Managing multicultural teams

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Developed by Demir Durovic



The art of managing multicultural teams is applied in project human resource management and is used within project teams. According to the Project Management Institute[1] managing a project team can be described as: Manage Project Team is the process of tracking team member performance, providing feedback, resolving issues, and managing team changes to optimize project performance." [1] All these aspects also comply with managing multicultural teams but the manager should also consider another factor, which is the cultural differences that can affect team performance and dynamics. When a manager is working with a diverse team, there will be some differences in cultural beliefs, values and assumptions in which he or she has to consider. The manager needs to be aware of what behaviours, values, beliefs and basic assumptions that influences the team members, and which cultural issues may have an impact on a project, if it is not dealt with timely and with a correct approach. [1]

Working with a multicultural team can empower creativity and innovation and has advantages in problem identification and idea/concept generation but the team will only be effective, if they solve their problems of internal integration.[2] One of the biggest issues a manager can encounter when working with a multicultural team, is neglecting the cultural differences of the team members. Two team members, who have different national backgrounds may not have the same social relationship nor time perception; one may have a high emphasis on punctuality and specific deadlines whereas another may have a less strict perception of what is timely. It is therefore not only important that the manager is aware of the multicultural differences but the team members should also understand the differences and learn how to bridge between the different cultures to minimize blind spots where conflicts could occur. This article will focus on the impact cross-cultural teams can have on projects, how and why they should be managed and how the MBI tool that can be applied to mitigate the risk of conflicts. It will also include relevant theory regarding cultural management to support the practical use.


It is important to define what culture is and in which area of project management it should be applied, before any necessary tools and practices can be decided upon. The definition of what culture is, is not completely agreed upon, hence different scholars have different definitions. The scholars do share some characteristics of their definition of a culture. The main characteristics are stated below.

Culture Characteristics [2]

  • An interrelated system of dimensions
  • Sets of ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, behaving and evaluating
  • Provides a reference frame for actions and decisions
  • More or less shared at the group level
  • Learnt through socialisation

Adapted from Schneider et. al 2014

These characteristics shows that the culture is shared between groups and they are unique ways of behaving, thinking and feeling. It is a managers job to understand these characteristics, and identify the underlying tows of the culture being investigated. The definition of multicultural, or cross-cultural, teams may not be as transparent as one would assume at first glance. It can easily be interpreted as only being the national differences between team members and their beliefs, values and artefacts and basic assumptions. [2] When talking about different cultures in the project team, it could also imply the different spheres of organizational cultures e.g. financial department, HR, R&D, marketing, engineering etc. This will not be investigated further in this article, as the main focus is managing national cross-cultural teams.

Managing multicultural teams in projects is used in human resource management. Human resource management deals with people as a resource and their resource can be defined as their skill set, knowledge, characteristics etc. Human resources can be difficult to manage as they are not tangible and a manager will therefore always have some uncertainty when defining behaviour or values of his employees. [3]

Importance of multicultural management in projects

Projects are considered independent from each other, well defined and they are more likely to be successful when they stick to their objective[4]. When talking about project management with human resources, it is important that one is emphasising a specific aspect of a project, which is the project team. The emphasis here will be why cross-cultural management is important in regards of project team management.

Different cultures would have a different set of assumptions and beliefs and when integrating these into a multicultural project team, complications can arise if the manager does not acknowledge the differences, and use comprehensive tools to understand and bridge between employees. Management can therefore not be perceived as a general set of best practices and globally common principles and techniques, since different practices, like performance management, can have contrasting effects according to which national context it has been applied in. [5] When talking about human resources in project teams the ressource aspect can be expanded from the previous definition to people, which have different skills, roles, responsibilities, relationships etc. [1] The important aspect of managing multicultural teams in project management is, to make sure there is a healthy relationship between the cultures, and the team members adhere to their given roles and responsibilities. It is important that the manager of the project utilizes the strengths in diversion of the team, and does not let the diversion create conflicts. One key aspect to optimize the performance of multicultural teams is communication. Communication between employees and managers can help the project manager map a cultural pattern, which can be used to identify potential problems or opportunities in the future. This will also help the manager predict the behaviour of the team, which is important if he/she wants to minimize cross-cultural uncertainty; high uncertainty of the cross-cultural differences can have a negative impact on the performance of the team, hence a manager will have issues locating potential blind spots in the team and how to solve these if complications occur. [6].

If the most important stakeholders are from a different national origin with different values, the manager might also integrate some of the stakeholder's beliefs and values to his/her team. This would be done to work on the project the way the stakeholder would prefer it to be done, and have an emphasis on the same cultural dimensions as the stakeholder would have. If a manager fails to manage the cultural differences efficiently, he would end up with dissatisfied workers and unsatisfied stakeholders.

Cross-cultural frameworks

Different cultures have different artefacts, behaviours, beliefs, values, and basic assumptions. There have been numerous studies in the managerial aspect of cross-cultural management and these studies define and discuss the different characteristics of a culture and how they can interpreted. [7] An american scholar named Edgar Schein[2], former MIT professor, has studied the area of organizational culture and came up with a model called Schein's model of organizational culture, which can be viewed to the right in figure 1. It is important for a manager to know how and what to identify in the multicultural team in order to mitigate risk of failure in the project.

Figure 1: Schein's model of organizational culture [8]

Artefacts and behaviour

A manager Should start by investigating the artefacts and behaviour of a culture since this is on the observable level. The artefacts and behaviour consists of rites, rituals, symbols and myths, and the project manager could from observation unveil some characteristics from a culture.[9]. Important characteristics could be:

  • Greeting rituals
  • Forms of adress
  • Making contact
  • Dress code
  • Contracts

What can be observed here from the managers perspective is how much space an employee needs, how they address each other and seniors, if their contracts are written or verbal etc. This could give an indication if there is a high or low level of trust, if they are formel, and whether they might be assertive or retiring.

Beliefs and values

The beliefs and values are more difficult to understand as they are not transparent and cannot be determined through observation. Digging into the beliefs and values when discovering a culture is usually done through questionnaires and interviews. The values represent how an individual believes things should be and the beliefs are representations of how things are e.g. view on youth should respect elderly, and showing up late being unacceptable. These are beliefs and values and represent how a human perceives the world. [2] This might be difficult to comprehend but given an example of importance of different stakeholders between different countries could clarify this more thoroughly. Imagine 3 companies working in the same industry, but are located in three different parts of the world (United States, Japan and Denmark). The question here is which stakeholders they would prioritize the most. An American organization would prioritize their shareholders, a Japanese organization would have their main emphasis on their customers and for more feminine countries like Denmark, Norway or Sweden an organization would put a high priority factor on their employees as of their satisfaction, rights and well-being. [2] All of these organizations are in the same industry, but a Japanese company values their customers higher than their shareholders or employees, as a danish organization would emphasize having a healthy working environment. It can be explained as different beliefs and values result in different opinions of what is important. These definitions could also be used to explain different values of products, management criteria of success, education e.g. Engineering disciplines earn prestige in Germany whereas the British value economics and business degrees higher.

Basic Assumptions

The basic assumptions are the underlying reasons for the artefacts, behaviour, beliefs and values. It is articulated in beliefs and values and can be observed in artefacts and behaviours. [2] The basic assumptions are explaining why a person behave a specific way, or why a person value a characteristic more than another. The assumptions behind these cultural dimensions explain why a person acts in a certain manner. The assumptions cannot be directly determined through observation or by just using questionnaires. To identify the basic assumptions one have to interpret them through heavy ethnographical studies and extensive interviewing. The researcher should look for patterns that could describe why a person would act specific way or have a certain belief. It demands the researcher to constantly check their own bias and discover their own culture to learn more about others.[2] There have been several famous scholars, which have tried to develop cultural dimensions to explain the basic assumptions of a culture in both a qualitative and quantitative way. Some of the most famous ones are Edgar Schein[3], Geert Hofstede[4] and Emanuel Adler[5]. There have been several others who have contributed to developing this framework. A lot of the scholars have similar dimensions in their framework, and therefore the most important ones from Schein, Hofstede and Adler will be mentioned to give an idea of what a manager should consider when putting together or managing a team of multicultural employees.

Table 1: Cultural Dimensions
Uncertainty avoidance Uncertainty tolerance Uncertainty avoidance
Power distance Low High
Human Nature Low trust High trust
Time Monochronic Polychronic
Relationship Individualistic Collectivism
Language High context Low context
Activity Achievement Ascription

These cultural frameworks are determining why and to what extend two cultures are similar and different. A manager should be aware of two employees who might perceive the activity dimension of achievement/ascription differently may result in conflicts between them. As a project manager it is important to mitigate conflicts between employees and he/she should therefore comprehensively communicate these potential blind spots to the employees to bridge and integrate them closer to each other through understanding of their differences. A manager could use these dimensions and put up a metric scale between two different cultures in the dimension, and determine where there could be similarities and differences and where there might be a chance of blind spots between two individuals. This method is called 'Mapping between cultures' and will be further explained and illustrated in the following section, which will also show applicable methods for a project manager. Further readings on cultural frameworks and dimensioning can be found in the annotated bibliography.

Tools used to manage multicultural teams

Different tools can be applied to understand and bridge between different cultures in a project team and one of them is MBI (Map, Bridge and Integrate).[2] This tool will be used in this section, as it is wide and consists of both identifying potential issues, analyzes to understand them and finally how to bridge and manage the team with the newly acquired knowledge. This tool was invented by Maznevski and DiStefan and is mainly used to identify potential blind spots and how to make sure they will not become an issue. The manager should use the information to obliviate the differences and similarities between the team members, and bridge between them to mitigate future cultural conflicts. [2]

Figure 2: The MBI approach. source DiStefano, J.J. and Maznevski, M.L (2000) 'Creating value with diverse teams in global management', organizational dynamics, 29(19), pp. 45-63; Maznevski, M.L. and DiStefano, J.J. (2004)' Synergy from individual differences: Map, Bridge and integrate (MBI)', IMD perspectives for Managers, 108, March, pp. 1-4.


The first task of the MBI tool is to Map and describe different cultural values, dimensions and perspectives of the team. It is not only used to map out differences but also to illustrate similarities between different cultures. The cultural dimensions explained in the Cross-cultural Frameworks section is a good approach to map out the basis outlines for the team members cultural orientations. [2] It is important this process is done with a non-bias, respectful and judgemental free approach. An important aspect of mapping out differences and similarities between members is not only to learn about different cultures, but one could also learn more about their own beliefs, values and basic assumptions, these are more commonly known as blind spots. The Johari Window [6] is a tool, which explains how blind spots can be identified by one self and by others. The result of the mapping process should be the team members having a better understanding of each other's differences and why they are different. [2]

When the mapping tool has been applied, one can make a framework showing the differences and similarities between two or more cultures on a dimensioning map. The manager can now emphasis where the biggest gaps are, and how this potential issue should be avoided. An example of a cultural map between German culture and Indonesian culture is shown in figure 3. The dark blue squares represent German cultural dimensions, and the light blue, which are turned 90 degrees represent Indonesian cultural dimensions. The rings identify the largest gaps between the two cultures. This particular map was created from a real life case where German consultants were hired to consult a large Indonesian bank. Issues and tensions rose between German and Indonesian workers as they did not comprehend their cultural differences, which slowed down their project. A cross-cultural workshop was held to communicate and map cultural differences, which eventually mediated the tension and improved the work efficiency between the two nationalities.

Figure 3: Mapping cultural differences between German and Indonesian employees. Source Figure 8.2 Schneider et. al.(2014), p. 213


When the differences has been mapped it is time to bridge between the cultures. The bridge approach is in short terms about communicating and understanding different cultures through a communication method called decentering. Decentering is an approach of communicating, is used to understand and share information through different perspectives. This could be two different employees with different cultures talking, listening and learning about each others cultures by switching perspectives. The two team members could ask each other questions on how their cultures would react to a certain action, and from that learn how to express their own perceptions and opinions in a fashion according to whom ever their receiver is. The bridge task is used to communicate between cultures, and to use to cultural map to explain differences, and learn about another culture from their perspective. The bridge task is less tangible than Mapping cultural differences as the central approach is: Speaking and listening from others point of view."[2] It is used to learn how an employee can act/respond/ask when their team member with a different culture is either direct when communicating, punctual in regards of time perception or prefer to work either individualistic or in groups or how they might act accordingly to their cultural dimension.


The last part is integration between the members, which can also be perceived as managing the differences. In the last part it is important to create a working atmosphere where team members is encouraged to participate, build on each others ideas and resolve conflicts efficently. It is important the manager and team members encourage each other to participate and share their opinions and ideas. As there are different cultures with different perspectives high participation could increase innovation and problem solving. It is important not to blame each other when complications occur but try to cooperate to find a solution in plenum; this could also be a smart way to use issues or complications to learn more about each other, and how group dynamics can be optimized and conflicts being avoided. [2] The integration part is combination of Dealing with conflict in project management and creating synergy between different cultures.


As a project manager working with multicultural teams, one might find limitations in the processes of identifying dimensional gaps between cultures or solving related issues. Even with a large data collections of cultural characteristics and applied tools, a project manager should expect the tools to be limited according to their accuracy. Each national culture is unique, and even within the national borders hundreds and even thousands of subcultures can exist, which might adhere to some different cultural dimensions.[10] Tools like the MBI can give a good clarification on what cultural differences that could arise and how to optimize group dynamics between them, but the internal approach of bridging and integrating is unique from project to project. [11] It is also important to node when mapping cultural differences, that one should use the cultural dimensions given by the scholars as frameworks and not be perceived as the complete truth regarding the culture you are investigating.

Annotated Bibliography

Schneider et. al.(2014). Managing across cultures A theoretical and practical book, which has strong emphasis on how a manager manages a multicultural team. The book showcases a lot of practical examples, combined with theoretical knowledge, which gives the reader a more comprehensive understanding on how other manager manage multicultural teams. Chapter 2 and 8 in general gives a strong inside in cultural dimensions and illustrates far more than have been used in this article. A project manager should depthfully read this chapter as the cultural dimensions are the basis for the whole understanding of different cultures and how to bridge between them. Chapter 8 explains more in detail how the MBI method is applied, and what other aspects to take into considerations in a multicultural team. The whole book in general also explains theory and examples of cultural differences in the organizational sphere

See also for the 6 cultural dimensions of Geert Hofstede.

Project management institute (2013). A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), fifth edition. This book gives a thoroughly understanding on what a project is, how it is managed and examples of good and bad management. This should give the reader a good understanding on what a manager should emphasis in regards of a project, and how it should be managed. It is a good corner stone for any manager moving in the direction of human resource management, and chapter 9. is especially enlightening in this area.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Project management institute (2013). A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), fifth edition. chapter 9. p. 1
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 Schneider et. al.(2014). Managing across cultures p. 210-213
  3. Laurent, A. (1986). ´The cross-cultural puzzle of international human resources management´, Human Resource Management, 25(1), p. 97.
  4. Lock, D. (1992)Project management 6th edition p. 130-140
  5. Schneider et. al.(2014). Managing across cultures p. 8-20
  6. Ochieng (2009). Framework for managing multicultural project teams p. 537-538
  7. England, G.W. (1978). ´Managers and their value system; A five-country comparative study´, Colombia journal of world business, 13(2), pp. 35-44
  8. Illustration of Schein's model of organizational culture [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17 February 2018].
  9. Schein, E.H (1985). Organizational Culture and Leadership
  10. Schneider et. al.(2014). Managing across cultures p. 33-49.
  11. Schneider et. al.(2014). Managing across cultures p. 212.
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