by Dr. M.C. Ircha, P.Eng.
Professor of Civil Engineering,
Assistant Vice-President (Academic)
University of New Brunswick
Fredericton, NB, Canada E3B 5A3

Economic globalisation during the past two decades has created a demand for increased international engineering activities. This demand has often been met by creating multinational engineering consortia that blend team members from the host nation with expatriate engineers from North America, Europe and other countries. The most significant challenge facing team members in this polyglot of nationalities is to understand, accept and adapt to the cultural differences that emerge.

Cultural issues may be divided into physiological and psychological elements. Physiological concerns include developing methods of mitigating the detrimental effects of inhospitable environments such as ensuring adequate safety and security, and reducing the effects of hot, humid weather, traffic congestion, pollution, inadequate housing, unfamiliar food and so forth. Psychological elements include social formality or casualness in day-to-day business activities, organizational hierarchy (autocratic top-down versus collegial bottoms-up management), forms of contracts (good faith based on long-standing personal relations versus detailed, legal documents), negotiation style (confrontation versus collaboration), and team or group-orientation versus individual achievement. These cross-cultural elements need to be considered and dealt with in developing an effective multinational engineering team.

Despite the difficulties posed by cultural integration in multinational teams, such teams are becoming a necessity in our increasingly integrated global economy. Multinational engineering teams have been created because the expertise needed for large complex or specialized projects cannot be found within the host country. Hence, specialized knowledge is brought in from elsewhere. In the development of multinational teams, there must be an agreed upon common language to facilitate effective communication and the transfer of knowledge and technology from one group to another.

Working in a cross-cultural environment is a task fraught with challenges. International team members need to be selected on the basis of a thorough understanding of the cultural differences they face, their tact and diplomacy along with a deep respect for the legitimacy of other ways of doing things. The problem many North American engineers face in accepting international assignments is that their employers may not provide them with sufficient time to consider and learn about the cultural changes they will face. Studies have shown that the rate of failure (coming home before the assignment is completed) is high among U.S. expatriates, ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent. Such failures cost U.S. firms more than $2 billion per year.

Moving to another culture, regardless of the degree of difference from one's own, will eventually create "cultural shock" - psychological stresses emerging from an encounter with novel experiences and change. Regardless of the apparent similarities that one discovers on first arrival in a different culture, at some point in time, the fundamental differences in the host society's norms and mores sink in and expatriate engineers and their families find themselves becoming increasingly alienated from the host culture.

Such cultural shock and accompanying acculturative stress impacts the effectiveness of international team members working in multinational consortium. Given the high costs of sending and supporting engineers on international assignment, it is important for North American engineering firms to understand the difficulties of acculturation and the need to carefully select participants to minimize their individual and family stress to enhance their effectiveness in the international posting. The costs of international assignments cannot be measured merely in terms of financial burdens but also with respect to the potential long-term negative impacts on engineers and, in particular, their families. The significant role played by the expatriate engineer's spouse and other family members has been documented in various studies. The failure of spouses and families to adapt to a new environment is a key contributing factor in expatriate failure. The important influence of spouses and families in the overall relocation process means that engineering firms must include the whole family in its orientation discussions prior to assigning the international posting to reduce the risk of failure.

Lack of adaptation to cultural differences may be subtle but effective in creating workplace difficulties. These cultural differences can be both visible (such as behaviours and attitudes) and invisible (values, beliefs and identity). For example, in a classic study of cultural differences and their impact on the corporate world, Hall (1966) discussed the problems in U.S. subsidiary firms located in Germany resulting from the American open-door policy as opposed to the closed-door approach of German business culture. This small but subtle irritant caused growing friction and misunderstanding between U.S. and German managers. As pointed out by Hall,

in this company the open doors were making the Germans feel exposed and gave the whole operation an unusually relaxed and unbusiness like air. Closed doors, on the other hand, gave the Americans the feeling there was a conspiratorial air about the place and that they were being left out.

Clear communication about the cultural needs of groups working together are needed to ensure a deeper understanding of each other's requirements and to develop trust and mutual collaboration. To achieve such understanding means the international team members must be able to suspend their beliefs that their own culture and ways of doing things are the best and seek to understand and appreciate the inherent logic of doing things in other ways (often reflecting local culture imperatives). In other words, engineers participating in multinational consortium must be able to suppress their "ethnocentrism" (the belief in the superiority of one's own culture) in the face of other cultural realities.

The psychological stresses that migrants (even temporary ones) experience in other cultures have been documented by others. In a classic study, Tyhurst (1951) outlined various stages of acculturative stress in migrants. Multinational consortia team members can be considered as "sojourners" (temporary migrants) as they tend to be in contact with another culture for a short time and often do not establish a significant social network within the host society. Typical migrant behaviour involves an anxious anticipatory period prior to departure, a euphoric initial arrival stage, the onset of depression and regret as psychological arrival occurs (cultural shock), and a recovery period. A clear understanding of expected team member behaviour during each of stage of acculturative stress enables both the engineering firm and host country team members to assist in the adaptation of expatriate engineers and their families to the multinational consortium and different cultures.


Prior to departure team members and their families often enter a state of personal anxiety and with its attendant stresses. The family becomes concerned about the difficulties of coping with another language and culture, the problems of housing, education for children, safety and security, other aspects of daily living, work and social relationships.

Engineers and their spouses can mitigate pre-departure anxieties with an early visit to the foreign destination. Ostensibly this visit may be seen as a house-hunting trip, but in reality it provides an opportunity for them to evaluate the "liveability" of the environment to which they will be moving. This pre-departure trip should provide an opportunity for the engineer to opt-out of the assignment if it appears the venture will be unsuccessful because the engineer and his or her family will not adapt well.

Initial Arrival

On arrival at the foreign destination, a subjective sense of well-being or "euphoria" normally settles in as engineers and their families find they can cope with the daily routines of life. The earlier anticipated difficulties now seem groundless. This euphoric period typically comes from the novelty of the new surroundings, freedom from normative restrictions (being away from the constraints of one's own, now distant, culture) and serves as a justification of the decision to accept the international assignment.

The length of euphoria varies by individual from three weeks to more than six months depending upon the strength of ties to their former cultures as family, social, and business connections have been temporarily severed.

Psychological Arrival

Initial arrival is inevitably followed by "psychological arrival." A period in which the sojourner becomes increasingly aware of language and communication difficulties, the fundamental differences in customs and values of the host society, and the personal loss of being away from home (reflected in a growing nostalgia and homesickness). Psychological arrival is generally accompanied by a period of anxiety and depression that can lead to suspiciousness of host country team members and growing paranoia about the progress of the project.

Psychological arrival is the crisis point for many sojourners, a time when expatriates and their families realize this is not home and that they are strangers in a strange land. At this stage, some decide to return home or their spouses return. If they only remain to earn the financial benefits of the foreign posting, they may become embittered, cynical and racist in their views. Failing to deal effectively with the problems generated by psychological arrival can lead to increasing individualization, isolation, and personal insecurity. The failure to deal with the acculturative stress problems generated by psychological arrival can eventually lead to a slate of debilitating mental illnesses that may require professional treatment.

The problems of cultural adaptation are exacerbated by the gap between the host culture and the engineer's culture. As pointed out by Berry (1997), "the general and consistent finding is that the greater the cultural differences, the less positive is the adaptation.... Greater cultural distance implies the need for greater cultural shedding and culture learning...."


The period following psychological arrival is a time of acceptance and experimentation when sojourners and their families accept the reality of their situation and understand the benefits and drawbacks of their new environment. With assistance from the multinational team, the host society or from their own internal resources, many sojourners survive the acculturative stresses of psychological arrival. In the recovery stage, new steps can be tried to ease the difficulties besetting the engineer and family. Acceptance often leads to a period of reflection and a search for meaning in this strange and turbulent environment. Being thrust into a difficult and trying situation, engineers and their families may be forced to rely on each other more fully and learn more about what is important to them and gives meaning to their lives. Thus over time, adjustments and adaptations to the foreign posting become more positive and constructive. Such adjustments lead to an understanding and acceptance of the reality of the relocation and the major effort is dealing with work and family issues rather than concentrating on the problems of relocation.

The process of fully adjusting and adapting to a new work and living environment is trying and difficult. Normally, engineers and their families have to work through a number of adjustment stages over a period of time, which could extend up to two years to reach stability. The key element to achieving success for the multinational team lies in helping the new team members and their families adjust and adapt to the inevitable challenges of cultural change.


Berry, J.W. (1997). "Immigration, acculturation, and adaptation." Applied Psychology: An International Review, 46 (1), 1-30.
Hall, E.T. (1966). The hidden dimension. Doubleday & Company, New York, NY.
Tyhurst, L. (1951). "Displacement and migration: a study in social psychiatry." American J. of Psychiatry, 107, 561-568.

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