Project Management Institute

Project management communication

a multicultural dimension

Olatunji “Femi” Obikunle B.Sc. (Hon), M.Sc, M.Sc, PCLP, PMP, Consultant, Compuware Corporation

This paper presents a view of project management that is not presented in standard project management curriculum (communication viewed by culture). In order to understand the importance of culture upon the project management approach, it is important to understand the definition of culture upon which this paper is built: culture root origin, societal interpretation by S.G. Summer.

The word “culture” stems from the Latin “colere,” translated as to build on, to cultivate, and to foster. Culture then is the totality of the following attributes of a given group (or subgroup): share values, believes and basic assumptions, as well as any behavior arising from those, of a given group. Therefore, culture is a function of national character, perception, spatial concept, thinking, language, nonverbal communication, values, and behavior: norms, rules and manners, social groupings and relationships.

Various scholars like S.G. Summer introduced the concept of “Ethnocentrism”: it refers to the tendency that most people see their own culture as the “center of the World.” Often this phenomenon has been seen as a result of” naïve ” thinking, following from the assumption of the World itself being like it appears to the individual: a set of “self-evident” rules, roles, categories and relationships, seen as “natural.” The concept of ethnocentrism is often displayed in the form of nationalism.

Monocultural communication is based on common behavior, language and values. The day-to-day interaction between members of the same culture is based on roughly common definitions. These similarities allow the members of the same cultural background to be able to predict the behavior of others and assume a common perception of reality (Bennett 1998). Monocultural communication therefore is based on similarities of expected situational behaviors by culturally inclusive societal members.

Intercultural communication does not allow for assumptions of similarity to be made that easily. If culture is defined by the difference of language, behavior, and values, these differences have to be recognized. Intercultural communication therefore is based on differences.

It is estimated that over 70% of international joint business ventures fail due to cultural misunderstandings. This cost North American firms approximately $2.4 billion dollars annually (University of British Columbia—Center for Intercultural Communication website). The ability to build relationships with people of different cultures is often quoted as a key to success in today's global business environment”(UBC website).

“When you stare through a window and think that there is only one World, then it is the window that you are looking at.” “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”—Albert Einstein. In order to promote harmony, development and increase workplace productivity in the 21st century, Project Managers (PMs) have to rethink and free themselves of only seeing the “window” past.

Imagine for a moment a PM who has a website project to manage. The customer is an American company that wants its website to have English, Spanish, and French as the languages that are assessable on the site. The Project team Comprises of Developers in India, Testers in China and Validation & Proofreaders in Brazil, France, and England.

If the PM in question will succeed then he or she has to be sensitive to the cultural differences in the team. Rather than see the diversity as a burden the PM would be well advised to tap into it as an advantage and strength.

My friends in the hypothetical situation described above had happen and would continue to happen with higher frequency thanks to our collective digital world that keep shrinking daily. It is for this reason that we all have to be more sensitive and open-minded to other cultures that are different from ours. The open-mindedness and genuine interest we bring as PMs makes such difference in degree that is translated in the difference in kind on the overall success of the project. This is why we should all pay attention to this subject now.

We all have to come to terms with the fact that there are basic cultural differences between us and it is not necessarily a bad thing if we all work on it, we can make it our strongest point.

The first step is to admit that we all have our “home base” as far as culture is concerned and that we are prepared to look at other people's “home bases” to learn what is good and adaptable to us. That acknowledgement goes a long way to harness the benefits that comes from cultural diversity.

The second step is to come to terms with the fact that the cultural background of each individual informs the ways and forms of communication which they choose to express themselves because that is how they feel comfortable to present their viewpoint.

Although it behooves on the individual who is the minority to try their utmost best to integrate into the main culture by way of finding a happy medium of communication within the context of the main cultural environment. The main culture also has a responsibility to the minority by way of been accommodating to the minority that now has to operate within its domain. It is a give and take attitude that makes it a win-win situation for all parties concerned.


Communication we would define as the process by which participants create and share information with one another in order to reach a mutual understanding. The cultural and personal preferences of each individual dictate the means of communication, which they feel comfortable to express themselves.

Common Means of Communication

Verbal Communication

Various cultures prefer verbal communication because to them it encourages open dialogue and above all it enriches trust and commitment from the parties involved. Any other means is less effective and may become problematic that would be counterproductive to the project deliverables.

Verbal communication is mostly used among the Asians, Africans, and Mid-Easterners.

Electronic Communication

There are various cultures that prefer using electronic/data transfer to communicate. They feel comfortable with this means of communication. They take full advantage of the benefits that comes with this means like instantaneous messaging, storage and retrieval of message, shrinking of distance between all parties.

A large proportion of westerners (Europeans and Americans) prefer this means of communication.

Written Communication

There are those who for various reasons prefer communication in written form (black and white). To people who belong to this category it is the proper way to communicate anything less is uncivilized (as the commercial goes).

It so happens that people from all walks of life belong to this class.

It is a personal choice for most people not necessarily a cultural bias.


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 PMs 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 PM regarding the team should be the following:

1. How do I interact effectively with people in my team?

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

3. How will these people from different cultures interact on the project?

4. What is the best way to handle communication among the team member who happens to come from different countries?

5. How do I resolve cross-cultural conflicts among them?

Meaning to the Audience: Why Should PMs Care?

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

What Problems Are PMs Having?

a. Majority of PMs do not understand the culture of the people they work with.

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

c. Sometimes PMs ignore the needs of the team members.

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

e. Misinterpretation of cultural symbols. For example, among most people in Africa, namely Nigeria, and Asia, namely India, it is regarded as an insult “a taboo or abomination” to give things to people with your left hand. Whereas in Canada, Britain, USA, and other countries it does not have any negative meaning.

British people are usually very cautious by making use of please a lot in their communication whether with team members, stakeholders, or clients. In America, the use of please is rarely used, as it will have a different meaning. Therefore, a Briton working in USA who is fond of saying please would be looked upon as someone always begging.

In most Afro-Asians countries, they do not call anybody who is older than us at workplace by their first name. Instead, they address them as Mr. Lastname. This is contrary to what is happening in the Western World.

Nigerians, bow for elders to show sign of respect whether they are on project team or organization. I believe the same is true for people who come from such countries as Japan, India, Ghana, Seirra—Leone and Kenya to mention a few. Sometimes, this cultural aspect is translated to work places. Often, you'll see team members bowing for their PM and the PM would be wondering why? Now, you know!

Key to Communicating Well on a Project Team

1. The PM must know that communication is job No. 1 for him or her. Taking that job seriously is key to successful project management.

2. Have a clear understanding/agreement on means of communication with the team. It could be email, voicemail, cell phone, pager, team meeting, etc.

3. Be sensitive to the means of communication that each individual feels comfortable with “One size does not fit all.” If the PM has to make an exception to take cognizance of the cultural diversity that may exist, so be it.

4. The PM should periodically review the means of communication with most (if not all) team members to ensure that the need for a change in the means of communication has not occurred. If there is a need to make changes it should be promptly addressed. This would be an indicator to the individual and the team member that their concern is being addressed.


There is danger in not taking the above points to mind in a project team. A project team, whose preferred means of communication is email, has team member whose preferred means of communication is voicemail, that member would fell left out of the information loop. The gap in communication has the potential of seriously affecting the deliverables. It can be compared to an African speaking Swahili to Chinese whose native language is Cantonese.

How Can This Subject Help?

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

2. Help PMs think globally as opposed to focusing only within their locality.

What Should PMs Do?

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

b. 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 an effective solution.

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

d. Do not expect everybody to pronounce things the same way you do. For example, an American PM who goes to London, England for the first time will ask people around himself or herself for the location of the washroom (in Britain, it is called toilet). In a restaurant, the PM 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 PMs look at most foreigners).

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

f. Conquer new frontiers by understanding the global responsibility of everybody.

g. Acquire more training in conflict—solving techniques (emphasizing cultural orientation).

Analogy (Culture Variables)

Accent: The way American pronounces things like water, computer, and forty is different from the way they are pronounced in other countries of the World.

The same thing goes for writing. Canadians write midwifery, which is midwivery in Britain. 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 does 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, and 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. North Americans cover silences as if unwelcomed and unwarranted. They admire fluent speakers who move quickly from idea to idea without pause in an organized manner. Americans talk to resolve differences; other cultures keep silent to avoid differences. Americans talk to share feelings; Afro-Asians keep quiet to share feelings. For North Americans, silence represents a breakdown in communication; for the Indians and Africans, silence represents harmony in communication.

Gesture: A pointed finger or waving is considered an insult in Greece, Nigeria, Ghana, and 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, and Britain, employees show respect and confidence by maintaining eye contact. Avoidance of eye contact in USA, Canada, and Britain 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 Britain, we drive on the left-hand side of the road. When I got to North America, the situation is not the same. It took me sometime to get used to this pattern of driving. Likewise, an American who has not visited England would have the shock of his or her life when he or she drives there for the first time when he or she realizes that they do not drive on the right side of the road which he or she had “hitherto” thought is the norm. (Recall Einstein's window!)

The same thing goes for crossing the road in another Country without first studying the transportation culture in that area. Therefore, be prepared to be challenged by what other cultures have to offer.

The same analogy goes for a PM who has been taught to do things in a certain way without realizing that it might be done in another way with the same result.

“The first time I visited Canada, I was taken from the Airport by a cabman whose native country was Brazil, driving a German car, and listening to Italian music. On getting to my friend's place, I sat on a chair made from France and drank Java coffee from Malaysia and the spoon I used was from Egypt” (Femi Obikunle, Unpublished presentation to members of Toastmasters International, Waterloo—Canada1997).

The above experience explains the variations that PMs encounter in their work place today. Daily, they have to work with people from Brazil, Germany, France, India, Japan, England, and Egypt, to mention a few.

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

PMs 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. They should be aware of the differences in people from other cultures and help the entire team foster cultural acquisition that is acceptable by the company paying the bill.

Nonverbal communication: In some cultures, the nonverbal way to express things is much more important than many European cultures. Nonverbal communication can be something, as Hall defined, “in which most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the (…) explicit transmitted part of the message” (Hall 1998, p. 58f). Therefore, the understanding of the “hidden” messages of nonverbal behavior in some cultures can be absolutely essential in dealing effectively with members from these backgrounds. In other words, the unspoken word can hold the intrinsic value of the conversation.

Communication style: There may be quite a difference between the way a European might describe a problem, versus someone with an African background. Some cultures may go straight to the point whilst others may circle round the topic. The difference between a linear and a more contextual way of expressing things can cause anger, impatience and misunderstanding. This can be avoided or at least limited by some basic knowledge of different communication styles (Booher, Dianna).

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 that promotes understanding within the team.

Project Communication Model

Model illustrating the problem of differences in culture experienced by PMs.


Influencing the Organization



Problem Solving






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 PMs working in a cross-cultural environment, it is this subtle area that is most problematic. Below is an elaboration on some important points in the model.


The leadership of a PM via verbal and nonverbal communication is a summation of who the PM is. There is a need for the PM and the Team member to work toward a middle ground that is productive for the task at hand. This is only possible if there is an open communication from all parties

Influencing the Organization

The PM has to know that there is a system that works in influencing the Organization. One sure way is identifying the opinion leaders and getting a buy-in from them. It means the PM has to become savvy at communication but more particularly using language/symbols the resonate with the targeted audience be it time, cost or quality or for that matter anything that conveys the message. With the opinion leaders on side the PM can readily go far in influencing the organization. The PM in putting his or her thoughts together needs to understand the cultural Indosynscrysis that is peculiar to the organization. That means avoiding anything that would bring resistance because of the corporate cultural stand. That would tailor the presentation and communication in order to achieve the expected goal.


The PM needs to have a clear idea of what the nonnegotiable are and what are negotiable. It helps too if the PM has an understanding of where the other party in the negotiation are coming from. It is very important that proper language is used during negotiation. That is why any peculiarity of each party should be understood and ensure that personal feelings that negatively affect negotiations are reduced if not eliminated.

The Philosophy of a Palm Tree Climber

A palm tree climber thinks he was the most knowledgeable person in the World. One day, as he was trying to climb the palm tree to tap wine, a passer by told him to carry his keg “akengbe”(as it is called among the Yorubas from the Western part of Nigeria) to his bag instead of the front, which he had been accustomed to, in order to make climbing easier. It was at this point he realized for the first time how foolish he had been by putting the “akengbe” in front of him when climbing, because he found it easier to climb with that suggestion.

Likewise, a PM who has been managing projects for many years may have been doing the same thing in a wrong way year after year. No wonder he always have people within his or her team fighting overtime, which ultimately affect deadline, budget, and quality to mention a few. Now, you know! Understand your team members and listen to the advice of others within the project team.

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 PM who encourages good relationship with members of his/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, which 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 the 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.


This paper has addressed the major cultural problems that PMs are facing today, pointed out issues in global communication and discussed the need for intercultural competence, made comparison with respect to various aspects of communication and suggested ways to solve them. It is my utmost belief that with these suggestions, PMs would have grasped a better idea of how to handle various cultural problems they encounter with people (especially those from different cultures) who work on their team and those they may come across within their locality or across international boundaries while performing their duties. Also, being culturally aware will make them better positioned to deal with 21st century communication management challenges in other areas of their lives.

If you only remember one thing from this presentation, let it be “Open the door of your heart to understand different cultures.”


I wish to express my profound gratitude to Eileen Crosbie and her group, Dynamic Consulting International (DCI) headed by Judy Wen-Hsia (Ph.D.) for their comments and proofreading. My friends and professional colleagues Muyiwa Kolade, PMP, and Damola Atekoja, PMP, for their numerous contributions and Nancy Johnson of Compuware Corporation for her usual encouragement and support.


Booher, Dianna. Communicate with confidence! McGraw Hill, Inc.

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

Kerzner, Harold. Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, 6th edition.

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

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville,Tenn.,USA



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