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Episode 250: Cultural Neuroscience: Cultural Intelligence for Global Project Managers (Free)

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Episode 250: Cultural Neuroscience: Cultural Intelligence for Global Project Managers (Free)This interview with Samad Aidane was recorded at the PMI Global Congress 2013 North America in New Orleans.

Cultural intelligence, the ability to adapt to new cultural contexts, is becoming an increasingly important skill for project leaders. Our interview with Samad Aidane ( will give you an understanding of the key insights emerging from cultural neuroscience research and their application to leading global projects and designing culturally sensitive change initiatives that stick.

We begin our interview with the question of what neuroscience has to do with project management and leadership, and how this understanding will help you in your daily project challenges. Then we discuss how culture impacts how we think & act and how this relates to the team members working on our projects. We close the discussion with several tips from Samad in regards to how you can use the results from this neuroscience research to improve your project successes starting today.

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: We are back at the PMI Global Congress 2013 in New Orleans and I am sitting here with Samad Aidane in the PMI® Bookstore.

Podcast Interview

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello Samad!

Samad Aidane: Well hello, thank you.

Cornelius Fichtner: How is your conference going so far?

Samad Aidane: It's going great. It's really going great. I'm enjoying it.

Cornelius Fichtner: Wonderful! Yesterday afternoon, you gave a presentation titled: "Cultural Neuroscience: Cultural Intelligence for Global Project Managers". How did it go?

Samad Aidane: It went really well. I've been coming to this event for the last 3 years and I spoke at 2011 and 2012, and I have to say, this is my favorite performance. I feel really good about how I did just because I stuck to the script and I didn’t deviate from it and I had plenty of time given for interaction which is my goal and so I achieved it. And then the audience really responded to this topic. They really enjoyed the insights that were shared.

Cornelius Fichtner: How many people were there?

Samad Aidane: There was I believe approximately 70 people.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay!

Samad Aidane: It was a good turnout.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah. Now, neuroscience, it's the title. Cultural neuroscience. Neuroscience, it's about the brain. Why? What is it have to do with project management?

Samad Aidane: Well for the last 5 to 6 years, I've been really digging deep into looking at what is the research out there about the brain that we can as project managers, we can use to be better leaders because at the end of the day, our business is trying to motivate people, trying to get them to engage, trying to get them to focus, pay attention. All of these processes are brain-based processes. So it makes sense for us project managers to actually understand what is the underlying inputs and outputs to these processes similar to what we do about project managers and understanding how the PMBOK is structured.

I believe that we need to focus on the underlying mechanisms that drive behavior and drive thoughts and drive feelings and emotions. And I think this explosion of research is happening in neuroscience and especially in a branch called the social cognitive and affective neuroscience which deals with things such as how people make decisions, what are the drivers for collaboration. What is the underlying neural activations that underlie for example trust. And in general, communication in general. So these things are very important topics that we as project managers can benefit from understanding what is happening in the field of neuroscience.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay. How does this help the project manager out there? Our listeners, they are all project managers. They have projects that they go back to after they finish listening to us here. Will it help them in any way?

Samad Aidane: Well absolutely! I think if you look at the challenges that we face in projects, we really don’t face the challenge in projects when it comes to the day-to-day procedures and processes that are specifically project management processes. We deal with the challenges, the most challenging problems we deal with are in the interaction between people.

When we try to get people to buy in to a concept or to change how they're thinking about something or move them to want to do something. So basically, spot motivation is about engagement. And so to me, it's really critical that from a project management perspective especially in the leadership aspect of project management that we leverage this knowledge insights because unfortunately, there is a not a lot of information out there when it comes to leadership that is science-based, that is evidence-based and I think we as project managers especially those who come from a heavy technical background, we really want to see that there is some evidence behind certain concepts or certain insights.

We don’t want the cycle battle, kind of the inspirational aspects of leadership. We want to see is there something scientific behind for example, trust. Is there something scientific behind how people behave when their status is threatened? Or when there is a sense of unfairness in a project team, what's going on in someone's brain and how can I anticipate and see the signs of these dynamic happening before they happen all part of that risk management and be able to intervene in the proper way at the proper time so that we can change the dynamic of a project? So this is how I see the relationship and the connection to project management.

Cornelius Fichtner: Another word that appears twice in the title of your presentation is 'culture'. How does culture impact how we think, how we act?

Samad Aidane: Well culture turns out to be very important and involved in virtually all aspects of thoughts, of feelings and of behavior. We assume that we share many universal values and that we all think in the same way about some basic universal things such as for example how we see things, what we see, what we pay attention to, how we mentalize or how we try to infer what somebody else is thinking. Also we think that it is universal for example how we understand or dictate to another person's emotions.

Well actually science is telling us that it's not actually true. Culture actually impact how we see things. So for example, there has been a lot of research in this area of culture the differences between east and west and that's been an explosion of research that tries to understand what are the differences in how people for example from eastern countries, what they focus on when you show them for example an image when they are in a functional MRI scanner for neuroimaging. What brain activation they display if they are focusing on an object for example versus if they're focusing on the background.

So it turns out for example that people from eastern countries, they have more of a holistic view or they focus more on the background and they include more of the context versus subjects that are from the west that focus more on the actual focal object than the central object. And so the brain activation is the only thing that actually could show that actually between east and west, we see different things. So this is just an example as what we see.

There is also research that looked at what we pay attention to. And again, if you for example put a subject from the east and the west in the scanner and you see how their brain activation shows up when for example you ask them to focus on the context when the group in the culture that is not used to that where they focus more on objects. For example from the west, they actually use more brain resources. They have to use more attentional resources which is in a way it's exhausting to the brain. When they have to actually think in a style that is different than what they grew up in, different culture, which leads me to believe that actually we are more comfortable thinking that everybody else is thinking the same way we do because it's actually really hard, it takes a lot of energy to try to put yourself in someone else's perspective and try to understand someone else where they are coming from and perhaps the way they see for example an issue or a problem is different from us.

And so this all goes to show that culture matters and I just talked about two examples. But there are many examples especially about the differences in how we detect someone else's thoughts and intentions or how we interpret someone else's emotions especially fear. Even the scientific research, early research thought that the amygdala for example which is the part of the brain that reacts to fear. It was thought that amygdala is very automatic when it detects fear, that it would automatically react with high level of activation. But it turns out that the research shows that it actually the amygdala behaves differently depending on whether fear is experienced from people within the same culture or from a different culture.

So for example if you show fearful faces to someone from the east when they are in the scanner and that picture is for example Asian face, their amygdala will react more than if you show them a western face and vice versa. A western person will react more, the amygdala will react more to a fearful face from the west than from the east. And so this is very exciting. A very important research is coming out that really focuses on why culture matters because culture really affects the thoughts, the feelings and the behavior.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay. In your title, you also mentioned that this is cultural intelligence for global project managers. So there is a difference between shall we say regional local project management and global project management. Is that sort of what you insinuate with the title?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete PDF transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

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Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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