Creating successful working relationships across cultures

Paul Boughton
Creating productive working relationships across culture requires trust and this can only be built with sensitivity and understanding over time. Joyce Jenkins reports.

Although engineering counterparts from, say, India, Asia and Japan are familiar with the same scientific disciplines and principles, they are also functioning in cultures which are very different from each other.

Two teams from different cultures will work with a particular set of rules, norms and expectations. People often assume that others act under same set of rules as they do. However, when this is not the case, expectations are not met and conflict and disaster can result.

Two teams of international engineers worked on NASA's $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter launched in 1998. For the navigational software, each team was using an incompatible measuring system - metric and imperial. Each team assumed its methods were correct and the leadership did not notice or check. As a result, the Orbiter approached Mars at a much lower altitude than expected, plunged into the planet's thin atmosphere and incinerated within minutes.

Fortunately most international engineering projects do not end so disastrously! It is amazing though, how often apparently simple misunderstandings can lead to huge and costly delays.

Working within the countries of the Asia-Pacific, even where there is a shared cultural heritage, such as between ethnic Chinese from say, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China, resulting in many shared values and beliefs, there can still be big differences in approaches to time and to rules for example.

Cultures also vary in the degree to which they apply these rules 'universally'. To some, 'a rule is a rule,' no matter who or what is involved. For others, rules are applied more 'particularly,' depending on who is involved, what their relationship is with you and what the circumstances are.

Most of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region are highly relationship driven. However, some, including Singapore and Japan, partly because of very strict enforcement of regulations, are also very rule orientated. This can sometimes result in tension, particularly if a Japanese team is dealing with cultures from Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand, where relationships, family and social obligations carry more weight at times, than the rules.


Different organisations employ different approaches to tackle this challenge.

Some have very strong, clear legislation regarding issues like nepotism, and 'bribery' with strict upper limits on values of gifts that can be given/received.

Others combine this with an active attempt to build relationships so that managers and team members become part of the network, so that their employees' sense of obligation to managers and colleagues is as strong (or stronger) than to family and friends. That, of course, will take time and also often involve socialising outside work and regular communication.

Some companies manage this effectively by building on existing relationships, employing or channelling communication through a local manager or other employee who has existing, good networks in the other culture.

Attitudes towards time can also create issues across different cultures. In certain societies time is regarded as something strictly limited, schedules are adhered to, agendas are set and followed, deadlines are applied and met. In others, there is a more fluid approach - again depending on the circumstances, what else comes up and who else has demands on your time. Hierarchy may also come in to play.

Someone who is junior may arrive on time for a meeting but you may be kept waiting indefinitely by someone who considers themselves your senior.

Meetings and training sessions may be interrupted by phone calls or by people coming in or going out. In an engineering context this can cause tension if one group has a more fixed attitude to time than the other. The complaint: 'they never deliver when they say they will' or: 'they never meet the deadline,' are some of the most frequently heard phrases on multi-national projects, usually with teams from one country blaming the team from the other country.

hen examined more deeply you find that what has been said in response to: 'can you have that report on my desk by tomorrow,' is something like: "we will try our best to get it to you by then." Experienced international managers learn to take that as: "I think it is highly unlikely I can do that."

If they really need it by the deadline, it is necessary to expand further on how this can be achieved and how they can make it possible to get the report completed through providing extra resources, postponing other work or liaising with other managers or departments to help out.

Language and communication is also often a key cultural issue. On multi-national projects engineers may be working in languages other than their own or be relying on interpreters, so this can sometimes create a barrier.

One engineering project was held up in negotiations over the budget because one side represented thousands of dollars with a dot (3.360) and the other used a comma (3,360).

Religious and national beliefs and customs also need to be considered. An international project involving an Indian multi-national, investing in the building of a plant in the Middle-East, was held up for months as the Hindu owners were uncomfortable with the ceremonial sacrifice of goats, followed by feasting, which local custom demanded before the project could begin.

Similarly, in Singapore, a major international engineering project was delayed as local engineers succumbed to a range of disorders and illnesses caused by the bad Feng Shui of the building. The project was put back on track after a Feng Shui master advised on counter-measures, such as artfully placed mirrors, water-features and plants.

One dimension of culture that particularly affects engineers is how tolerant a society is of change or risk. Japanese society, for example, is generally known to be very risk averse.

When embarking on a project therefore, Japanese engineers want to have every possible scenario and problem assessed with potential outcomes and procedures in place to handle them.

This sometimes presents difficulties when dealing with countries like Thailand or India, which are generally more flexible, open to change and more willing to take risks.

Combined with a communication style which is designed to maintain harmony and where people generally try not to upset 'guests' or people they regard as senior by giving them bad news, this can create situations where the Japanese become frustrated by what is perceived as 'covering up' potential problems. On the positive side, where teams are aware of, and make use of, these different cultural approaches a synergistic culture can arise.

A combination of the 'just do it' approach with the 'cover all bases and be prepared for any eventuality' approach can be very productive and effective in moving a project forward.

Harmony - or maintaining it - can be a big issue in much of Asia, especially when linked with hierarchy. Not wanting to point out a mistake to someone senior - not wanting to stand out by volunteering an idea for example.

When different nationalities work together there are many cultural aspects to be considered and to learn all the unwritten rules of engagement with a culture that is not your own, may take a lifetime. Therefore, the key to successful engineering projects across cultures is to ensure relationships are strong.

Personal connections

Nurturing close personal connections, will create trust. Time taken to learn some cross-cultural skills will help create a deeper understanding between colleagues and will prevent common challenges arising.

The resulting goodwill will help smooth any issues that do occur.

Joyce Jenkins is a Consultant with Farnham Castle International Briefing & Conference Centre, Farnham, Surrey, UK. Farnham Castle a leading cross-cultural training organisation specialising in communication and management briefings for every country in the world.