Canadian Consulting Engineer

MANAGEMENT: Multicultural Teams

December 1, 2001
By Lionel Laroche

The work force of consulting engineering companies is often jokingly referred to as the "United Nations" since the firms employ so many New Canadians. Project teams often include both engineers traine...

The work force of consulting engineering companies is often jokingly referred to as the “United Nations” since the firms employ so many New Canadians. Project teams often include both engineers trained in Canada and engineers trained overseas. This diversity of experience and thoughts can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it brings a wider range of potential solutions to complex technical and organizational problems. Foreign-trained engineers can play a very beneficial role in the interaction with clients and prospects located in their country of origin.

On the other hand, the dynamics of multicultural teams are significantly more complex than the dynamics of culturally homogeneous teams. The team members may have quite different concepts of teams, hierarchy and risk.

What makes a team a team?

One of the first differences observed by researchers when comparing work style preferences around the world is the degree to which people consider themselves as individuals or as members of groups. Figure 1 (page 40) shows the individualism scores of several countries based on a study of IBM employees; the higher the score, the more individualistic are the people. The people in the U.S. and Indonesia are at opposite ends of the spectrum. On a world scale, Canadians are fairly individualistic. A difference of 20 is considered significant, which means that the average Canadian is significantly more individualistic than the average Japanese. Misunderstandings are likely to take place when they work on the same team without some form of preparation.

In an individualistic society like the U.S. people are supposed to take care of themselves and have a flexible and independent relationship with social groups. In a collective society like China individuals are expected to contribute to the wealth of their parents, clan, or organization in exchange for group support. As Table 1 demonstrates, these differences between individualistic and collective societies have a major impact on team dynamics.

One key difference is the actions that a team member should take when he or she considers that another team member does not perform a task correctly. While the first step — talking to the person directly — tends to be the same in all countries, the second step that people take is usually determined by where the individual was brought up.

In a collective country a good team player is expected to help his team mate. Since a team is “all for one, one for all,” collective team players will either suggest help or, depending on the urgency and importance of the task, may directly jump in and perform the task.

In an individualistic country a good team player is expected to focus on his or her own area of responsibilities. Therefore, the second step usually consists of expressing concerns to the team leader by describing how the task in question will impact his own productivity. He might say, for example: “If I do not receive this data by the end of March, I will not be able to complete the report by April 30.”

When individualistic and collective engineers work together on the same project, misunderstandings often arise. Individualistic engineers consider the collective engineer’s approach of jumping in and helping whether help has been requested or not to be unacceptable. The individualist interprets the behaviour as an intrusion into his area of responsibility and a questioning of his competency.

Collective-type engineers, on the other hand, consider the individualist’s approach of going to talk to the team leader as unacceptable. For them, particularly when they come from hierarchical countries, this situation represents a complete loss of face in front of their managers.

When either of these misunderstandings takes place, most engineers do not readily identify the cause as cross-cultural. In most cases, they attribute the dynamics to differences and conflicts between personalities. Trust between team members is rapidly eroded.

Corporate totem poles

A second dimension needs to be taken into consideration in multicultural technical teams: hierarchy. One measure of hierarchy is called power distance. It represents the psychological distance between people and their managers in a country. Figure 2 shows the relative importance of hierarchy in various countries. Being a good manager requires quite different skills depending on the country.1

In very hierarchical countries (with scores above 60), the boss is the boss is the boss. Delegation is often performed in a command and control manner, where managers describe precisely what they want and expect employees to carry out their instructions. The traditional pyramid is the most common form of organizational structure in these countries.

In mildly hierarchical countries (with scores between 30 and 60), managers tend to get input from their teams and then make the final decision. This is the situation commonly encountered in English Canada. Matrix organizations are often used in these countries.

In countries where hierarchy is not important (with scores below 30), managers tend to play roles that are similar to the role of Canadian sports coaches. Because they often have limited means of discipline to ensure that employees follow their instructions, they have to convince their teams of the validity of their ideas and points of view. Decentralized organizations and self-empowered teams are the most common form of organization in these countries.

Not surprisingly, issues arise in multicultural teams where people coming from these different types of background work side by side. Hierarchically oriented people tend to see non-hierarchical people as lacking respect for authority because the non-hierarchical types ask questions regarding the choices made by managers or technical experts. Non-hierarchical people, on the other hand, tend to see hierarchical people as lacking initiative and independence, because the latter often go and ask more senior people for directions.

These differences can play havoc in teams that include people at different levels of the organization because the amount of input someone has into a team will depend on their ability to present their views to people in a higher position. Senior engineers from hierarchical cultures, for example, may not take lightly the questions asked by non-hierarchical junior team members.

Caution or take a chance?

Another important difference between cultures is the extent to which people prefer unstructured, risky, ambiguous or unpredictable situations, or whether they would rather live by rules, regulations and controls. Hong Kong and Japan are at opposite ends of the spectrum on a world scale. Canada is very close to the middle.

In societies that are structure-oriented, like Japan, people prefer strong codes of behaviour and management practices, and they are rewarded for following them. In societies that are risk-oriented, like Hong Kong, individuals are encouraged to take initiative and risks; organizations give their employees less structure and support.

In multicultural technical teams, tolerance for risk translates directly into the question, How much information is needed to ensure that the team is making the right decision? The higher the tolerance for risk, the less information people need. Here are some examples.

Japanese engineers perform designed experiments to collect data on the impact of a host of variables that many Canadian engineers would consider as irrelevant.2 People in Hong Kong, in contrast, are making decisions with what seems to most Canadians as insufficient information. (When they have a common friend or partner who recommends them to each other, Hong Kong business people may strike multimillion dollar deals during their first lunch meeting.) Engineers trained in Hong Kong are likely to draw conclusions that their Canadian colleagues are not ready to accept because of “insufficient data.”

When engineers with different tolerance of risk work together, tension in the team may develop rapidly. Risk-tolerant engineers will tend to push for a decision in order to move on, while
risk-averse engineers will tend to ask that more data be collected. As a result, risk-tolerant engineers see risk-averse engineers as stalling, or as collecting data for the sake of collecting data. Risk-averse engineers see risk-tolerant engineers as hasty and “shooting from the hip.”

When these cultural differences are identified and recognized, the knowledge can be a tremendous source of new learning for the team. Indeed, it can lead to constructive discussions regarding the benefits of collecting additional data versus the costs of doing so. The team can then make an informed decision of how much and what additional data is needed for the situation.

Multicultural technical teams are becoming more and more common in Canadian consulting engineering firms. The dynamics of such teams are often markedly different from those of culturally homogeneous teams because the behaviour of team members varies so much. When these differences are not recognized, multicultural teams may break apart because the members stop trusting one another. But with support from team managers, human resource professionals, or outside specialists, multi-cultural teams can be very effective because they benefit from a variety of experiences and a diversity of thought.CCE

Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., P.Eng., is president of ITAP Canada, a cross-cultural training and consulting organization located in Toronto. E-mail:

1 A senior executive in India with a Ph.D. from a prestigious American university said: “What is most important for me and my department is not what I do or achieve for the company, but whether the Master’s favour is bestowed on me… This I have achieved by saying “Yes” to everything the Master says or does… To contradict him is to look for another job… I left my freedom of thought in Boston.” — Hofsteder, Geert: Cultures and Organizations, the Software of the Mind (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997).

2 For example, an important question in the negotiation of a contract between a Japanese and a Californian high-tech company was the distance between the American headquarters and the San Andreas fault, since the Japanese executives were concerned that their prospective American partner could be negatively impacted by an earthquake. See Gercik, Patricia, On Track with the Japanese, (New York: Kodanshu Inc., 1992).


A team is a collection of individuals who have gathered to achieve the same goal.

The first business of the team consists of establishing individual goals, tasks and responsibilities.

Teams win when each team member takes care of his / her individual role and responsibilities in a timely and effective manner.


A team is “All for one, one for all.”

The team as a whole is responsible for its objectives. Individual roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined.*

Teams win when team members support each other effectively by providing one another with information and help when needed.

* A Canadian engineer working in Mexico, for example, found that when he asked who was responsible for a given task, he would invariably hear, “this department,” or “that team,” as opposed to “Carlos” or “Maria.”


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