and perception.

The idea is that culture can be initially defined by those characteristics seen above the water, with the more subtle aspects lying under the water. For project managers working in a cross-cultural environment, it is this subtle area that is most problematic.

One of the essential skills of a project manager is problem solving. Before you can properly solve a problem within a team, it is good to at least have a bit of understanding about the culture of people within your team (Kerzner).

In all the stages of project management life cycle namely initiation, planning, execution, control and closure; teamwork represents an essential part. What can a project manager do without the team? Therefore, he or she needs to understand the various people within the team. A project manager who encourages good relationship with members of his or her team will have little difficulty in communicating with them (Kerzner).

Communication is the soul of management. Analysis and solid decisions translated into clear messages influence people to act and feel good about their performance The vacuum created by a failure to communicate will quickly be filled with rumor, misinterpretation, and poison (C. Northcote Parkinson).

According to Dianna Booher, cultural differences create hotbeds of communication between project managers and their team. Even though “diversity” has been a frequent topic in many corporate training seminars, speeches and symposiums, there's still a big gulf between awareness of differences and appreciation. Appreciating the differences that is a result of attitude and motivation comes more slowly and with greater reward than mere acknowledgement.

According to PMBOK® Guide, “Project management includes the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, dissemination, storage and ultimate disposition of project information. It provides the critical link among people, ideas, and information that are necessary for success. Everyone involved in project must be prepared to send and receive communications in the project ‘language’ and must understand how the communications they are involved in as individuals affect the project as a whole.”

In most cultures, it is not a good idea to criticize a member of your team when many people are present. Instead a one to one meeting is ideal. In USA, for example it is common for project managers to show their annoyance in the meeting or the public. This not only affects the individual or individuals concerned, but also has the effect of putting down the morale within the team, which subsequently leads to low productivity or poor quality delivery.

Exhibit 1. Model illustrating the problem of differences in Culture experienced by Project Managers

Model illustrating the problem of differences in Culture experienced by Project Managers

Conflicts on a project are inevitable; procedures must be developed for their restoration.

People are complex and unpredictable: difficulty in accurately analyzing human behavior, therefore at best, try to understand the cultural framework of the countries from which people you work with come from (this is especially important for PMs who are on or plan to be on overseas assignments).

PMs should remove the filters through which they see the world and seek more time in understanding other people's behavior especially those that they work with.

Proposed Solution

•   It is very important for people from other cultures (especially Africans, Indians, and Chinese) to have more respect for the culture (especially organizational) of the country where they now found themselves and work well with those at the helm of the affairs of their organizations especially PMs in order to contribute their best in team communication.

•   People from other cultures should swallow their cultural arrogance and give their best to their projects and help their PMs in interpreting cross-cultural differences and help resolve issues.

•   Misinterpretation of communication variables (especially nonverbal) that may have been mistakenly used by either the PM or other members of their team would be easily resolved if everybody within this team understand the fact that they are all working together to satisfy their clients and anything that would be hinder it should be quickly resolved.

•   It is paramount that PMs spend sometime in understanding a little bit about the culture of each and every member of his or her team. This will lead to better cooperation and promote wellness within the team.

•   Attendance of intercultural workshops especially those that are geared toward conflict resolution is important for all PMs in order to better understand the composition of people within their organization. Also, companies (once in a while) should make it a point of duty or part of their routine either send their PMs for external training in intercultural competence or invite consulting firms that specialize in this area of knowledge to their companies in order to carry out the training.

•   Believing that other people see the world the same way we do (because of our varied background, biases and cultures) results in communication breakdown. Careful study of the people around us reveals that all the people (even though different) are predictable and follow a pattern of behavior. Some are socializes; relaters, thinkers and others are directors. Project managers should try and understand how to deal with each of these groups.

•   Improved cooperation on the part of minorities to mix well in their newfound environment and the willingness to cooperate with their project managers is very important.

•   Try to study and understand a little bit about other peoples' cultures.

•   Expand your horizon or scope. That is, do not limit yourself to the only way you have been taught that things should be. Always realize that there may be many ways of arriving at effective solution.

•   Open the door of your heart to accommodate new opportunities, through taking part of your time to understand people from other cultures.

•   Do not expect everybody to pronounce things the same way you do. For example, an American Project Manager who goes to London, England for the first time will ask people around him or her for the location of the washroom (in Britain, it is called toilet). In the restaurant, the project manager will be looking to eat fries (instead of chips), would be looking for an elevator instead of lift, and would notice for the first time in his or her life that he or she has an accent by the way the people around there will look at him or her (which is the same way many North American project managers look at most foreigners).

•   Be aware of the possibility to learn from each other and to enrich life through cultural contact.

•   Get rid of frontiers by understanding the global responsibility of everybody.

•   Acquire more training in conflict-solving techniques (especially the ones with cultural orientation).

•   Cross-cultural training seeks to give project managers the communication tools with which to manage the differences that results from cultural differences.

•   There should be a radical shift from cultural sensitivity to skills based worked aimed at helping PMs become culturally competent and capable of dealing with people from varied cultures.

•   People from different cultures have different knowledge structures and they give different conclusions to different situations.

•   Women's involvement in IT is critical and PMs need to take special note of the various cultural rhythms of women on their teams.

•   The key to managing diversity is through cultural literacy and competency.

•   Managers should not shut down out of fear (even though they have the right communication skills, they are so afraid of saying the wrong thing). In most cases, they deny or avoid the existence of that issue.

•   PMs should become a cultural coach: lunchroom and not a meeting conference. PMs should invest time in taking a co-worker of another color to lunch, find out what you have in common with him or her, and the differences. Share your experiences and listen. This way, a team member will have more trust and respect for the PM and be more open and this act of openness makes it easy to resolve conflict whenever it arises on a project.

•   PMs should take time to learn about different cultures. For example, by attending multicultural events within your community once in a while in order to broaden your horizon or knowledge.

•   Many conflicts that usually stem up during project build up such as schedules, personality, cost, and priorities can easily be resolved with a more through understanding of team composition.

Companies nowadays are focusing their attention and planning on expanding their businesses overseas or open new frontiers in a different environment. The companies that would succeed in the 21st Century are those that have invested there time and train their people (or plan to train their employees) especially PMs on issues about cross-cultural communication. A thorough grounding/ drilling of employees on issues that relate to different cultures will enable them to know how to improve their efficiency and effectiveness both at home and abroad. Understanding other people's behavioral characteristics, perception, attitudes and cultural norms will open doors for successes. Realize again, that usually most projects fail today not only because of problems with time, cost, and schedule but with people. This is more true if you are dealing with people in other regions of the world that are different from yours. Try and see beyond what you are accustomed to.


This paper has addressed the major problems that Project Managers are facing today as a result of diversity, pointed out issues in global communication as it affects women and the four generations of people at workplaces today, and discussed the need for intercultural competence and the serious need for the stage to be set for Nesters who will be the leaders of tomorrow. It is my belief that with these suggestions, Project Managers would seek further knowledge to be better prepared in handling various cultural problems they encounter with people (especially those from different cultures) who work on their teams and those they may come across within their locality or across international boundaries while performing their duties. Also, being culturally competent will make them better positioned to deal with 21st century communication management challenges.

Project Managers, your life is an expression of your mind and you are the creator of your own work universe. The quality of your work life is brought about by the quality of your thinking. The one thing you have absolute control over is your attitude. If you want to change your world, change your thinking and perception.

If you only remember one thing from this presentation, let it be “Evolve by being culturally competent.”


I wish to express sincere gratitude to Muyiwa Kolade (PMP), Eileen Crosbie (Project co-coordinator), Ravi Taneja (PMP), and Damola Atekoja (PMP) for their comments and proofreading. A special thanks also goes to my wife Abosede Obikunle and Nancy Johnson (Education and Training Manager) for their usual support and encouragement.


Booher, Dianna. Communicate with confidence! McGraw Hill.

Dahl, Stephen. Communication and culture transformation (available at http:/

Diversity Incorporation website (

Kerzner, Harold. Project Management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling, 6th edition.

Project Management Symposium 2001, Nashville, TN: Opening and closing remarks.

Project Management Institute. 2000. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) 2000 Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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