Intercultural Competence and Project Management

Linh Tran, Wednesday 25 February 2015 | Reading time: unknown

Intercultural Competence and Project Management

We live in a globalized world and this affects every part of a business and as a result international projects are getting more and more frequent. This opens many opportunities for businesses and project managers, but it also entails some challenges due to the cultural differences between team members. These challenges are by no means unsurmountable as intercultural competence is a skill that can be learned. 

Advantages of International Projects

Multi-cultural project teams can increase the chance of a project’s success, because they are diverse, have their own set of skills and can offer new perspectives to the project. This all can help, not only the project, but also the company to be more effective, gain valuable experience and increase its competitiveness.

Intercultural Competence and its relevance for project management

Broadly speaking intercultural competence is a skill that helps you to successfully interact with people from different cultures. You gain this skill by learning about other cultures and by learning to understand and respect that there is a difference to your own. A person with intercultural competence can adapt their behavior in order to accommodate others if necessary.  This can also help team members connect with each other, as they will see that the other party makes an active attempt and takes time to understand their culture.

Impact of culture on project management

Impact on the project management triangle

Intercultural competence is important for project management, because the variable ‘culture’ has an effect on all three constraints of project management (cost, schedule, scope) and that can have an impact on a project’s success.


For some cultures the saying ‘time is money’ does not apply and money is valued differently. So the adherence to a budget might be seen as obligatory or optional depending on the culture.


Time can be perceived very differently which can affect scheduling. Like with the budget some think that being on schedule might be very important while others might see it as a mere guideline. This impacts every part of a project’s process: starting times of meetings might be interpreted differently (for example, ‘meeting at 1pm’ could be understood as ‘it will actually start at 1:15pm’).


Language constraints, but also the wrong interpretation of nonverbal cues, can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings of the scope. Of course, this problem exists in general, but cultural barriers exacerbate this.

Skills a Project Manager needs when working on an international project

As we have seen above cultural differences can influence your project’s success. Project managers therefore need to develop additional skills, like cultural awareness, be flexible and learn to adapt their leadership style in order to enhance their team’s motivation.

Cultural awareness

The first step in gaining intercultural competence is to recognize that there are differences between your own culture and other cultures and understanding that neither is ‘better’ than the other, but just ‘different’. Through reading about the values and beliefs and interacting with members of a culture you can gain knowledge that will help you becoming more culturally aware.

Management style

A Western management style might not work in non-Western cultures. Depending on the culture the team members come from, they will have different expectations towards the project manager, who needs to realize this and change his managing style accordingly. Multi-cultural teams will also cooperate differently. A project manager’s biggest challenge in managing a team is to reconcile the different cultural values and norms of all the team members and to blend them into one that will fit the whole team and the project’s objectives.

Language skills

Language is needed for effective communication and it is the best way to understand a culture. Nowadays fluent business English is a minimum requirement, but there a differences between the variations of English. Therefore, it is important to read between the lines, sometimes what is said is not always what is meant. For example, in China a ‘yes’ often means ‘I’m listening to what you are saying’ and not a sign of agreement.

Dealing with conflict

This aspect is part of the management style, but deserves a separate mention because it is a factor that can make or break a project. When working on a project conflicts will be inevitable (see the triple constraints). How a project manager addresses and resolves the conflict is important. In an international context, a direct approach is preferable in some cultures, but in others that would not work.


Intercultural competence is very important in today’s business environment and project managers are required to develop additional skills to manage international projects successfully.  

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