Enabling and maintaining trust on multicultural projects


Why do well-envisioned global projects falter despite adequate funding, careful planning, superior tools and adherence to project management best practices? The answer to this question in a world of frequently changing global resources is often—trust. The ability to establish and maintain trust founded on credibility is a key “soft skill” essential to project leaders.

“Trust” according to author Steven M. R. Covey (2006, p. 1) is the “one thing that changes everything.” Trust is an imperative in any project. This is particularly true across cultural and geographic boundaries where work items transition through multiple hands and across time zones often without the face-to-face communication. Foundational to developing trust in multicultural projects is emotional and cultural intelligence. After an introduction on these concepts, trust is defined with an emphasis on the credibility of project team members. The importance on global project work is highlighted.

A practical project-based approach for building trust is advocated. This approach follows the well-established PMI advocated Process Group framework of Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Control, and Closure. Within this framework contemporary techniques such as developing cultural intelligence, frequent virtual meetings, and utilizing social networking are advocated.

Techniques, examples and lessons learned from the author's experiences on over 20 years of multicultural information technology based projects are included as a starting point for discussions. In addition, the “collective intelligence” of the group is welcomed in this forum. The answer is often “in the room” so experiences from the audience on the topic of trust are welcomed and periodically solicited during this session.

Business Case / Contemporary Relevance

Example of Failure vs. Success Where Trust Is Identified as a Root Cause

For the sake of illustration, picture Project A and Project B. Both Project A and B start out in a similar fashion. Each is for a new computer system with a strong business plan that will increase operational efficiencies by cutting processing costs. Each project has a committed business sponsor who has obtained funding. Each project is planned and staffed with local systems staff from the ABC Company as well as industry experts from the XYZ consulting company. Both projects set out strongly with a project manager hosting a kickoff, with all the stakeholders saying the right things, and with the project team engaged and ready to work.

Project A Fails

At this point, Project A looks to be moving well and yet the operational style of the ABC Company differs from what XYZ consultants expect. Each team marches ahead with their style but milestones are missed because of improper communication and unmatched expectations. Trust breaks down and the progress slows. The project devolves into finger-pointing when deliverables are missed. Ultimately, the sponsor seeing lack of progress and cost overruns pulls the project. At the post-mortem for the project—the key lesson learned is that trust was missing.

Project B Succeeds

Project B starts similar to Project A. Project B kicks off well and the teams start working. Project B has the advantage of having an experienced project manager with good cultural and emotional intelligence. Through careful observation and probing questions, she discerns that the expected deliverable from XYZ is not in the state that ABC Company expects. She then uses her skills at teaming to replace the distinct ABC Company and the XYZ company cultures with a newly agreed-upon project culture. For sake of example, the new identity is as the Alpha Project team. In the Alpha Project, the operational styles of the two companies are blended into a new mutually agreed-upon approach. With the new approach, the team works together, milestones are met, items are delivered, and the project is a success. At the post-mortem for the project, the key lesson learned is that team worked together despite differences—underlying the success is a feeling of shared trust.

Collaboration and Trust Statistics

A 2009 survey entitled “Building Trust in Business” by Interaction Associates (2009, p. 4) surveyed more than 200 leaders on “vital characteristics shared by high performing companies that excel at manifesting trust, strong leadership, and collaboration.” The survey looked at the top contributing factors (“always or often” contributing) to failed collaboration. The top item at 40% was “inefficient communication existing between team and work group members.” The third item 36% was “uneven contribution from team members.” The authors of the survey noted “These findings present unique opportunities for organizations that wish to excel at collaboration. For example, paying attention to team communication—even ‘over-communicating’—and sticking to stated team objectives will likely improve collaboration.” (Interaction Associates, 2009, p. 32) Moreover, these statistics reinforce the importance of trust in collaborative settings.

Nuances of Trust in Multicultural Projects

An additional nuance in contemporary projects is the multicultural make up of the team itself. Project teams today contain culturally diverse and geographically dispersed project workforces. Some of the drivers for this are technology, collaboration, and economic forces. In a May 2010 PM Network article on global business trends, “complete connectivity” is called out as a macro technology trend driving the evolution of project management. According to this article, “real time, all-the-time connectivity has enabled massive virtual projects to take shape and has changed the very nature of project management” (Gale, 2010, p. 35). Connectivity is driving down costs and altering the makeup of project teams. Many face-to-face meetings are being replaced by conference calls and video conferences.

Similarly, work packages are prepared in one part of the world and used in other parts of the world. In a 2009 article on 10 ways to cut IT costs, “Move work offshore or nearshore” is listed first (Kapfhammer, 2009, ¶6). The trend toward moving work around geographically continues. As an example, in 1996, I was working in the U.S. with an offshore provider in India. At the time, this was seen as a unique and unusual thing in the world of information technology. Now 15 years later this arrangement is seen as commonplace.


The following definitions will be helpful in framing the remainder of the paper. Specifically, Trust, Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Intelligence, and the Covey four cores of credibility.


Trust can be attributed to relationships between individuals. “Humans have a natural disposition to trust and to judge trustworthiness.” In a collaborative project setting, it refers to “relationships within and between social groups” (…organizations, companies, etc.). “It is a popular approach to frame the dynamics of inter-group and intra-group interactions in terms of trust” (Trust, 2011, ¶ 1).

As the diversity of the project team grows to include people of differing backgrounds, many of the foundations of trust are altered as different parties bring their unique perspectives to the project.

Cultural and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI)

“Emotional intelligence (EI) describes the ability, capacity, skill or, in the case of the trait EI model, a self-perceived grand ability to identify, assess, manage and control the emotions of one's self, of others, and of groups” (Emotional Intelligence, 2010, ¶1).

The ability to assess and control one's emotions becomes increasingly important as the size and diversity of the project team grows.

Cultural Intelligence (CI) and Cultural Quotient (CQ)

David Livermore, author of Leading with Cultural Intelligence, asked the following question, “What's the difference between individuals and businesses that succeed in today's globalized, multicultural world and those that fail?” (Livermore, 2010, p. 3). The answer is a person's Cultural Intelligence (CI).

Culture takes into account: music, cuisine, religion, beliefs, interpersonal relationships, business practices, and many behaviors. People working with different cultures must understand how those differences affect their communications and personal relationships (McIntosh, 2008, p. 138).

The concept of Cultural Quotient (CQ) is “the capability to function effectively across various cultural contexts (national, ethnic, organizational, generational, etc.)“ (Soon & Van Dyne, 2004, p. 3). For the purposes of this paper, CQ and CI will be used interchangeably.

Again as the cultural mix of a project team changes to bring in new and diverse skills at competitive prices, the team members need to leverage cultural intelligence to get the most out of people on the team with a different cultural basis. As CI is leveraged trust can be grown.

Covey Four Cores of Credibility

“Trust,” according to author Steven M. R. Covey, is founded on credibility. Covey (2006) states in The Speed of Trust that trust exists when a person is seen as credible to others. This framework is useful for how we establish trust and the highlights are covered below. The first two cores—Integrity and Intent have to do with Character. While the later two—Capabilities and Results deal with Competence (p. 54).


Integrity is often thought of as honesty, but it is also about having the courage to act within your values and beliefs (Covey, 2006, p. 54). An example of this in a project setting could be that a Project Management Professional (PMP®) act in accordance with the code of ethics to which he or she agreed.


Intent is about motives, agendas, and behaviors. If the person with who you are working seems to have good motives and does not have a hidden agenda, they are seen as credible (Covey, 2006, p. 54). A person's intent can be questioned in a multicultural setting when one person does not understand the underlying intent.


Capabilities have to do with a person's abilities. An individual's talents, skills, style, and knowledge can inspire confidence. Often in performance-oriented settings such as business or sports, someone with capabilities is given preference. Interestingly, capabilities also establish a person's ability to grow and extend trust (Covey, 2006, p. 55).


Results are about what a person has done in the past. As results are delivered, a person is seen as a producer and more trust is extended. If results do not follow, trust is lost. Covey's book goes on to say that good leaders in any culture needs to be credible and that this is built on how one handles themselves and their track record (Covey, 2006, p. 55).

Importance of Trust in Multicultural Projects

Cultural Frameworks

While trust underlies all projects, establishing and nurturing trust in a multicultural project team can be particularly challenging. One of the techniques used in understanding cultures is to understand cultural frameworks. Substantial academic research has been done on cultural differences—two popular ones are listed next.

Hofstede Cultural Framework

In one study Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede (2011, ¶ 1) looked at people from different countries working at IBM locations around the world. This study defined four dimensions of cultural difference: power distance, individuality versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, and avoidance of uncertainty (or risk) (Mcintosh, 2008, p. 138). Further details on cultural dimensions can be found at http://www.geert-hofstede.com/.

Hall Cultural Framework

Another way to frame cultural nuances has been promoted by anthropologist Edward T. Hall is in terms of high and low context. In his view, low-context cultures depend on explicit verbal and nonverbal communications. For example, in Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and North America, people get right to the point and state very clearly what they want. There is little ceremony or indirect communication. High-context cultures, which include Japan, Korea, China, Arab and Latin American countries, are very different. There, a great deal of formality, getting acquainted, and relationship-building are mandatory first steps to stating one's intentions and doing business. These preliminaries take substantial time, but time is less important to people in high context countries, according to Hall (Mcintosh, 2008, p. 141).

Frameworks such as the aforementioned can help one identify cultural traits so that one can respond appropriately to the cultures on a project. Regardless of how one slices cultures, there are differences that a project professional will need to deal with in the course of managing project work.


Establishing the concept of the team can vary from one culture to another. In one culture an autocratic leader may be seen as powerful, whereas others may see this as a weak or inappropriate. Trust of the team members varies based on cultural perceptions.

Cultural Perceptions on Transparency, Risk, and Cost Control

In some cultures, highlighting risks may go against a person's inclination to not embarrass other project team members. A project manager must discern how to indentify risks through the use of his or her understanding of how team members process and share information. Another aspect of risk is how much risk/uncertainty is acceptable in a culture. Asking the severity of a risk could differ across culture, so it is important for the project manager to set a standard for risks rating, communicate the standard to the team, and leverage his or her cultural intelligence in assessing overall project risk.

Missteps in reading these correctly can affect the trust levels on a project.

Time Lost to Cultural Insensitivities

The lack of cultural understanding can lead to misunderstanding and an associated loss of productivity. In the introduction to “Kiss, Bow or Shake” a story is told of the “Thom McAn” company, which traditionally sells shoes with the “Thom McAn” signature printed in the shoe. When it tried to sell shoes in Bangladesh, a riot ensued with over 50 injuries. At the source was the perception that the “Thom McAn” signature looked like Arabic script for “Allah.” The outraged Muslims had decided that the shoe company was trying to get the Bangladeshis to desecrate the name of God. This was particularly distasteful to this culture “where the foot is considered unclean” (Morrison, Conway, & Borden, 1994, p. ix).

While this story is more in the consumer space, similar misunderstandings on project teams can lead to losing people and inferior human resources management by the project manager. Once again, trust can take a hit as members fail to understand how others view the world and process what they are exposed to.

Building Trust—A Project-Based Approach

PMBOK® Guide Knowledge Area Connections

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) breaks project management down to five process groups—specifically, (1) initiating, (2) planning, (3) executing, (4) monitoring and controlling, (5) closure (PMI, 2004, p. 38). Following these process groups, the remainder of this paper will focus on practical things that can be done in a multicultural setting to increase trust.

1. Initiation

As a project is initiated there are a number of things can be done to build and extend trust. What follows are techniques I have used or observed.


Observation is a technique to determine trust aspects on multicultural projects. Paying attention to what participants are doing as well as using your senses is helpful. First and foremost, listen and learn. Look for non-verbal cues. If something doesn't make sense, observe and follow-up. Another approach is to use a casual setting, such as a project lunch, to ask questions and learn about the cultures in which you are interested.

Obtain a Historical View

In addition to your own observation, it is important to get a historical view on the participant's experiences. Previous project lessons learned and interviewing participants from previous similar projects can help. The questions can focus in on trust, culture and team morale—when morale was best, when was it worse, etc., and discussing cultural aspects.

Voice of the Customer

Voice of the customer (VOC) is an approach advocated within Six Sigma methodologies, where one listens to what a person is saying in order to improve a situation. The VOC helps to focus the improvement effort in ways that will achieve breakthrough improvements to better serve the customer. Using the voice of the customer (VOC), business (VOB) and employee (VOE), you can develop a master improvement story that links and aligns multiple teams and improvement efforts to achieve quantum leaps in performance improvement. (Arthur, 2007).The VOC helps to better understand what the stakeholder's initial perceptions are. This tool is valuable in determining pain points that can be targeted for improvement.

VOC builds on observation and historical view by using targeted questioning at defined stakeholder groups. The data mined here can help in planning and execution as the baseline of the customer is now established.

Cultural Intelligence Training for Key Stakeholders

Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to CI skills for project leaders and key project stakeholders. Through leveraging observation, historical view and VOC, a project team can determine if there is a need for CI training. Many vendors offer such training and it is available in the public domain. Skills needed by project managers are also covered in Border Crossing—Cultural Intelligence for Project Professionals (Woerner, 2010).

2. Planning and Kickoff

Planning is where ideas turn into a plan. Planning takes place throughout the project, but for purposes of establishing trust, this section will focus on planning the project kickoff. Kickoff sets the tone for the combined project team. It helps to share things about your life and find what others on a project have done. As a person shares more of themselves—trust can be extended. Project kickoff can be used as a forum to learn about each other. Icebreaker activities can be included to learn more about each other. Learning more of each other can help to extend the “Cores of Credibility” previously mentioned. Where possible, this is best done face to face.

In addition, there are exercises available online that can be used to help build rapport. A series of questions on trust are available online (Team Technology, 2011, ¶ 16). These questions measure how willing you are to extend trust to certain individuals. These scores can be used as a baseline for a project.

3. Execution

Execution is where the rubber meets the road. Here a project team needs to work together to accomplish common goals and deliver work items per plan. The following techniques can be helpful.

Virtual Standup Meetings

The concept of a standup meeting is taken from Extreme Programming (XP). Stand-up meetings are by nature short—because no one is allowed to sit down (Dunrie, 2006, ¶ 1). By using a teleconference number, these can be setup to occur daily at a time where every time zone can be involved. The agenda is standing—the following questions (Krebs, 2010, ¶ 1) are discussed:

1) What did you do yesterday?

2) What will you do today?

3) What roadblocks stand in your way?

4) What can we do to remove the roadblock?

5) Who is on point for removing roadblocks?

Additional thoughts on ground rules and the use of a token to speak are available online (Dunrie, 2006, ¶ 3 - 4). Another aspect of making these meetings work is to run them daily. Team members will get in the habit of getting through items quickly if they know they can speak tomorrow. Other trust aspects that happen somewhat organically in these meetings are mutual accountability and increased transparency within the team.

Instant Messaging (IM), Email, Collaboration Tools

Global projects are fast paced. News such as instructions, work requests, questions and answers must travel to people who can take actions. Communications such as instant messaging and collaboration sites can help augment email and face-to-face conversations to get things done.

Celebrating Successes

Celebrating successes is not something that should be left for the end of the project in multicultural projects. Celebrating successes as they occur will help to build team and a common purpose.

4. Monitoring/Control

Projects need to be monitored versus planned activities. In the course of doing so, there are a couple of key areas where trust plays a key role in resolving conflicts and managing risks.

Resolving Conflict

Projects bring together people and people naturally have conflicts. The project manager can work with the individuals having conflict to resolve issues. Where possible this should be done face to face. If face to face is not available, try phone (voice). If voice is not an option, try email or a less dynamic medium. Understandably, email is the least secure and worst option for resolving issue were trust is lacking. If individuals escalate issues without fully understanding the ramifications, trust can be further eroded.

Managing Risks

In managing risks it is good to look into the style a person is comfortable with and appeal to that style. The aforementioned Hofstede (2011, ¶ 1) cultural framework can be useful in understanding how people from certain countries deal with risk. An appropriate approach to communicating and resolving risks can then be performed, with this as a basis.

Audience Participation # 5

Using the backdrop of project execution, monitoring/control, the participants are asked to share best practices of techniques used during the aforementioned process groups and how trust was impacted positively or negatively as a result.

5. Closure / Post Project

As a project closes, it is important to close the books and to do a lessons learned session. On all projects it helps to pull all the players together to discuss what went well, what went poorly, and action items for improving the next time. On multicultural projects, specific questions should focus on trust, culture, and collaboration issues. Detailed notes should be kept and published so that future projects can learn from the completed project. It helps to have formal facilitation.


There is no single answer on how the establish trust across cultural boundaries in a project setting. Nonetheless, the techniques discussed in this forum of experienced project managers reveal best practices that can be applied on project work. As more is known of teaming across cultures, trust can be established, fostered, and extended. Following the best practices and lessons learned today by using a process group framework can translate into increased success on multicultural projects.

Arthur, J. (2007). Chapter 8—Laser-Focused Process Innovation. Lean Six Sigma demystified. Retrieved on July 2, 2009 from Books24x7 website: http://common.books24x7.com/book/id_22139/book.asp

Covey, Stephen M. R. (2006). The SPEED of trust. New York: Free Press.

Dunrie. (2006, June 29). Virtual stand-up: Extending the circle. Retrieved on 10 July 2011 from http://scientificink.com/blog/2006/06/29/virtual-stand-up-extending-the-circle/.

Emotional Intelligence. (2010, June 28). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved on July 6, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_intelligence.

Gale, S. (2010, May). The bigger picture. PM Network, 24(5), 30-36.

Hofstede, G. (2011). Geert Hofstede cultural dimensions. Retrieved on 10 July 2011 from http://www.geert-hofstede.com/.

Interaction Associates, Inc. (2009). Research report and toolkit—Building trust in business, best practices in trust, leadership and collaboration [Electronic Version]. Retrieved on July 10, 2011 from https://www2.interactionassociates.com/html/pdf/Interaction_Associates_Trust_in_Business_2009.pdf.

Kapfhammer, D. (2009, February 9). 10 ways to cut IT costs. CIO Insight. [Electronic Version] Retrieved on July 6, 2010 from http://www.cioinsight.com/c/a/IT-Management/10-Ways-to-Cut-IT-Costs/.

Krebs, B. (2010, December 16). A new take on standup meetings. Retrieved on 10 July 2011 from http://blogs.pmi.org/blog/voices_on_project_management/agile/.

Livermore, David. (2010, May 26). Leading with cultural intelligence. American Management Association, AMA Webinars.

McIntosh, P., Luecke, R., & Davis, J. (2008). Interpersonal Communication skills in the workplace, second edition. AMACOM.

Morrison, T., Conaway, W., & Borden, G. (1994). Kiss, bow or shake hands. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corp.

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Soon, A., & Van Dyne, L. (2008). Handbook of cultural intelligence: Theory, measurement, and applications. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Team Technology. (2011). Building trust and rapport. Retrieved on 10 July 2011 from http://www.teamtechnology.co.uk/soft-skills/project-management-training-part2.html.

Trust. (2011, July 10). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved July 10, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trust_(social_sciences).

Woerner, B. (2010, October). Border crossing—Cultural intelligence for project professionals. PMI Global Congress 2010, Washington D.C., USA Conference proceedings PMI Global Congress.

© 2010, Bruce Woerner
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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