Making cultural intelligence one of your signature skills



Business in the 21st century is global, and the need to deal effectively with others who are culturally different has become a business necessity. This globalization is being fueled by a dramatic economic shift in many countries and by advances in communications technology. We may not travel the globe to do business, but the world has come to us. Daily we have to deal with international issues and with people from other countries and cultures.

Despite the rapid modernization of the world, culture is slow to change. For the foreseeable future, handling cultural differences will remain a key factor in interpersonal interactions. And we have long known that interacting effectively with others is the most important part of a project manager’s job.

In an increasingly competitive world, project managers who do not keep their skills up to date run the risk of losing out. Cultural intelligence, the capability to deal effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds, is a multifaceted competency consisting of cultural knowledge, the practice of mindfulness, and a repertoire of behavioral skills. Cultural intelligence (CQ) is developed in an experiential, intuitive way, in which each repetition of the cycle builds on the previous one.

The feedback from each cycle of experience leads to an ever higher CQ. Specific knowledge gained in both formal and informal ways is transformed into skills that can then be applied to a variety of new situations. In this world of work there are three emerging realities for you as a project manager:

Reality Number One: Globalization Has Changed the Game

We are all now living increasingly global lives. The lives of project managers are more global than most. We are now beginning to understand the importance of a process known as globalization, and particularly the way it impacts the lives of people involved in business. Globalization means an increase in the permeability of traditional boundaries, including those around countries, economies, industries, and organizations.

Even small firms now have the capability to be global. With a computer, a modem, and a telephone connection it is possible to be a global business almost instantaneously. Because of “global liberation,” the environment of business is now more complex, more dynamic, more uncertain, and more competitive than ever before. Most importantly, there is no evidence that these trends will reverse or decrease. Tomorrow’s project managers, even more than those of today, will have to learn to compete, and to work, in a “global environment.”

Reality Number Two: Cultural Intelligence Builds on Intelligence Quotient and Emotional Quotient

Psychologists characterize our ability to reason and its measure as intelligence quotient (IQ). More recently, through the work of Daniel Goleman, we have come to recognize that it is important how we handle our emotions; this is referred to as “emotional intelligence” (EQ). Cultural intelligence (CQ) is a relatively new idea that builds on both IQ and EQ and focuses on an individual’s ability to interact effectively across cultures. Cultural intelligence is easy to understand but difficult to put into practice on an ongoing basis. It takes time and effort to develop a high CQ and the related skills. Becoming culturally intelligent is essentially learning by doing, so it has useful outcomes beyond the development of skilled intercultural performance.

Reality Number Three: New Leadership Paradigm–Culture Matters

Culture has a profound influence on almost all aspects of human endeavor. The culturally intelligent project manager understands the possible effects of cultural variation in his or her own behavior and that of others. The culturally intelligent project manager also knows how, and in what circumstances, these cultural differences are likely to exert their effect. Culture matters, but it doesn’t matter to the same degree in all circumstances all of the time.

Leadership is the ability to influence other people to strive willingly to reach common goals, and different leaders influence their followers in different ways. A leader may capture the loyalty of some followers, while being rejected and ridiculed by others. A style that works perfectly in one situation may fall flat in another.

I have defined leadership in this paper in terms of influence, and influence may be exercised by anyone, from the highest to the lowest member of an organization or project team. Therefore, to understand how leadership works across cultures, we need to look carefully at every participant or stakeholder to understand how he or she might understand a given situation. Cultural differences in expectations of leadership affect the perception of who is the leader. Different cultures have different prototypes of leadership. A leader who is able to live up to his or her followers’ expectations of what makes for a good leader can expect to develop their trust and relationships within that group.

To be a culturally intelligent leader, you’ll need to use knowledge and mindfulness to develop a repertoire of behaviors that can be adapted to these specific situations.

As a project manager, think of this paper as “message from the universe” about culture, why it matters, its impact on your leadership style, and why communication and facilitation skills are now more critical to success than ever before.

Why Culture Matters

Definition of Culture

A useful definition by noted social scientist, Geert Hofstede, is that culture consists of shared mental programs that condition individual responses to their environment. (2005) This simple definition encapsulates the idea that we see culture in everyday behavior but that behavior is controlled by deeply embedded mental programs. Therefore culture is not just a set of surface behaviors, it is deeply embedded in each of us. These surface features of our social behavior; for example, our mannerisms, our ways of speaking to each other and the way we dress are often manifestations of deep culturally based values and principles.

There are some basic characteristics that apply to any culture:

Culture is shared. It is something that members of a group have in common with each other that is not normally available to people outside the group. It is mental programming held in common that enables insiders to interact with each other with a special intimacy that is denied to outsiders.

Culture is learned and enduring. The mental programming of a group is learned by its members over long periods as they interact with their environment. Some aspects of culture are built into institutions, such as religious beliefs, systems of land ownership, forms of marriage, and so on..

Culture is a powerful influence on behavior. It is hard for us to escape our culture, even when we want to. The mental programming involved is strong. Even when we mentally question the rationality of some aspects of our culture, we have a mental tendency to revert to our cultural roots

Culture is systematic and organized. Culture is not random. It is an organized system of values, attitudes, beliefs, and meanings that are related to each other and to the environmental context. Because of the mental programming imposed by our own culture, the cultures of other people often seem strange and illogical.

Culture is largely invisible. What we see of culture is expressed in living artifacts, but much of it is hidden in the same way that most of an iceberg is below the water line. It is the invisible elements of culture, such as underlying values, social structures, and ways of thinking that are most important.

Culture may be “tight” or “loose.” Cultures differ from each other not just in their details but also in their pervasiveness. “Tight” cultures, such as that of Japan, have uniformity in agreement and are often based on a homogeneous populations or the dominance of particular religious beliefs. “Loose” cultures, like that of the United States, have diverse populations that may be made still looser in some cases by the encouragement of freedom of thought and action in those populations.

Definition of Cultural Intelligence

Cultural intelligence means being skilled and flexible about understanding different cultures. The person with cultural intelligence learns more about a culture based on his or her ongoing interactions with it, and gradually reshapes his or her thinking to be more sympathetic to that culture and adjusts his or her behavior to be more appropriate when interacting with others from that culture.

The Three Elements of Cultural Intelligence

  1. The knowledge of culture and of fundamental principles of cross-cultural interactions. This means knowing what culture is, how cultures vary, and how culture affects behavior.
  2. The mindfulness to pay attention to a reflective and creative way to queues in the cross-cultural situation encountered.
  3. The behavioral skills that involve choosing the appropriate behavior from a well-developed repertoire of behaviors that are correct for different intercultural situation.

The best way of visualizing how these three CQ elements interact is the Venn diagram shown below in Exhibit 1, which depicts how these three elements integrate.

The Three Elements of Cultural Intelligence

Exhibit 1—The Three Elements of Cultural Intelligence

Thought Leaders: Hofstede, Trompenaars

There are several thought leaders in the understanding of culture and its impact on business. Hofstede and Trompenaars are two of the influential individuals whose works should be explored as part of the process of becoming more culturally intelligent as a project manager. Their appropriate books are itemized in the reference section of this paper.

Geert Hofstede is a Dutch writer on the interactions between national cultures and organizational cultures and is an author of several books including Culture’s Consequences (2nd, fully revised edition, 2001) and Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind (2nd revised edition 2005), (which he co-wrote with his son Gert Jan Hofstede).

Hofstede’s study demonstrated that there are national and regional cultural groupings that affect the behavior of societies and organizations and that are very persistent across time.

Fons Trompenaars is a Dutch author in the field of cross-cultural communication. His books include: Riding the Waves of Culture (2004), Seven Cultures of Capitalism, Building Cross-Cultural Competence (2000), and 21 Leaders for the 21st Century (2001)

Trompenaars wrote about the effect of cultural diversity in the way people do business. Because culture is not easily felt unless one is immersed thoroughly in the lives of the people around him or her, it is important for businesses to carefully understand how the culture of partners and the location may optimize the operation of the business, and similarly enhance the way of interaction in business.

In Geert Hofstede’s well-known survey of over 100,000 employees of a large multinational corporation spread across 50 countries, Hofstede’s team identified four major culture variations: individualism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity/femininity. The scores from this exercise provide one of the popular frameworks for understanding cultural variation. I encourage you to investigate Hofstede and his work to examine the scores from his study and how they mesh with your personal experience. A recommended web site is

Project Management Context

The need to be culturally intelligent is relatively new in the project management world, and like most new concepts or approaches, we will naturally be at different levels of knowledge or competency as we move through our career. Six Sigma nomenclatures for “belts” can be used to establish levels of cultural intelligence in this hierarchy:

Green Belt: Having a basic knowledge of the other culture

Black Belt: Having a rich understanding of the other culture and differences from the native culture

Master Black Belt: Can interpret cultural behavior under circumstances of change

The key aspect is to be mindful of the situational nature of CQ. The required level of CQ will depend on the duration and complexity of the project assignment.

Cultural Intelligence and Cross-Cultural Leadership

Cross-Cultural Leadership Dimensions

Strong leadership skills are widely considered a core competency for effective project management. One of the purposes of this paper is to raise your awareness of the impact of culture on the ability to lead teams effectively into today’s globalized environment. Culture aside, most project managers have been exposed to different kinds of leadership styles in their schooling or organization. The most popular styles are itemized below:

  • Autocratic leadership
  • Bureaucratic leadership
  • Charismatic leadership
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership
  • Laissez-faire leadership
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership
  • Servant leadership
  • Task-oriented leadership
  • Transactional leadership
  • Transformational leadership

Two of the polar styles are transactional versus transformational. The transactional style starts with the premise that team members agree to obey their leader totally when they take a job on: the “transaction” is (usually) that the organization pays the team members, in return for their effort and compliance. As such, the leader has the right to “punish” team members if their work doesn’t meet the predetermined standard.

The transformational style is where a leader inspires his or her team with a shared vision of the future. Transformational leaders are highly visible and spend a great deal of time communicating. They don’t necessarily lead from the front, as they tend to delegate responsibility among members of their teams. Although their enthusiasm is often infectious, they can need to be supported by “detail people.”

The conventional wisdom for choosing the appropriate leadership style revolves around the concept of “situational leadership”---being flexible to choose the style that best matches the need. In the project management environment, which is normally a “weak matrix” structure (project management has low power), teams are becoming more culturally diverse and generally dependent on e-mail and phone technology for team communication. In this environment, the project manager needs a leadership model that is more “transformational” in nature than “transactional” in nature.

The following is a transformational model for your consideration where the hub of the steering wheel is Trust, where without it, leadership cannot function (Exhibit 2). The spokes of the wheel are Transformation, Communication, Power, and Empathy. The rim of the wheel is Culture, for without it, the wheel would in fact not be a wheel, and would be ineffective. The lubricant for the wheel is Conflict Management. Conflict can be used to stimulate creativity, but if not managed can cause enough friction that the wheel cannot turn. The wheel also assumes that the leader has knowledge of each component of the wheel, and an understanding of the goal. A weakness in any component will reduce the effectiveness of the leader, and will potentially lead to a nonsustainable business model.

Tranformational Model

Exhibit 2—Tranformational Model

Typically transformational leaders who follow this model pursue the goals of helping the team develop and maintain a collaborative, professional work culture, fostering individual development and nurturing synergy. The four spokes provide core skills that provide leverage for “steering” project teams in a multicultural environment:

Communication: Effective exchange of ideas

Power: Earned influence

Empathy: Compassionate understanding

Transformation: Visionary inspiration

One of your key strategies for making cultural intelligence a signature skill will be the adoption of an integrated cross-cultural leadership model such this one.

Levels of Mental Programming

Hofstede talks about three different levels of mental programming:

▪ The deepest level---human nature---is based on common biological reactions such as hunger, sexual drive, territoriality, and nurturing of the young, which all members of the human race have in common. Because of human nature, there are many behaviors and understandings that all people share, even though they come from different cultures.

▪ The most shallow level---personality---is based on the specific genetic makeup and personal experiences that make each of us a unique individual. For example, we may be social or introverted, aggressive or submissive, emotional or stable. Because of personality, there are many very different behaviors and understandings among different individuals, even among those having the same culture.

▪ The middle level---culture---is based on common experiences that we share with a particular group of our fellow human beings. Cultural values, attitudes, and behavior give us something in common with a definable group of others, although not with all of them. The group may be a very large one, such as a national population, or a very small one, such as a local community or school.

Making Cultural Intelligence: A Signature Skill

David C. Thomas and Kerr Inkson, in their book Cultural Intelligence (2004), articulate a five stage process for developing cultural intelligence:

Stage 1--Reactivity to external stimuli: The normal starting point is mindless adherence to one’s own cultural rules and norms. At this stage, one is on cultural “auto-pilot.”

Stage 2--Recognition of other cultural norms: Experience and mindfulness expand our awareness of the multicultural mosaic around us. At this stage, one is looking for a simple rule of thumb or heuristics to help guide their behavior.

Stage 3--Accommodation of other cultural norms and rules in our own minds; Reliance on absolutes disappears and a deeper understanding of cultural variation begins to develop. At this stage, one knows what to say or do but it doesn’t come naturally.

Stage 4--Assimilation of diverse cultural norms into alternative behavior: Adjusting to different situations no longer requires as much effort. Individuals develop a repertoire of behaviors from which they can choose depending on the specific cultural situation. At this stage, one feels at home almost anywhere.

Stage 5--Proactivity in cultural behavior is based on recognition of changing cues that others do not perceive: Knowing what behaviors are required and how to execute them effectively is very intuitive. Although this level of cultural intelligence may be quite rare, it is certainly an appropriate level of aspiration.

The very first step in developing your cultural intelligence is determining at which stage you are today, using this five-stage model as a framework. Regardless of which stage you are at, one of your key duties as a project manager is to help each and every member of your project team develop cultural intelligence. I am partial to what I call the “T.E.A.M.” approach---an acronym for “Teach it, Expect it, Anchor it, Model it”---which is used to introduce any new skill set or concept to your team members.

Teach it. The absolute best way of fully understanding a subject or concept is to also teach it as soon as you can after you have learned it. In the case of CQ, this will mean teaching this material to your team members, starting with the fundamentals.

Expect it. As a transformational or facilitative leader, your main objective is to build capacity in your team. In the early days of building capacity it is important to lay out the expectation that cultural aspects within the team need to be looked at with a different mental model.

Anchor it. As a leader, you anchor a new concept or idea by providing people with simplified job aids and templates that both clarify and simplify the new expected behavior. For CQ this could be something as simple as a 5x7 laminated job aid that depicts the three overlapping circles: knowledge, mindfulness, and behavioral traits.

Model it. There is no better way to demonstrate your commitment to CQ and your professionalism as a leader than by applying CQ yourself in day-to-day project activities.

Communicating Effectively Across Cultures

Ordinary Things Done Extraordinarily Well

My experience as a corporate coach, consultant, author, and program manager for over 35 years is that doing ordinary things extraordinarily well is what carries the day. It is not the brilliant strokes of genius that deliver long-lasting value and reduced stress levels. Rather, it is a devotion to doing the fundamentals well. I recommend that you consider your commitment to communications excellence in all facets of project management as an ordinary activity---one that, when done extraordinarily well, will make the difference in your outcome and the level of stress that your team experiences.

Differentiating Major Cultural Thinking and Behavioral Styles

Communicating effectively across cultures requires some form of common framework, especially for your team. Language is essential, but the problem is that culture is a vast subject. There are an almost infinite number of possible values, norms, and behaviors. The good news is that the works of thought leaders like Hofstede and Trompenaars have provided a basis to establish a set of cultural orientations and cultural dimensions.

A cultural orientation is an inclination to think, feel, or act in a way that is culturally determined. For example, in the United States, people tend to communicate in a direct fashion, saying what they mean and meaning what they say, in contrast with Asians, whose style is typically more indirect.

The “Cultural Orientation Model” by the Training Management Corporation (TMC) provides a psychometric instrument called the “Cultural Orientation Indicator.” Philippe Rosinski (2003), in his book Coaching Across Cultures, lays out an approach called the “Cultural Orientation Framework” or COF. This framework provides a useful tool for project managers in assessing cultural differences and ultimately leveraging cultural diversity. There are seven major categories in the framework:

▪ Sense of power and responsibility

▪ Time management approaches

▪ Definitions of identity and purpose

▪ Organizational arrangements

▪ Notions of territory and boundaries

▪ Communication patterns

▪ Modes of thinking

Mr. Rosinski provides a self-assessment website ( that can be used by project managers to establish a cultural orientation of themselves and their team quickly and inexpensively. Once your team members have completed the questionnaire for the framework, you can capitalize on the diversity information in many different ways. One approach I have found successful is to post each of the seven categories on flip charts in a conference room and then have team members indicate where they sit in regards to that particular category, recognizing that each category will have some additional dimensions for comparison. Each of the categories and dimensions are well laid out in a website that adds significantly to the user friendliness of this tool. Your job as a project manager is to be creative and opportunistic with the wealth of information that this tool can provide.

Managing Cross-Cultural Virtual Teams

A new business opportunity or project can well force a business manager or project manager into a cultural soup within hours. I have provided a leadership framework to work from and cultural orientation framework you can use with your team. What is left for consideration in this paper is the added impact of working virtually in today’s environment. It is one thing to aspire to being able to function at Stage 5 (i.e., “Proactivity in cultural behavior is based on recognition of changing cues that others do not perceive”), but it is another to be able to do this never having met the team member in person and never seeing their body language. Managing the virtual environment effectively is part of sound facilitative leadership and a prerequisite for putting cultural intelligence in play.

Despite the hype about virtual teams, people actually work better together when they are in close proximity. In addition to the cross-cultural differences described in this paper, the virtual environment has some other major challenges:

Time differences: It is harder to coordinate working in different time zones, with different holiday and vacation calendars.

Communication: The majority of our communication is nonverbal and gets lost when we communicate via e-mail or by phone. Misunderstandings and miscommunication are more likely in the virtual setting.

Coordination: Project work requires countless small adjustments, such as a question about where to get certain information, a request for clarification, and so on. In collocated teams, these adjustments can be done quickly and informally (e.g., “at the water cooler”).

Cohesion barriers: Groups that are collocated develop closer bonds and are more likely to trust each other, help each other, and work harder for each other. Because this bonding happens in informal settings and is further fostered by nonverbal communication, it is much harder to develop in virtual teams.

Control: “Out of sight, out of mind” is a major challenge for all virtual managers. Control efforts without seeing, observing, and face-to-face dialogues with the staff are less effective. The result is more duplication of efforts, late discovery of problems, and more rework.

Six Rules for Leading Virtual Teams

I would like to share the following six rules for leadership in the virtual environment that I have found to be highly practical and valuable:

Rule 1: Create a trustful environment

Whenever you lead a virtual team, you have little or no control over the team members. You have to trust that your team members are doing their jobs correctly. A best practice approach is to create trustworthy relationships. Therefore, every single step in the project has to deepen the trust in:

  • You as the leader of the virtual team
  • Your virtual project or virtual company
  • All virtual team members

Demonstrate trust in all of your team members, especially in the beginning. When you show trust, your team members are likely to become trusting in turn..

Rule 2: Establish meaningful team-specific symbols

Because virtual teams are not located at one place of work, you need to establish meaningful symbols of the team’s connectedness.

  • If possible, have a face-to-face kick-off meeting or at least a video-conference
  • Make sure that all team members know their personal benefits from being part of this team
  • Be creative in finding recognitions and rewards to show appreciation for the performance of individuals and the team

Rule 3: Facilitate opportunities for team members to get to know each other:

Because virtual team members have only limited personal contact, you need to make certain that the team members can learn more about each other.

  • Provide space for team members to learn more about each other, with a full profile of all team members covering professional and private aspects, including their birthdays and hobbies.
  • Have a monthly project newsletter with a wide range of contributions. If possible, arrange at least an annual meeting of the project team.
  • Have a short personal, informal meeting with the team on a regular basis, at which problems can be discussed and feedback on each other given.
  • Encourage your team members to organize themselves in smaller workgroups of two to three people to work on some areas of the project. The RAM is a great tool to formalize this approach.
  • Encourage your team members to bring ideas forward. Appreciate all ideas of your team members. Make sure that your reaction to the ideas is perceived as fair.

Rule 4: Create a clear vision

With virtual teams, breakdowns and loss of motivation after face-to-face meetings frequently occur. Therefore you should:

  • Create clear and understandable intellectual bonds so that all team members know what the objectives of the team are
  • Create a strong emotional relationship on the personal level that works across long distances
  • Have a clear vision that supports all team members with daily guidance

Rule 5:- Treat everyone equally, regardless of distance

It is important that all team members feel fairly treated, regardless of whether they are close or distant. If one team member is perceived as getting special treatment, then this can damage the level of trust and confidence quickly:

  • Avoid the temptation to have more contacts with team members who are physically located closer to you.
  • Treat the needs of all team members alike.
  • Give everybody the opportunity of being seen and contributing meaningfully to the achievements of the team/
  • React immediately if you spot poor performance. You need to correct unacceptable performances and behaviors despite the long distances to bridge.
  • Act predictably and fairly. Make sure all members are fully responsible for their acts and performances.

Rule 6: Use multichannel communications

Bad communication and uneven distribution of information can quickly destroy the trust within a virtual team. Problems are sometimes hidden for several months until they become visible.

During this time, they slow down progress and reduce the productivity of the virtual team and project. Therefore make sure that you communicate clearly by including:

  • Visual clues---pictures, graphics, diagrams, tables
  • Tangible clues---things to touch, to sense, to experience
  • Verbal clues---details, analysis, comparisons, examples, processes

It is your responsibility to ensure that the communication flows are effective within the project and team. A good tool to support you here is the communication plan.

Next Steps

Despite the fact that cultural intelligence is not yet a prominent component of project management conventional wisdom and literature, the time is now for you personally to begin responding to this critical reality. Regardless at which of the five stages discussed in this paper you are currently, developing your CQ will require additional reading, experimentation, and practicing of the new required behaviors. Although an assignment in a new cultural environment is the best way of developing this aspect of your career, there are a number of excellent books and publications to assist you in broadening this horizon. In addition to the websites noted in this material, the following books and publications should be considered. These books are also itemized in the reference section of this paper.


Cultures and Organizations–Software of the Mind by Geert Hofstede (2005)

This book will give you a solid foundation in the implications of Hofstede’s revolutionary study.

Cultural Intelligence–People Skills For Global Business by David Thomas and Kerr Inkson (2004)

This book will give you a good overview of CQ as an emerging intelligence area.

Coaching Across Cultures–New Tools For Leveraging National, Corporate and Professional Differences by Philippe Rosinski (2003)

This book provides you with a great website and detailed information about a cultural orientation framework your team can use immediately.

Final words for this paper come from Gandhi:

“No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Goleman, D. (1995) – Emotional Intelligence:Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, New York: Bantam Books

Grisham, T. (2006). Cross-cultural leadership. Melborne, Royal Melborne Institute Technology University.

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

LeBaron, M., & Pillay, V. (2006). Conflict across cultures: A unique experience of bridging differences. Boston: Intercultural Press.

Morrison, T., & Conaway, W. A. (2006). Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. Avon, MA: Adams Media, and F & W Publishing Company.

Rosinski, P. (2003.) Coaching across cultures. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Thomas, D.C., & Inkson, K. (2004). Cultural intelligence. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C(1997) Riding the Waves of Culture, New York: Mcgraw-Hill

© 2008, Bill Richardson
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA



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