The new paradigm--leading multicultural teams



“Expanded tourism, the dissemination of pop culture, global migration, Internet communities – all these have led to unprecedented worldwide connectedness (Rosen, 2000, p. 22).” In this technologically enabled environment, business is becoming more “global” and projects are becoming more “global.” Increasingly, we are finding ourselves working and communicating with people from around the world. In multinational corporations the project manager, project sponsors, project stakeholders and project teams may be geographically dispersed and represent diverse national cultures. Technology workers have migrated around the world to countries where their skills are in demand to work on project teams. Also, the “Offshore Development” approach to Information Technology projects has been an emerging trend in recent years. In this case, parts of the project are outsourced to teams of technical workers in other parts of the world. These are just a few of the scenarios where “multicultural” teams will be formed.

This paper is written from the perspective of the American project manager leading a project in any of these multicultural scenarios, but may also be insightful to other readers. The influence of national culture on people and organizations is discussed, and impacts on team and individual performance are explored. This understanding is important to the project manager from a leadership standpoint and to enable him/her to more effectively “interact with team and stakeholders in a professional and cooperative manner by respecting personal, ethnic and cultural differences in order to ensure a collaborative project management environment” (Mulcahy, 2002, p. 304).

The Paradigm

One of the challenges of leading a multicultural team is awareness, or to be more accurate, lack of awareness of the influence of national culture on societies and how this may have affected the team members’ lives in different ways. This is especially difficult because we have all grown up in our own particular national culture and learned its values, beliefs, traditions, customs and societal norms. How we view our world, how we think, our attitudes, and our behavior patterns have all been shaped by our national culture, so this is what we consider normal, right and good. These are our “paradigms.” We tend to measure other national cultures relative to our own and expect people to think and behave like us. Hofstede (2001) describes culture to be the “collective programming of the mind that distinguishes one group or category of people from another” (p. 9).

Our cultural background is so much a part of us that we don't really think about it until we either venture out of our culture into another, perhaps as an expatriate manager of a project in a foreign host country, or until foreign nationals join our project team. At this point we think of culture in terms of differences instead of similarities. These differences may be noticed within the team in the way problems are solved, in interpersonal communications, in the view of work in relation to the rest of life, in the sense of urgency, how level of importance is judged, how risk is tolerated, and more (Hofstede, 2000, p. 176-177).

Cultural differences typically emerge as conflict and misunderstanding among the team members. Imagine leading a team that does not have the same sense of urgency as you; how would you motivate this team? This situation illustrates that leadership of a multicultural team requires not only an understanding of cultural differences, but also a new pattern of thinking and a new set of behaviors from the project manager to bring the project to successful completion. How to effectively lead a multicultural team is the new paradigm for the 21st century.

Multicultural Research

For our purposes, “culture” means national culture, although the term can also apply to regions, ethnicities, religions, or even the personality of an organization. The influence of national culture has received a great deal of scholarly research in recent years, most notably by Geert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher. He conducted a multicultural study in 40 countries from 1966 to 1973, then extended his research into additional countries and published numerous articles during the 1990s discussing his findings. Some of his work was controversial, but subsequent studies have replicated and confirmed Hofstede's findings many times. His original book, Culture's Consequences (1980), has been updated with more recent research findings and republished. Numerous researchers have used Hofstede's model to describe and explain cultural differences in management (2001, p. 461-465; Dorfman et al., 2000; Javidan and House, 2001). This research is important because it describes national cultures in comparable terms and explains why the conventional wisdom of American management theory and its practice may not always be effective in other cultural frameworks. It also provides insight into what leadership styles or behaviors may be most effective when leading multicultural teams.

Hofstede's model is comprised of five value dimensions of culture in management as summarized below from Culture's Consequences (2001). For reference, a listing of the index scores for many of the countries and regions studied by Hofstede appears in the appendix following this paper.

Power Distance

Power distance is the level of equality or inequality between people and is often observed within a national culture as the stratification of society by social class. In high power distance countries people have a defined place in society and rarely cross social boundaries; in low power distance countries people are considered equal. The structure of work organizations closely parallels the structure of the family in the society. In work organizations, high power distance results in autocratic leadership styles, a hierarchical organizational structure and reliance on formal rules. Subordinates expect to be told what to do. Low power distance in work organizations is observed as decentralized decision-making, a flat organizational structure, and reliance on subordinates’ input. Subordinates expect to be consulted and included in decision-making processes. Hofstede found that in the United States, Australia, Germany and Great Britain, power distance is low in comparison to Arab countries, China, India, Indonesia or France (Hofstede, 2001, p. 87-121).

Position or social standing should be considered when conducting business or managing projects in high power distance countries. Also, team members from high power distance countries will expect a more directive leadership style from the project manager, while team members from low power distance countries will expect a more participative leadership style, and to be involved in decision-making.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance describes the level of ambiguity that can be tolerated in a particular national culture. To increase predictability and reduce anxiety, there is a preference for structure. In structured situations there are clear rules of behavior, while in unstructured situations a more flexible, easy-going approach is the norm. In the family, gender roles are more clearly delineated in high uncertainty avoidance cultures. Workers are less likely to change jobs, there is resistance to change, and there is less trust in foreigners as managers. Also, general anxiety levels and the fear of failure are high in cultures where uncertainty avoidance scores are high. On Hofstede's scale, the United States, Great Britain, Australia and many of the Scandinavian countries are relatively low in uncertainty avoidance, meaning that less structure and more flexibility is preferred. In contrast, Japan, Belgium and France are very high on this scale and prefer more structure (Hofstede, 2001, p.145-161)

Building a trusting work relationship between team members is important to successful leadership of a project with a multicultural team. Providing the expected level of structure in the project will tend to build confidence and reduce anxiety among team members, project sponsors, and project stakeholders alike.


The individualism/collectivism dimension describes the preference to act as individuals or as a group. This preference may be reflected in the language of the culture, for example the personal pronoun “I” is routinely used in individualist cultures but may be dropped completely or replaced by “we” in collectivist cultures because group membership is more important than the individual. Also, the individualism/collectivism dimension is observable in the family structure. Nuclear families are more common in individualist cultures, while extended families are the norm in collectivist cultures.

There are some significant differences in social behavior that influence business practices across cultures. One of the differences is how conflict and confrontation are handled. In individualist cultures a certain level of conflict and confrontation is encouraged and viewed as healthy, normal behavior. In collectivist cultures, group harmony must be maintained so conflict or direct confrontation on a personal level is avoided. To avoid confrontation and allow a person to “save face,” unpleasant news or conflict is dealt with in an indirect manner, possibly using a third party as an intermediary. Poor performance is typically not viewed as a reason for negative feedback or termination, but may be instead handled by assigning different tasks to the employee, or by withdrawing favors. In collectivist cultures relationships prevail over task assignments, so before business can be conducted a trust relationship must be established. In business, preferential treatment is often given based on group membership. This may include members of the extended family, and is considered good, ethical business practice. On the individualism/collectivism scale, the United States, Great Britain, Germany and France are highly individualistic, whereas China and Indonesia are highly collective. Japan and India fall around the middle of the scale, but lean more on the collective side (Hofstede, 2001, p. 225-241).

The individualism/collectivism dimension provides the formative basis of many important management issues that are likely to be encountered within a multicultural team. Task assignments, rewards and recognition, and addressing poor performance are examples of the issues to be managed. Hofstede notes that leadership theory, as we are taught and practice it, was largely conceived by the Western mind and is mainly concerned with the behaviors of the leader. In contrast, Japanese leadership theory is less concerned with the leader and more concerned with the context for leadership and maintenance of the group. Clearly, these are two very different ways of thinking about leadership (2001, p. 240-241).

Sensitivity to the respective needs and expectations of the team members appears to be key to effective leadership of a multicultural team. Also, recognizing whether the team will function more effectively as a group than as individuals is an important determinant of overall performance.


The masculinity/femininity dimension describes whether the “tough” qualities traditionally associated with men such as assertiveness, drive and competitiveness are predominant in the culture, or whether greater importance is placed on the “tender” values usually associated with the female role such as quality of life or personal relationships. In the workplace of low-masculinity cultures, this translates to more emphasis on relationships, the work conditions, the number of work hours, creating work groups, and more women in management. In high-masculinity cultures, there is more emphasis on pay, performance, task-oriented challenges, and there may be fewer women in management. Higher stress levels and more “burnout” symptoms are found in high-masculinity cultures than in low-masculinity cultures. Japan, Great Britain, Germany and the United States are high on the masculinity scale where the qualities of assertiveness, drive and competitiveness are highly valued, respected and rewarded. Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark are the lowest on this scale. Hofstede notes that highly masculine cultures tend to excel in manufacturing whereas feminine cultures have the advantage in service industries and agricultural exports (2001, p. 286, 312-317).

Leading a project requires a high level of task orientation. Also, being successful in the American culture means that we tend to do “whatever it takes” to get the job done. This may not be the case in other cultures. Depending on the cultural makeup of the project team, its members may view success differently. Respect for quality of life and maintenance of relationships may be more important, and team members may not be willing nor expect to give up these values of their own culture. Effective leadership involves recognizing these values and planning appropriately on the individual and team levels.

Long-Term Versus Short-Term Orientation

This dimension was not present in Hofstede's original study but was later identified in data collected as part of the Chinese Value Survey by Michael Bond (1985), and was then incorporated by Hofstede as a fifth dimension of culture. This dimension is focused on the time period for goals to be achieved, and the expectations for future rewards to be realized. Long-term orientation is associated with the future, incorporating the values of thrift, perseverance and adaptation to new circumstances based on tradition. Short-term orientation is associated with either the recent past or present, and often relates to spending patterns and the desire for quick results. In business this may translate to investing the time to build strong markets and relationships in long-term orientation cultures. In short-term orientation cultures, there is more of a focus on near-term results, such as last quarter's or last year's financial performance. On this scale, China has the highest long-term orientation score, followed by Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. This is clearly inherent in the Asian way of thinking. The Unites States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and European countries are on the lower end of this scale, having more of a short-term orientation (Hofstede, 2001, p. 351-361).

The long-term/short-term dimension seems paradoxical to Western cultures. As it is associated with timeframes for decision-making, this dimension may be more applicable on the corporate level during project selection than at the team level during project execution.

Universal Leader Behaviors

Based on an analysis of the data from over 50 countries against his five value dimensions, Hofstede concluded that some leader behaviors should be culturally specific. In fact, he goes as far as saying that there are no universal leader behaviors. For example, participative leadership would not work in a high power distance culture but may be an expectation from subordinates in low power distance cultures (Hofstede, 2001, p. 373-374, 389).

This position has received mixed support from subsequent research into cross-cultural leadership. In a later study, Dorfman et al. (2000) used Hofstede's dimensions of culture as a framework to evaluate the effectiveness of certain leader behaviors in five countries: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico and the United States. The leader behaviors investigated by Dorfman et al. were: directive, supportive, participative, contingent reward, contingent punishment, and charisma. The researchers found that supportive, charismatic and contingent reward leader behaviors had a positive effect across cultures and can be considered to be universally effective. This means that leaders who show consideration, concern, respect and trust in their team members, who express high expectations for their teams, reward and recognize good performance, and who are passionate about their work, will be respected and responded to in a positive manner by their followers. Directive and participative leader behaviors were found to be ineffective or have negative effects in some national cultures as predicted by Hofstede's model (p. 185-187).

They also found that contingent punishment, also known as negative feedback, had a negative effect on follower behavior in Mexico and Japan, resulting in worse performance. Hofstede and others provide the explanation. In these particular cultures, delivering direct negative feedback is simply too confrontational and does not permit the individual to “save face.” The employee feels as though he has humiliated and shamed not just himself, but his entire group. Instead of being motivated to improve, the employee becomes discouraged and demotivated, and performance suffers. Unfortunately, delivering negative feedback along with the positive is considered an American “best practice” and is often delivered without regard to the cultural values and norms of the individual or group (Dorfman et al., 2000, p. 187; Brake, Walker and Walker, 1995, p. 57; Hofstede 2001, p. 391).

Language Impacts

So far, cultural differences have been discussed without reference to language differences. Certainly, language differences would have considerable impacts on projects, most notably in the areas of Project Scope Management when describing the Statement of Work, in Project Quality Management when defining quality standards, and in many aspects of Project Communications Management. However, having a common language does not imply that cultural values are shared, nor do differences in language indicate diversity in cultural values. Hofstede recommends acquiring a combination of “awareness, knowledge and skills” to develop cross-cultural communication abilities. These skills include learning the language and also practicing the rituals of the culture where possible. This seems to apply more to the expatriate project manager; otherwise he/she will remain an outsider and will miss the more subtle aspects of the culture, such as the humor (1997, p. 214, 230).

Other Impacts to Projects

Kerzner (2001) highlights the following issues when managing a global project, in addition to the cultural and language differences between countries (p. 989-1000):

  • The political environment, economic conditions, infrastructures and technologies to be taken into account when planning global projects. Project management methodologies, approaches to product development and product standards may differ in each country.
  • Regardless of the language, simply communicating and scheduling meetings across time zones may be difficult. Other variables such as local holidays, amount of vacation time, and the length of the work day/work week in each country may impact duration estimates.
  • The local transportation infrastructure may impact the delivery time for materials. Negotiating practices or customs may vary, requiring a business relationship to be established first. Government regulations will differ, especially in the areas of employment and quality standards.
  • Differences may occur in estimating costs due to different accounting systems and practices. Hofstede (2001) explains that accounting systems can be viewed as a way to reduce uncertainty in a culture. In high Uncertainty Avoidance cultures accounting systems tend to contain detailed rules, and in low Uncertainty Avoidance cultures more will be left to the discretion of the accountant (p. 382-383). Currency conversion and inflation levels may also come into play.

In addition to the suggestions for managing projects with multicultural teams drawn from Hofstede and others, Kerzner (2001) suggests preparing for a global project by also learning about the political climate, economy and infrastructure of the host country. Contacting local project management associations to learn more about acceptable project management practices and using accepted bodies of knowledge such as the PMBOK® 2000 is also recommended (p. 1000).

Closing Thoughts

Hofstede (1997) cautions us not to use his dimensions of culture in management and country scores from his research to stereotype individuals, but to use them to describe and compare cultures. They are intended to provide a guideline for effective interaction with the work organizations and people of the culture (p. 253).

For those who go to work in a foreign land, cultural assimilation can be a difficult process for many people. This is true in the work environment and in the society in general. My personal experience is that the assimilation process can take a number of years and will depend greatly on the type of culture you came from and where you landed. Some never really adapt to a new culture and return to their home countries; others will embrace their new culture and lifestyle. In most cases, the type of reception received in the host country will facilitate the assimilation process of a foreign national. I believe this requires willingness from the managers of multicultural teams to learn more about their team members, to take the time to explain and confirm understanding, and to show care and compassion toward them. This is the hallmark of a good leader and will yield positive results in the loyalty and effectiveness of the project team. The good news is that the expatriate project manager, the domestic project manager with a multicultural team, or immigrant team members can learn a new culture. The bad news is that there's no real formula for learning a culture. Cultural assimilation simply takes time.

Our cultural background governs what we consider to be normal, but as Hofstede (1997) astutely observes, “there is no normal position in cultural matters” (p.235). Culture is relative, and this is an uncomfortable thought for most people. However, it is a reality and part of our future in project management as Gray and Larson (2001) explain:

“The project manager of the new millennium will be a businessperson with responsibilities that encompass the total organization…Worldwide competition will direct projects toward technology transfer, infrastructure, consumer goods, environment/ecological, defense, and fundamental needs. The future project manager will be comfortable in foreign or domestic settings and will understand the needs of people in all social settings.” (p. 335)

Index Scores for Countries or Regions

Country Power Distance Index Uncertainty Avoidance Index Individualism/ Collectivism Index Masculinity/ Femininity Index Long-/Short-Term Index
Arab Countries 80 68 38 53  
Argentina 49 86 46 56  
Australia 36 51 90 61 31
Austria 11 70 55 79 31
Belgium 65 94 75 54 38
Brazil 69 76 38 49 65
Canada 39 48 80 52 23
Chile 63 86 23 28
China 80 30 20 66 118
Columbia 67 80 13 64  
Costa Rica 35 86 15 21  
Denmark 18 23 74 16 46
Ecuador 78 67 8 63  
Finland 33 59 63 26 41
France 68 86 71 43 39
Germany 35 65 67 66 31
Great Britain 35 35 89 66 25
Greece 60 112 35 57  
Guatemala 95 101 6 37  
Hong Kong 68 29 25 57 96
Indonesia 78 48 14 46  
India 77 40 48 56 61
Iran 58 59 41 43  
Ireland 28 35 70 68 43
Israel 13 81 54 47  
Italy 50 75 76 70 34
Jamaica 45 13 39 68  
Japan 54 92 46 95 80
Korea (South) 60 85 18 39 75
Malaysia 104 36 26 50  
Mexico 81 82 30 69  
Netherlands 38 53 80 14 44
Norway 31 50 69 8 44
New Zealand 22 49 79 58 30
Pakistan 55 70 14 50  
Panama 95 86 11 44  
Peru 64 87 16 42  
Philippines 94 44 32 64  
Portugal 63 104 27 31 19
Russia 93 95 39 36  
South Africa 49 49 65 63 30
Salvador 66 94 19 40
Singapore 74 8 20 48 48
Spain 57 86 51 42 19
Sweden 31 29 71 5 33
Switzerland 34 58 68 70 40
Taiwan 58 69 17 45 3
Thailand 64 64 20 34 8
Turkey 66 85 37 45  
Uruguay 61 100 36 38  
United States 40 46 91 62 29
Venezuela 81 76 12 73  
Yugoslavia 76 88 27 21

Adapted from Hofstede, 2001, p. 500-502.

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Dorfman, P.W., Howell, P., Hibino, S., Lee, J.K., Tate, U., & Bautista, A. (2000). Leadership in Western and Asian countries: Commonalities and differences in effective leadership processes across cultures. In J.L. Pierce & J.W. Newstrom (Eds.), Leaders and the leadership process: Readings, self-assessments and applications (2nd ed.) (pp.179-189). Boston: Irwin McGraw-Hill.

Gray, C.W. & Larson, E.W. (2001). Project management: The managerial process with additional material from Systems Analysis and Design Methods, Fifth Edition (Custom ed., University of Phoenix). Boston: McGraw-Hill Primis Custom Publishing.

Hofstede, G. (1997). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture's consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Javidan, M. & House, R.J. (2001). Cultural acumen for the global manager: Lessons from project GLOBE. Organizational Dynamics, 29(4), 289-305.

Kerzner, H. (2001). Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling (7th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Mulcahy, R. (2002). PMP exam prep (4th ed.). Burnsville, MN, United States: RMC Publications

Project Management Institute. (2000). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®), (2000 ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Rosen, R. (2000). Global literacies: Lessons on business leadership and national cultures. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Proceedings of PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003



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