Cultural differences in projects

Guest contribution by | 05.09.2019

Do you have experience with international projects? And if so, have you encountered any cultural differences that you could observe in the project participants?

In an international project environment, the focus of a project manager’s tasks often shifts from classical project management tasks to cultural moderation. Understanding intercultural differences while simultaneously accelerating intercultural learning becomes the focus of attention. How is it possible to “intercept” cultural differences in such a setting and to establish suitable working methods?

Differentiation of international differences

I enjoy working on international projects, even though there are often challenges when working with people from different cultural backgrounds. International projects offer synergies that often do not exist in purely national projects. Of course, the use of synergies is not always easy; here I can recommend the inclusion of so-called “cultural agents”. Two thoughts are also helpful in international projects:

  • Not every problem in an international project must have a cultural origin.
  • There are intercultural problems that are not seen as such.

In this article I do not want to discuss differences in laws, norms, guidelines or standards of the project business. Although these can also be influenced by the cultural conditions in different countries, I would like to describe here only some human differences or effects of culture in projects.

The cultural programming of employees

How does culture influence people, and why does Geert Hofstede, a former professor of organisational anthropology and international management at the University of Maastricht and a renowned expert in cultural studies, speak of a “collective programming of the mind”?

A person is always born into a culture and absorbs it directly. “Cultivation” or “cultural programming” already takes place at baby age – at the age of 7, most of the culture is already internalised. Depending on their social environment, people acquire different cultural layers at different stages of their lives:

  • The innermost and thus first layer originates from childhood and is characterized by
    the country,
    the social class,
    the ethnic group,
    the religious faith or also
    the region where you grow up.
  • The second layer is made up of vocational training. It often turns out that people from the same occupational group but from different cultural backgrounds understand each other better than people from the same country but from different occupational groups.
  • The third and last layer consists of company-specific norms and behaviours. This is the so-called layer of corporate culture.

Since the majority of people often only move within one cultural group – and a confrontation with another culture, if at all, takes place only superficially – “cultural programming” rarely becomes conscious. International project management is a pioneer of change here.

Basically, a project employee or project manager behaves according to his or her cultural ancestry and interprets all incidents based on his or her cultural programming. Thus, the behaviour of foreign project staff is often dismissed as “weird” because it cannot be explained by their own cultural programming. In my projects I could observe how the respective advantages of the different cultures involved are adapted in the course of the project after approx. 3 months. After about 6 months the first cultural “frustrations” appear. And after 9 months the cultural aspects are considered more strongly and really considered by culture-comparative questions. For project durations of less than 9 months, a mature understanding of culture cannot be expected among the project participants.

An open discussion with another culture is subliminally problematic, since it can shake one’s own value system and challenge the questioning of one’s own basic values. It therefore seems at least understandable that many project participants avoid confrontation and withdraw into the familiarity of their own culture. A confrontation becomes unavoidable for project managers and project staff who live in another country for a longer period of time. The mastery of the obvious rituals and behaviours alone takes about 12 months, assuming that the local language is spoken fluently.

Cultural levels and dimensions

In order to capture culture, a wide variety of approaches and studies were developed. The American social scientist Edgar Schein, emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, distinguishes between three cultural levels:

  • The first level contains directly perceptible characteristics such as clothing, food, music or manners. These are visible, but require interpretation.
  • The second level consists of values and norms that provide guidelines for behavior in a culture. These are also persons of the respective culture only partially conscious. Cultural members often believe that these guidelines should also be present in other cultures.
  • The third level contains beliefs that are so self-evident that they are ignored.

One of the most important studies, which has become quite old in the meantime, but which nevertheless points the way forward, goes back to Geert Hofstede. He notes four important dimensions:

  • Power distance
    It expresses how high the acceptance is of accepting power differences.
  • Individualism versus collectivism
    Here it is described whether the individuals see themselves as individuals and independent or as members of a group/culture.
  • Masculinity versus Femininity
  • Masculinity in a culture is recognised as performance-related or success-related and self-confident. A feminine culture, on the other hand, pays close attention to interpersonal relationships and cooperation.
  • Uncertainty avoidance
    Here, differences can be observed in dealing with threats – e.g. in uncertain or unknown situations – and in avoiding them accordingly.

In 1987 further dimensions were added to the approach:

  • Conceptions of time
    The present, past or future orientation of a culture is defined here.
  • Conceptions of space
    Here it is recorded how socially distanced or introverted the members of a culture behave.
  • Contextuality
    Is there direct or indirect communication? Or to put it another way: How much context or non-verbal communication is anchored in culture?
    Cognitive processes
  • How are the mental patterns of a society developed, for example the way of thinking, of judging and of drawing conclusions. It revolves around aspects such as analysis, ratio versus synthesis, or intuition.
  • Religious ideas
    Depending on their religious beliefs, the respective cultural members tend to regard their fate as self-controlled or foreign-controlled.


Effects of cultural dimensions on project business

In the following, I would like to take a closer look at the first four cultural dimensions in order to identify the differences in the international project business.

Power Distance

If employees from different cultures are deployed in a project, aspects of the power distance should be taken into account. For example, my Indian colleagues have a greater power distance than my Scandinavian or German colleagues. They feel out of place in a highly cooperative project structure and expect clear structures. These structures offer them stability.

In my experience, both Indian and Mexican colleagues feel much more “comfortable” with clear guidelines – e.g. when preparing status reports. In most cases, they do not want to make any decisions without consulting their project managers. Project managers should therefore formulate very detailed instructions and make sure that, in comparison with colleagues from cultural backgrounds with a smaller power distance, the familiarisation with activities is more detailed and systematic despite comparable project experience.

Individualism versus collectivism

This dimension deals with the prioritisation of the individual or the group. In an individualistically pronounced society, the individual is at the forefront. In projects with employees from different cultures who represent different individualism indices (degrees of individuality), measures should be taken to support team building.

Cultures such as the USA are considered very individualistic, which means that project staff from this country should be absorbed particularly intensively in the team spirit. Asian employees regularly need feedback during the course of the project and will actively and repeatedly demand it from all sides. Here it is advisable to schedule regular feedback rounds – e.g. in the context of weekly or 2-week meetings / telephone calls. Furthermore, in my experience, projects with North American colleagues often require coordination rounds that have to be controlled by portfolio management. In Asian projects, on the other hand, coordination and coordination are more culturally rooted.

Masculinity versus femininity

In many cultures, masculinity is associated with performance, success and self-confidence. Femininity, on the other hand, stands for interpersonal relationships and cooperation. Contrary to this dimension, however, I have noticed a clear focus on interpersonal relationships and quality of life in my Scandinavian colleagues. In such environments, pressure to perform is more damaging than supportive. The target values of a project are usually defined differently there than in many projects initiated in German-speaking countries. One project, for example, dealt with the sensitive issue of location dissolution. The aspects that were discussed in the course of this dissolution differed greatly in Sweden and Switzerland. In Switzerland, the focus was on the effectiveness of the closure (short project duration), while in Sweden, emphasis was placed on employee-oriented scheduling.

Uncertainty avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance deals with a threat posed by uncertain or unknown situations. Societies with a strong tendency to uncertainty avoidance attempt to influence uncertainty through rules, laws, codes of conduct and security measures. Accordingly, particular emphasis should be placed on risk identification in countries with low uncertainty avoidance. In “emerging countries” such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia, on the other hand, you should pay attention to a detailed identification of the risks. Project managers from these countries tend to overlook or ignore project risks. Project managers in countries with a high degree of uncertainty avoidance, such as Portugal, are quick to identify risks on their own, but are more likely to find it difficult to develop an appropriate risk avoidance. Employees from these countries often tend to bring the same risks to the table repeatedly without deriving the necessary measures. In comparison to other cultures, this results in a kind of blockade due to the identified risks.

Intercultural competence and communication

Intercultural competence is defined as the ability to move successfully in other cultural areas. The acting persons should be able to understand the ideas, motives and problems of partners from other cultural areas and to react appropriately. However, since there are still no clear findings in science about the key factors for human adaptation to foreign cultures, there is no clarity about what intercultural competence ultimately consists of. It is important to understand the behaviour of others with the rules of their culture.

Example: Non-verbal communication and body language is not in itself a direct cultural dimension, but a collection of behaviours. A direct connection with a cultural dimension as described above does not seem to exist, at least not directly. Basically, however, one can assume that in Asia in particular body language is rather subdued, whereas in Southern Europe body language is more widely used. It is therefore advisable to familiarise oneself with the most common symbols before interacting.

In addition, misunderstandings can be avoided by universal, generally accepted rules of communication:

  • Meta-communication
    Meta-communication is communication about communication. It is about communicating the meaning and intention of what is said by talking about the rules and patterns according to which communication takes place.
    “My intention is to experience …”
    “How would you proceed in your culture if you had that intention?”
  • Active listening
    Active listening means picking up the other person in his emotional world, e.g. by repeating the facts heard. The listener thus expresses what the speaker says in his own words: “You mean that …”.
  • Emotional response
    The listener tries to express in words the feelings and emotions he has perceived in the speaker: “I have the impression that this is fun for you”.
  • Inquiring
    Inquiring offers the opportunity to present the problem situation even more clearly and to understand it better: “What do you mean by…?


Bottom line

There are many cultural differences in international projects. Of course people are individual, but in my experience cultural dimensions often come into play. For project managers and project team members who work in an international environment, it is therefore advisable to learn intercultural competence. The following characteristics are particularly helpful:

  • Ambiguity tolerance is the ability to endure unstructured and contradictory situations.
  • Problem solving skills
  • Empathy and sensitivity to read the concerns and interests of others from vague hints, gestures or other signals.
  • Frustration tolerance to deal adequately with errors, misunderstandings and failures.
  • Conflict ability and conflict tolerance
  • Willingness to learn paired with curiosity
  • A strong individual-cultural identity and thus the awareness of one’s own cultural imprint as a prerequisite for dealing with people from other countries/cultures.
  • The willingness to look at oneself from a certain distance.

And last but not least:

  • Humour as the ability to laugh about yourself.



Marc Widmann describes further models of intercultural cooperation here  »
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Marc Widmann
Marc Widmann

Marc Widmann studied Business Administration at the Universities of Otto-Friedrich-University Bamberg and Aston University Birmingham (GB) with a focus on International Management and Organisation. In 1991 he founded his first company in the services sector. Mr. Widmann was managing partner of two other capital goods companies. In 1999 he joined CSC Deutschland Solutions GmbH, formerly Ploenzke AG, as a member of the Core Industry Solutions Project Management Division. Since 2003 he has worked as a project and project portfolio manager. From 2010 he worked for T-Systems International GmbH in the Large Scale Project Management Division. In 2018 he joined Tata Consultancy Services GmbH as Program Manager and Head of Program Management.