Improving working relationships across cultures

Working in multicultural environments can present unexpected challenges for engineers. E&T discusses the problems associated with working with engineers from different cultures and how to overcome them.

Although engineers from, say, India, Japan and Brazil are familiar with the same scientific disciplines and principles that engineers in the UK are, they are also functioning in very different cultures. Similarly, engineers who opt to decamp and live and work in Britain may also encounter challenges that are less to do with professional experience and more to do with a maze of unwritten cultural rules and etiquette that makes up the British culture.

To complicate matters still further, cultures also exist within cultures, and these are readily apparent in the working environment. Think of private-industry employees contrasting with the often-bureaucratic attitude of staff in government departments, or the differences between sales, marketing and finance teams.

The engineering discipline itself has a particularly strong circle of culture. Engineers take an overarching view of projects, and yet are microscopically logical. Working in an analytical world of process and structure, engineering projects naturally have a beginning, middle and end. Engineers often play a vital role in the relative success of the organisation overall, and command high status within the working team.

To become successful in the intercultural context that makes up the modern professional environment, engineers first need to recognise that not everyone thinks in such a measured and logical way. Second, in order to create better working relationships with colleagues, engineers need to learn to adapt to accommodate different cultural values, regardless of whether such differences result from an international or inter-departmental business context.

It is widely understood that the manner in which cultural differences are recognised and approached has a significant impact on the success of projects. Misunderstandings can lead to costly mistakes and even business failures. Creating productive working relationships in different cultural situations and building trust through sensitivity and understanding over time is key. But how can this be achieved?

Let's talk about Britain.

First, Britons must recognise that British culture is largely invisible to the British. From a national perspective, invading tribes, religious reformation, consumer capitalism, democracy, post-Empire diversity, 1066, Big Brother and the Internet have one way or another shaped British values and beliefs. They have made Britain what it is and the British who they are.

The events and factors shaping other countries though have been different ones. History, politics, geography and economics are unique to individual cultures and form deep invisible differences. The only time they become apparent is when they clash. 

From an engineering perspective, Gantt charts, deadlines and milestones are ingrained into the working culture from early in any engineer's career. This results in a methodical and realistic worldview that can contrast sharply with the high-pressure nature of the sales department, the creative flair of marketing or seemingly pedantic attitude of colleagues in finance. 

Once these differences are recognised, small steps need to be taken to bridge any gaps that might lead to misunderstanding and jeopardise the success or outcome of projects.

Linguistic differences

If we consider differences between international cultures, a good starting point is to ensure there is an understanding of language and communication between cultures as this is a common area, which can easily create issues of misunderstanding. Take for example the term "to table a motion". In the UK, this means "to put an item on a meeting agenda". However, in the US this means precisely the opposite and that the topic has been shelved. 

To overcome this challenge, it is possible to create a simple glossary of terms at the outset of any project. This can include both technical terms and precise definitions of phrases such as 'customer', 'on-time' and 'quickly' or 'urgent', where meanings may vary widely between international cultures.

Outside of phrasal variation, there are shades of meaning - and a particularly British trait of saying the opposite of what is intended - to overcome, and it is frequently necessary to clarify the perceived meanings of phrases. When a British manager says, "may I suggest..." with anything other than a friendly tone, it is almost certainly a direct order that you ignore at your peril. That this is not a mere 'suggestion' at all may be completely misunderstood by a non-British brain.

Being sure you have reached an agreement can also be a major challenge across international cultures. The reason for this is that the word 'yes' can have multiple meanings. In many languages, it does not mean unambiguous agreement. It can often signify no more than "I heard you". It has the force of the English sound 'uh-huh' - no more and no less.

To increase the chances of getting the job done when working with colleagues overseas or international staff working in the UK, British workers should never assume that 'yes' means a deal is done. It's possible that this is merely a face-saving way to say 'no' at a later date. It's important to reconfirm when and how a project will be completed to help clarify meaning.

Face-to-face contact

In cultures that place high importance on relationships, face-to-face contact is important at the initial stages of negotiation, and takes more time than Western professionals normally allow for. At the beginning a relationship must be nurtured - formality and professionalism are often preceded by small talk, personal detail and the inclusion of a social agenda (this is culture-specific).

Relationship-building also extends to staff relations. In an industry that relies heavily on multi-disciplinary teamwork, you may need to consider how to break down barriers in your team. It might be as simple as arranging lunch, a game of golf or an away-day to help to build bridges between local staff and staff from another culture. A social event involving families and food will often help an operations team come together and is a good method for exploring their similarities and differences.

Openness, tolerance and flexibility should be encouraged, as should the need to adapt and select working practices that all team members are comfortable with. A greater willingness to talk directly about differences helps build trust, facilitates decision-making and opens the way, where appropriate, to compromise and ultimately a better way of working together. However, we do need to consider cultural differences in this context. Whereas compromise agreements may be acceptable in, say, northern European cultures, in the more hierarchical structure of Asian cultures, where there is an expectancy of senior managers to make decisions and lead, such discussion may result in the opposite effect. Care must also be taken in cultures from the Asia-Pacific region to avoid individuals losing face through direct and indirect criticism.

Cultural differences should also be addressed and viewed as what they are: potentially different values, assumptions, expectations and behaviour as a result of differing collective experiences. It should be understood that members of a team are not there to represent a culture or particular ethnic group: they represent themselves. However, their cultural background will influence behaviour. An understanding of cultural differences encourages the tolerance and flexibility required for the team to work well together. 

At the same time it's important to understand that each country's culture will need an individual approach. A 'direct' culture, such as that found in Germany, the Netherlands or the USA, can withstand direct communications. Blunt, to-the-point emails with a minimum of courtesy, introduction, niceness and small-talk are often acceptable and accepted conventions in day-to-day business. In China, Russia or Italy, however, this approach - in the absence of a strong relationship - could spell disaster. In the UK relationships rule. The rule is: no relationship, no result.

In the engineering industry today, relationships increasingly need to be managed remotely. This makes the issue more difficult to resolve as so many cultures expect fact-to-face meetings. It takes time to establish common ground, trust and a personal bond. This normally involves time-consuming overseas trips to visit your business associates, spending social time with them and revisiting to further strengthen ties.

In the absence of physical meetings, video conferencing, 'Second Life' Avatars or Skype with a webcam have the advantage of giving more information due to the visual images they convey. However, what is still missing is the opportunity to read body-language, interpret gestures as well as the human social gestures of eating and drinking together.

Take, for example, email correspondence - a form of communication that's taken for granted in Western-style business. Frequently in non-Western cultures, emails will not be responded to unless, at the very least, you have met face-to-face with your counterpart. 

International Culture

Beyond communication and relationships there will be some national cultural settings in which engineers naturally do better. These are often the 'I can' cultures such as those in the US, which have spawned technical communities such as Silicon Valley and NASA. 

However, cultures like those often found in Asia in Pakistan and India, or in the Middle East, tend to have a more fatalistic outlook on deadlines and, as a result, can be more difficult to comprehend from what Westerners might consider to be a more analytical and logical perspective. The phrase 'inshallah' ('if God is willing') is ubiquitous, and there are times when the phrase will appear to indicate a reluctance to set or stick to a deadline or schedule. This can be particularly challenging when trying to synchronise with the project deadlines of the western engineer. 

Different attitudes towards time can also reveal different values, which need to be recognised and adapted to. Engineers are by nature punctual. The Italian engineer will be more punctual than his Italian marketing counterpart; however, he may still arrive late for an appointment. This is because in southern European and also Latin cultures time is not generally a driver. It may, for example, have been far more important to grab a coffee and the chance to further a relationship with a colleague on the way to the meeting than arrive on time. The British tend to view "time as money". In other cultures this simply is not the case and relationships and interaction are the keys to getting the job done. In this way the same goals will ultimately be achieved, but they are approached in a different way.

Hierarchies in some cultures can also create issues, as engineers generally tend to work better in flat-structured companies because of their high status in the organisation. Take the Indian society for example, which remains patriarchal. When dealing with an Indian engineer it is important to ascertain who the authority figure is and who has the final say. Many businesses in this region of the world are still family-run and so decision-making power, even for comparatively minor issues, may well be right at the top.

Hierarchy will also run within middle and junior management in India. An understanding of this culture of dependence expected by a boss from his subordinate is important when running a team of local staff. There is often a tendency to seek support and advice in situations that may not warrant this level of dependency by junior staff on his superiors.

Interacting well across cultures can make the difference between any project's success and failure. For engineers who work with process, rules, logic, consistency, spreadsheets and project plans, a degree of adaptation will be required to work successfully with other cultures. Those who focus more on human relationships, place importance on the informal, often favouring social and personal interaction, will require a different approach from those that are more process-driven.

As a result, understanding and being able to adapt to the other culture - whether international or interdepartmental - will make your work more enjoyable and less frustrating. From an international perspective, you can accelerate your process of learning by attending briefings, reading about the country, learning a little of the language, making a reconnaissance visit and, when working there, using expatriates and local staff as sounding-boards for your exploration of the local culture. Rather than remaining baffled or becoming angry, ask: "What is really happening here?" You may discover rich rewards that go beyond conventional business success in learning to work with rather than against different cultures.


Matthew Hill is a senior consultant at Farnham Castle, which specialises in cross-cultural management development programmes and international assignment briefings for every country in the world, as well as assisting those coming to live and work in Britain. For further information visit [new window].

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