6 February, 2017

What does Cross-Cultural Leadership Mean for Project Managers?

By Samad Aidane

collectivism, cross-cultural leadership, diversity, individualism, multi-cultural, neuroscience, teams

One of the biggest challenges or a Project Manager is a team of people from different cultures. Today’s article comes to you from Samad Aidane PMP. Samad is a seasoned Project Manager, who researches the neuroscience of cross-cultural leadership.

The Challenge of Cross Cultural Leadership

Today, organizations require Project Leaders who can effectively work and lead in an increasingly diverse, multicultural, and international workplace. More than ever, the capacity to manage and leverage cultural differences plays a significant role in your project success. In fact, 90% of leading executives from 68 countries ranked cross-cultural leadership as the top management challenge for the next century.

90% of top executives rate cross-cultural leadership as the top management challenge. #PMOT Click To Tweet

And there is a good reason for this. When you don’t manage cultural differences effectively, the challenges of teamwork and collaboration have the potential to amplify and exacerbate conflict.

As a Project Manager, you are increasingly likely to lead project teams where cross-cultural leadership will be a major part of your success. Or failure.

When ‘Yes’ means ‘No’… or ‘Maybe’

Cross Cultural Leadership for Project Managers
Cross Cultural Leadership

Here’s an example. Have you found it a challenge to reach agreements and gain commitments from a multicultural team?

Here’s a common issue. The disappointment project leaders feel when they learn that a ‘Yes’ does not mean that they had reached an agreement. Hence, this leads to work not getting done when you expect it to. Or maybe an issue you thought you had resolved, gets opened up again. Has it happened to you?

 East is East and West is West

This problem often happens when team members from the eastern and western cultures collaborate.

For example, Project Leaders from western cultures often comment on how their eastern colleagues would often agree to a deadline without voicing their concerns. That deadline later turns out to have been unrealistic. Whether the outcome could have been met, or not, the result is often disappointment when commitments are not met.

To the team-mate, saying ‘yes’ was not an absolute commitment, nor confirmation that the objective was realistic. It may have been an acknowledgement or even just a courtesy. Yet a westerner would take it as precisely a confirmation and commitment.

Cultural and Individual Differences

There is a chronic blurring of the lines between the cultural differences and individual differences. And this leads to frustration and resentment among the team.

There is still a shortage of cross-cultural leaders, with skills in bridging differences, and of team members with a high level of cultural competency. In their absence, conflict begins to erode trust, goodwill, and rapport. What are really cultural differences can be ascribed to individual personality . Or worse still; to individual failings. Ultimately, relationships are undermined and performance plummets.

Good Cross-Cultural Leadership Boosts Outcomes

Diversity can improve results. But ample research shows that multicultural teams and diverse teams tend to perform less effectively than homogenous teams, when not managed effectively.

Research shows that multicultural project teams perform less well when not managed effectively. #PMOT Click To Tweet

Despite this, there isn’t enough investment in training to enable people to lead and work effectively in culturally diverse environments. What training have you had in cross-cultural leadership? Or in understanding the different mental models that we each carry, as a result of the culture we grow up in?

Culture, Leadership, and the Brain

In 2011, I embarked on a deep dive to investigate how understanding of neuroscience insights can enhance our leadership skills. In the process, I stumbled on a rich body of research. Most relevant is the field of cultural neuroscience that explores how culture shapes the brain.

Culture shapes the brain Click To Tweet

This research strongly suggests that two things affect the neural processes underlying a wide range of your behavior:

  1. Your cultural background. This is the heritage within which you grew up, and
  2. The degree to which you endorse the values of your native culture. In addition to beliefs, this includes perceptions, emotions, and how you read social situations.

These neural processes in turn shape how you:

  • make decisions,
  • solve problems, and
  • collaborate with others in multicultural teams and projects.

Individualism and Collectivism

For example, researchers investigated the neurological activation associated with cultural values of Individualism and Collectivism. These terms reflect how much people see themselves as independent or interdependent in a social context.


In individualistic cultures, people see themselves as largely independent members of society. In these cultures, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ tend to mean just that. People expect to disagree and challenge one another. Asking questions is good, and loss of face is not a big issue. Western countries such as the US, UK, Germany have predominantly independent cultures.


In collectivist cultures, saving face, and outward courtesy, matter far more. ‘Yes’ may just mean ‘I hear you’. So you need more than just a ‘yes’ to be sure you have full agreement. In these cultures, challenge must be more respectful, and take place in private. Hesitation and other subtle signs betray a disagreement that may be clearly evident in an individualist culture. Eastern countries such as the China, Arab states, India have predominantly interdependent cultures.

Cross-Cultural Leadership between Individualist/Collectivist Cultures

You need to be aware of what to expect from your own cultural background. For example, the extent of openness to challenge, and directness of response. And then you need to be alert for the cultural style of each team member. Excellent cross-cultural leadership demands that you adapt your approach and expectations accordingly.

The Neuroscience of Individualist/Collectivist Cultures

In one study, researchers asked participants to evaluate whether a set of adjectives described:

  • them, the participant
  • their mother, or
  • an unrelated other person

Brain scans showed different neurological activation depending on whether the participants were from an independent culture, or interdependent culture.

Specifically, those from the interdependent culture showed greater activity in the medial prefrontal cortex when the adjectives described both the self and the mother. This is an area associated with the neural basis for forming, storing, and retrieving information about the self.  Independents, on the other hand, only showed the same activation when adjectives described the self.

Neuroscience and Cross-Cultural Leadership

The topic instantly attracted me. I wanted to learn how it can inform developing cross-cultural leadership skills. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as I began to incorporate these insights in my training and coaching programs, I experienced impressive results.

Neuroscience research provides us with a new perspective on cultural differences. It is one that we may not have previously considered. Yet research also confirms knowledge we already have through social research and also, let’s face it, our experiences.

Why Neuroscience Matters

Neuroscience insights give us a much deeper understanding of the root causes of the cultural differences we experience. We now know that some cultural differences have a neurological basis.

This understanding should motivate us to develop a more mindful way of interacting with people of different cultures. We learn, for example, that there are differences in how cultures focus on:

  • the details (analytical thinking), versus
  • the context (holistic thinking).

This creates an awareness of our need to communicate differently. You must present data and information in ways that takes into account these differences.

We begin to recognize that our team members have different ways of making decisions, solving problems, and dealing with conflict. And you need to adapt your management, leadership, and communication styles accordingly. Adjust your expectations and your to get better outcomes and faster resolution of project issues.

Crucially, when you become aware of cultural differences, you can differentiate them from personality and communication styles. This means you can intervene and correct individual performance problems, without raising cultural sensitivities. At the same time, you can adapt to cultural differences to get the best from each individual’s neurological style.

Sensitivity around Cultural Differences

An effective leader must be able to get the best collaboration from their team. Let’s face it, there is sensitivity around discussing culture differences. People often fear saying the wrong thing and having colleagues label them as prejudiced or even racist.

Neuroscience can give you a science-based vocabulary to understand and discuss cultural differences that affect project collaboration. An evidence-based language for discussing cultural difference can help you. It offers a safe platform to communicate difficult issues that can illicit defensiveness and strong emotional response. This will help both you and your colleagues speak openly about your differences. And you can do it with less fear of offence or apparent criticism.

Getting the Best out of People

Projects offer a particular challenge, arising from their unfamiliarity, time pressures, and risk. Understanding how the brain responds in times of uncertainty and conflict helps cross-cultural leaders diagnose the challenges they face, when working with people from different cultures.

This understanding give you two things:

  1. a better situation-awareness to assess how to communicatte, motivate, and lead
  2. a brain-friendly approach to design appropriate interventions at times of challenge

Adding these skills to your toolset will make you more confident. You will have what you need to effectively navigate the challenges of cultural differences. And as you see successes, it should motivate you to learn more. You’ll want to develop your skills further and adapt your communication styles to the demands of ever more complex cross-cultural environments.


To conclude, the rapid rate of globalization is increasingly bringing together people from different cultures. Nowhere is this more so than in international projects.

Organizations will continue to look to their leaders to create diverse environments that attract talent from every corner of the globe. But they must also create an inclusive environment where talent, once acquired, will stay. In other words, the new leadership challenge is not only to attract talent but also to hold on to it.

Your most powerful asset will be to understand cultural difference through the lens of how culture shapes the brain. This will help you, as a cross-cultural leader. You can minimize conflict and mitigate the negative impact of cultural differences.

It also paves the way for better communication, deeper trust, and stronger relationships with your stakeholders. Surely this is the secret to project success, and therefore a very worthy aim.

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Samad Aidane

About the Author...

Samad Aidane MSc, PMP is a cross-cultural leadership development researcher, trainer, and coach.
He holds an MSc in the Neuroscience of Leadership from Middlesex University, U.K. His current Ph.D. research interest in Applied Neuroscience investigates how findings from social and cultural neuroscience and their practical application to leadership and Cultural Intelligence development.
Samad has been a featured speaker for organizations such as Nike, J.P Morgan, Emirate Airlines, and HP. You can read more about his work at neurofrontier.com.
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