Become a people-savvy project leader across cultures

unlock your people gene



Regardless of culture, have you ever wondered if technical professionals like Project Managers are born without the people gene? As a PM, do you find that you or your people get derailed by your “people issues”? Do you sense that the interpersonal side of your job would be easier if you were more aware of your own behavioural tendencies and better at “reading” other people – if you were PEOPLE SAVVY? Would you be a more effective leader if you were PEOPLE SAVVY as well as technically savvy – especially in multicultural environments? At the same time, as important as cultural factors are, do you wonder if we focus too much on human differences rather than similarities?

The experiential presentation on which this paper is based was designed to provide project leaders with tools to achieve better results through people, regardless of culture, by focusing on universal human factors. Through an interactive discovery process designed to arm them with powerful immediately applicable tools, participants explored the nine universal “Human Operating Systems” (styles, drivers, world views) of the people they interact with on a daily basis, themselves included. Through a series of exercises, participants explored their own human operating system (HOS), learned to identify the HOS's of others, and discovered effective ways to enhance their relations with people with other HOS's across cultures, and therefore facilitate team functioning and desired results. By recognizing and addressing these universal factors, they were able to transcend cultural differences to a large degree. Then they discussed the manifestations and variations of these human operating systems in their cultures.


Leaders most often derail due to “people issues”. Of the eight reasons why successful people derail cited by Frankel (2003), the top four relate specifically to lack of competence in relating to people: overlooking the importance of people; the inability to function effectively in a work group; failing to focus on image and communication; and insensitivity to the reactions of others.

So, according to Zigarmi, Blanchard, O'Conner and Edeburn (2005) a leader's key to success lies in developing the personal and interpersonal competencies (“insight and outsight”) necessary for “arousing, engaging and satisfying the motives of followers”. The good news, according to Kouzes & Posner, is that on the pragmatic level leaders influence others through “a process with an observable, learnable set of practices” (Kouzes & Posner, 1997).

The hands-on Become A People-Savvy Project Leader© process supported conference participants in developing these key competencies and practices. It equipped them with a powerful new tool, a human development and interaction model, to get results through people. This model, the Enneagram, describes nine different ‘Human Operating Systems’ (HOS's), each with its own worldview, source of motivation, and way of relating and working effectively with others.

Participants explored the workings of their own HOS, their own natural style, and ways to optimize it. They also learned to read and engage people with other styles / HOS's more effectively in order to boost team functioning and project performance. Then they discussed the cultural variations on these universal human operating systems.

Effective Communication: The Critical Components (A Model)

When presented with the communication model below (Exhibit 1), participants were asked to identify THE most critical of the components of the model and to justify their choice. Predictably, since they are all indeed critical, at least one person argued for each of the components. After discussion, it was agreed that the human components, Sender and Receiver, were the most critical of the most critical because they drive everything else in some way.

When pressed to specify which of these two was THE most critical, an exploration clarified that the Sender, being the initiator, ultimately drives the process.

The Critical Components of Communication

Exhibit 1: The Critical Components of Communication

This being agreed, participants addressed the question of what the ideal Sender would have to take into account when driving communication. While the Sender would need to take all components into consideration, it was agreed again that the most critical components to take into consideration are again the human components: the Sender him/herself, and the Receiver.

Receiver orientation, as discussed, refers to the need to orient everything toward the person's on the receiving end of communication. Who IS the Receiver? While demographic facts (age, gender, position, etc.) come into play, ultimately the Sender needs to get to the psychographic level, the “what makes him/her tick” level in order to “get” the person well enough to design an effective message, taking appropriate elements of context into account, and choose the appropriate medium in order to get the desired response.

So then it's really the Receiver that is the most important component, no? No, actually. The Sender who does not understand his/her own HOS and take it into account when communicating with the Receiver is more likely to stumble because of those infamous blind spots and distortions inherent in one's own HOS. The less self-aware the Sender, the more likely s/he is to apply the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In the words, have it MY way. Because the people-savvy Sender knows his/her HOS, assuming s/he takes it into account, s/he is in a position to apply the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as others would have you do unto them.

Bottom line, when I as Sender understand and take into account my own HOS and the HOS of my Receiver, I am much more likely to make appropriate choices about the way I communicate, and therefore I'm much more likely to get the Feedback (response) I desire.

The Enneagram: Key to the Nine “Human Operating Systems”

A brief introduction to the Enneagram was given (Exhibit 2). On the most superficial level, the Enneagram can be seen as describing the spectrum of human personalities, depicted on a circle. At this level, the nine types or styles can be seen as nine different personalities. More usefully, it can be seen as describing nine different perspectives or lenses on the world, as nine different ways of working, being and seeing. At the highest or deepest level, the Enneagram can be seen as describing nine different psycho-spiritual systems.

The Enneagram

Exhibit 2: The Enneagram

Participants were urged to approach the Enneagram pragmatically, at the “what drives people” level. From that perspective, the Enneagram can be seen as a user's guide to the nine default human operating systems (HOS's). Our type or HOS is our conditioned coping strategy. It is the way of being and doing that we evolved to help us deal with our challenges because of the interplay between our predispositions and our experiences and environment.

With reference back to the communication model, the Enneagram approach to the human being holds that the more we understand our own HOS as Sender, and the better we are at identifying and understanding the HOS of the Receiver, the better we can design our Message and make the other appropriate choices to ensure effective communication and relating. As a Sender, then, I'm responsible for learning how my HOS functions and then building on its upsides and mitigating the impact of its downsides. This includes learning my stress pattern (shown on the Enneagram diagram by an arrow away from my type number) and my high performance pattern (shown by an arrow toward my type number), as well as the factors that trigger those patterns. I'm also responsible for learning to recognize and understand other HOS's so that I'm able, in a sense, to write better software to connect our HOS's.

Then participants took the QUEST assessment (Exhibit 3) to determine their most likely type / HOS, after which they preliminarily validated the type determination by reading brief profiles of the types (Exhibit 4).


Exhibit 3: QUEST

Enneagram Types

Exhibit 4: Enneagram Types

Identifying & Exploring Individual Styles / HOS's

In triads representing three different HOS's, participants introduced themselves to each other by describing the primary identifying characteristics of their HOS's. They used the descriptions from the QUEST as well as a supplementary sheet describing other aspects of the HOS's, such as work, communications and leadership style (see attached), and most importantly their own self-knowledge. They used the following model:

“I'm Sterling. I'm a ONE. I tend to be a reformer and perfector. It's important for me to do the right things … and do them right. I can be critical, but my intention is to help. I like to feel independent. I work best in an orderly environment. I lead by the book …”

Back in the larger group, participants shared what they learned about the HOS's of the other people in their triads. People with each specific HOS were asked to verify the characteristics and clarify or amplify on them if needed.

Relating Across Styles / HOS's

To explore style interfacing, participants worked again in triads and identified ways for each of them, given their own HOS, to interface more effectively with each of the others. Specifically, they told each partner what they were willing to do to adapt their behaviour to the partner's HOS – to have it his/her way. Then they requested some accommodations from each partner in order to have it their way in some important ways. For example:

“As a ONE (Reformer), I know I can seem heavy and serious to you as a SEVEN (Enthusiast), John. So I commit to doing what I can to lighten up when I approach you. I'll check how you're doing before I launch into my business, for example – maybe even drop by your office on occasion to say hi. How would that work for you?

And here's what I ask of you. I know deadlines are more important to me than you. When you commit to delivery date to me and see you won't hit it, please give me a heads up in advance. That way we can work something out. Agreed?”

Back in the big group, participants shared what they learned about how to interface effectively with each of the HOS's – how to write better software between the different HOS's.

Cultural Manifestations & Variations of the HOS's

In multicultural groups, participants discussed the overall operating system of each country or culture. They then discussed the frequency and distribution of the nine universal human operating systems in their cultures, as well as attitudes toward them. Finally, they explored how to apply this knowledge to enhance the functioning of their multicultural teams.

Summary / Wrap Up

Participants were asked to share what they were taking away of value from their experience, and also to make a specific action commitment based on it.

They were also pointed to an on-line assessment to verify their HOS as well as to some resources to deepen their understanding of their own and other HOS's.

A discussion followed regarding how these universal HOS's show up in the participants’ own cultures.


Frankel, L. (2003) Overcoming Your Strengths: 8 Reasons Why Successful People Derail and How To Remain On Track. Pasadena, CA: Corporate Coaching International

Goldberg, M. (1999) The 9 Ways of Working. New York: Marlow & Company.

Kouzes, J & Posner, B. (1997) The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Riso, D & Hudson, R. (1999) The Wisdom of the Enneagram. New York: Bantam Books.

Zigarmi, D., Blanchard, K., O'Conner, M., & Edeburn, C. (2005) The Leader Within: Learning Enough About Yourself to Lead Others. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

© 2006, Sterling Van De Moortel
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Bangkok



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