Challenges in cross-cultural project management

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Developed by Frederik Skjoldborg


In the globalized world we see today, there is a bigger need for managers to recognise, understand, and manage different cultures. This can both be when doing projects within an organization that works in different countries and when working with local contractors, partners and suppliers. The scope of this article is to highlight some of the areas that can cause problems and why they occur by using Hofstede's cultural dimensions.

It is not an easy task to manage a project team. There is no "one fit all method" and every project can give new challenges that the leader have never experienced before. Even though there are some attributes that are seen as generally good for a project manager like honesty, positivity and being a good communicator, there are also some that in some cultures are seen as good but in others seen as bad.[1] A project group will consist of different individuals, which will also have an impact on how well the group works, but the scope of this article will not be on that but on a cultural level instead.


The Concept

Hoffstede’s culturel dimension framework is the product of a research made by Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist. It is based on data collected at IBM between 1967 to 1973, where more than 100,000 employees, from across 70 countries were asked about individuals values and attitudes. It consisted of 4 dimensions, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, indiviualism versus collectivism and masculinity versus femininity. First the 40 countries with must respondents were used but later 10 extra countries where added together with 3 regions (the Arab region, East Africa and West Africa), and two extra dimensions Long term orientation versus short term normative orientation and Indulgence versus restraint where included in the framework. Below is a description of the different dimensions.

Power distance

Is about how willing a culture is to accept inequality in physical and intellectual capabilities. This is very often show in how big power and wealth differences are “allowed” in the culture. In a company or a project group this can be seen by the ability for employees lower in the hierarchy to get in direct contact with superiors, question their decisions and come with suggestions to how things could work better. The higher the score the higher allowance in power distance for the culture. Countries that have a high power distance includes most South american countries, middle eastern and asian countries and low scoring countries are the northern part of europe especially scandinavia.

Uncertainty avoidance

As the name indicates it is the degree of how much a culture want to avoid uncertainty. Cultures that have a high uncertainty avoidance appreciate high job security, clear career patterns and a high level of rules and regulations. The manager is to give clear instructions, and there is a high avoidance to take risks. Also the resistance towards changes are getting higher as the uncertainty avoidance score raises. Examples of high scoring countries are southern europe, the middle east and South america, whereas the low scoring countries are Scandinavian, UK and some of the former british colonies.

Individualism versus collectivism

Individualism and collectivism is about to what extent individuals of a culture is to take care of themselves and their closest relatives. Cultures with a high Individualism score is also rating individual achievement and freedom very high. The “american dream” or the thoughts behind the american system is a good example of a culture that scores high in individualism, with the equal rights, and that everyone is free to do what they want. On the other side, you have a country as China which have a low individualism score which means that collectivism is high. The reason for that is probably to be found in the communist system that have had a big influence on the modern chinese culture. Here the wellbeing of the whole culture is more important than individual achievement or freedom. There is a strong loyalty towards the group that you are a part of in low scoring cultures, and that also means that it can be harder for and outsider to manage people from these cultures, since so much is build on trust and loyalty. In short this can all be described as if the people of the culture first and foremost have an "I" or a "we" way of thinking.

Masculinity versus femininity

The masculinity score is about how the culture look at gender and work roles. If a country have a high masculinity score the sex roles are traditional and there is a clear distinction between “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs”. There is a high preference for material rewards and pursuit of achievements, which influence the competitiveness in the culture. On the other side in the low scoring masculinity (or femininity) cultures more emphasis is put on a general cooperation and the gender roles are not as sharply defined. Personality traits that are value high in these countries are the "soft" ones, like caring for others and putting relationships over money. High scoring countries includes Germany, Great Britain, Mexico and Japan, and low scoring includes Scandinavia and The Netherlands. [2]

Long term orientation versus short term normative orientation

Cultures that scoring high on this dimension is has a more long term approach to the world. This means that they plan long ahead, put a lot of efforts in modern education and in general are planning more on the future than on short term goals. These countries are also better to adapt traditions when the conditions in the culture change. Cultures that scores low is more bound by tradition and norms which influence that there is a focus on achieving quick goals.

Indulgence versus restraint

If a culture scores high in indulgence it means that the culture have a relatively high acceptance of satisfaction of basic and natural human pleasures related to enjoying life and having fun. Cultures that scores low on this is regulated by social norms that regulates this.[3]

Comparison of cultures

For the comparison between cultures it has decided to look at Denmark, United States and China. The reason for this is that there are a lot of differences between these 3 countries, but also because both United States and China are big markets so there is a good possibility that a danes at some point would end up working with either or both cultures. The comparison will be used by imagining that the project group is made people from Denmark, United States and China. As it is seen on the comparison all but uncertainty avoidance have a big gab between the lowest and highest scoring country. Looking at power distance we see that Denmark and China have a big gab while United States are in the middle. This means that a Danish or Chinese manager most likely would have a harder time managing the group compared to an American. The reason for that is that a Danish manager could be seen as weak or bad by asking to many questions to the rest of the group since it would be seen as the person would not be good enough to hold that possition. If there where things that was not clear enough formulated the Chinese might not ask questions or question decisions in general to not making the leader loose face. On the other hand if the leader were Chinese there would be the risk of the Danes asking to many questions and by that make the leader loose face and feel disrespected. Looking at the scores on masculinity it is seen that both United States and China has a high score while Denmark is scoring low. This could have the have influence that a Danish project manager would have to prove there worth more if the project group was in an area that historically have been considered a "men's job" or "Women's job". This will probably mainly been in a group where there are individuals that have this mindset, but it is still worth being aware of. Another thing that can happen with the scores being far apart is how dedicated people are to work together compared to working on individual tasks in the project. Is the task made in cooperation and managed by consensus or are the tasks just destributed between the perticipants. The individualism score is also important to look at since this can have a huge impact on how well the work in the project group is. In high scoring individualism countries like Denmark and United States there is a more straight forward approach to work. It does not matter that much if you have a personal relationship with the people you are working with. The most important is that the job is done in a good way so you can put it on your resume and use it. For countries with a low individualism score it is important to create some kind of relationship, with the people you are working with since it is important to feel like a part of the group.[5] [6] [7]

Limitations of the concept

The research is more a concept for business culture than a direct project management concept, and it has been criticised for for not differentiating between culture and country, because a country can consists of multiple cultures. The research is based upon data from a single company, and although it was a large multinational company there will still be some similarities across the company since people have the same pushed by the same organizational culture around the world. Lastly it has been criticised for being a bit biased since all of the research group was either european or american and the results correlates well with a “western” view on cultures. It is also an important point that it is more that 40 years ago that the research was original done so the cultures in the different countries could have changed for instance due to globalization.

These things taking into account it is important to mention that that the same survey that was originally used in IBM has been tested at business seminars outside aswell and the results look a like. Even though this is not a general management concept it can be very relevant for project managers that have to manage a cross-cultural project group to know about this. This is especially true when the project group consists of people from countries with high difference in scores for the different dimensions. A big part of it is for the manager to be aware of where there could be clashes and to be cultural sensititve to this.[7]

Annotated bibliography

International business From this reference is used chapter 3, "Diffence in culture", that talks a lot about the how differences in culture influence how it is to do business in that country. For this article the main focus have been on the part about Hofstede's cultural dimensions but the chapter also includes parts about religion and spoken versus unspoken language. The scope of the book is more a business point of view instead of a project management view but a lot of the points is still relevant to project management. A webside also called "the hofsted center" that is hosted by culture consultancy, itim International, and the research by Gert Hofstede. It is a platform that gives and overview over the resarch while also offering comparing tools, and is also where the picture is taken from. This have a high relevance for everyone that what to know more about Hofstede's research and is also offering certification courses in intercultural management.

Cultural dimensions for project management Is an article written by Hofstede himself where he is explain the the original reseach and why it is important for project managers to know about and how and understanding of these cultural dimensions.


  1. J.Frost; M.Walker, Cross cultural leadership, (Iet Engineering Management — 2007, Volume 17, Issue 3), pp. 27-29
  2. C.W.L. Hill; C. Wee; K. Udayasankar, International Business: Asian Global Edition 2e, (McGraw-Hill Education(Asia), 2016), p.76-110.
  3. Website:, visited 25/9-2016
  4. Website:, visited 25/9-2016
  5. S.Chevrier, Cross-cultural management in multinational project groups", (Journal of World Business — 2003, Volume 38, Issue 2), pp. 141-149
  6. L.S. Pheng; C.H.Y Leong, Cross-cultural project management for international construction in China, (International Journal of Project Management — 2000, Volume 18, Issue 5), pp. 307-316
  7. 7.0 7.1 G. Hofstede, Cultural dimensions for project management, (International Journal of Project Management — 1983, Volume 1, Issue 1), pp. 41-48
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