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

The success of civil engineering projects depends on the people involved. Creating a multinational team requires a clear understanding of the "people-problems" that inevitably emerge. Success is based on an effective and productive team of engineers, technicians and others, often representing a multitude of cultures. A number of steps are needed to select appropriate candidates for assignment to a multinational team and to assist them and their families in the transition to another culture.

The literature on migrant adaptation is replete with general predictors of success to identify individuals as candidates for cross-cultural experiences. These predictors include being urban rather than rural in origin. Urban-reared engineers are likely better prepared to handle the novel experiences arising from complex cultural environments. Knowing another language or languages indicates that the engineer has a degree of understanding and respect for cultural differences.

It is important for the individuals involved in international assignments (engineers and their families) to possess internal buffers (or resilience) to enable them to successfully cope with adaptive stresses. Some of the internal buffers that successful multinational team members should possess include an ability to understand the underlying values of the new culture and to sincerely respect and appreciate local customs and traditions. In many cases this means comprehending and accepting local business practices (provided they are not illegal in the engineer's home country). To understand the host culture, engineers and their families need to be able to communicate effectively and establish strong inter-personal relations among the team members, particularly those from the host society.

Earlier experiences with the host or other diverse cultures enable engineers and their families to develop a stronger adapting capacity. In other words, previous successful adaptations to other cultures offers a strong predictor of success in a subsequent posting, particularly where the engineer's spouse was also involved in the cross-cultural experience.

Being younger may be used as a predictor of adaptive success as age is often inversely proportional to a person's degree of flexibility. However, this predictor must be balanced against the experience of the older engineer in coping with difficult and trying circumstances. In other words, older candidates have already been tested, thus reducing the risk of failure in the foreign assignment. Younger engineers and their families have more resilience and tend to adapt to change and accept altered living patterns more readily. However, although younger parents may adjust better than older ones, often older children in their teenage years experience more stress in a cross-cultural setting.

Migrant studies have found that males tend to suffer less stress in migrating than do their female counterparts. Females tend to bond more strongly with their family and friends and thus more acutely miss their former social network. Other studies show that the more highly stratified the society (a typical situation in many developing countries), the higher the likelihood of sex differences impacting assimilative behaviour. Higher levels of organizational stratification in different societies exacerbate the difficulties that females experience in effectively participating in multinational teams.

Having high socio-economic status also helps to reduce acculturative stresses. Studies have shown that satisfaction with the new life in another culture tends to be directly proportional with socio-economic status. Since most engineers occupy relatively high socio-economic status, this predictor of success tends to be constant among potential participants. However, salary differences between host country engineers and the expatriate members of the multinational team could lead to difficulties within the team.

Multinational team members a sense of internal control (strong personal self-discipline) or confidence. Such individuals tend to be positive, see humour in their situation (if they cannot laugh at life's problems, they will be overwhelmed) and seek challenges. Being positive leads to successful multinational team members who tend to be flexible and adaptable. Personal confidence is often reflected by low levels of authoritarianism (the engineer tends to be a facilitator to the team rather than a strong-willed director). Optimism allows these engineers and their families to see the posting and the project as an opportunity to learn and grow in another culture. Engineers on international assignments have learned to "smile a lot" as their strong sense of humour is an essential tool for facing the many challenges of working in differing cultures.

Successful multinational team members tend to have emotional well being reflected in high self-esteem, satisfaction with life, and an absence of neurotic symptoms. Such individuals tend to have stable marital relations based on good interpersonal communications. The unique acculturative stresses of relocation can seriously damage marriages and, in turn, reduce the effectiveness of the multinational team member. In addition, maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular modest exercise and some form of daily relaxation is essential in dealing with the stresses involved in relocation to another culture.

To summarize, various studies of migrant adjustment have established predictors of successful adaptation to other cultures as:

Candidates being considered for international postings will not likely meet all of these predictors of success. Indeed, not all of these predictors are equally significant - to a degree their relevance depends on the culture and society to which engineers and their families are being sent. In some cases, such as gender and age considerations, it would be unethical and possibly illegal to consider these predictors in the selection process.

Reinforcing the internal or personal characteristics needed for successful adaptation in a cross-cultural setting, the multinational team also needs to provide external support to ease the transition to a new situation. External support includes helping engineers and their families develop a plan for adaptation through discussing problems and solutions with other engineers who have had similar experiences. Language and cultural training should be provided prior to departure for both the engineers and their families. Cross-cultural training should include concepts about how decisions are made, how time is valued, and varying authority structures in the host country.

Cross-cultural training provided several months prior to departure should focus on providing the necessary information, skills and attitudes to adapt and adjust to living and working in another cultural environment. This earlier training should be followed by in-country orientation following arrival. In addition, re-entry orientation should be provided to the expatriates prior to and following their return to the home country.

Further assistance should be provided to the newly arrived engineers and their families by developing a supportive social network in the host country by designating host families to help the newcomers acclimatize to their new environment. In addition to host families, the international firm should ensure the newly relocated engineers have mentors, both in the host country and back at the home office, to assist them in adapting to new circumstances. The local mentor provides the information necessary for the new engineer to quickly become an effective and functioning member of the project team, while the home office mentor maintains a tie or link back to the corporate world they have temporarily left. The use of a home office mentor is crucial to the continued development of the expatriate engineer's career by ensuring that recognition is given to the relevance of the international experience and ensuring a suitable placement within the firm on return.

In recent years, communication links back home have become increasingly available through globe-spanning television networks such as CNN and BBC-International and the worldwide reach of the Internet. Such communications systems enable expatriate engineers and their families to maintain currency in home affairs.

Another way to avoid the difficulties of cultural adjustment is to create a sense of familiarity in the multinational team's corporate and home surroundings. Creating a "piece of home" is often observed in the sense of familiarity found in the overseas residential compounds of military installations and larger industrial firms, particularly in the energy sector. Although this step can reduce the anxiety of living in another culture, it does not help engineers and their families to adjust to another culture and to experience the richness of learning new things.

In the final analysis, expatriate engineers and their families may be left to their own devices to cope with the new environment in which they find themselves. In this case, they need to provide their own recreational outlets such as bringing their own favourite audio and video tapes, reading material, embarking on correspondence courses delivered from their home country, and pursuing appropriate hobbies.

Educating Tomorrow's International Civil Engineer
As economic globalization continues, civil engineering programs must address the increasing need to educate students to effectively function in multinational teams in various cultures and countries. It is increasingly evident that major public works projects will be constructed overseas rather than within North America and Europe where emphasis will be on maintenance and rehabilitation. Curriculum changes are needed to better equip civil engineers to participate in the global economy. Some of these changes include using appropriate international case studies in the classroom to enhance student awareness of the opportunities and difficulties of multinational team participation.

Civil engineering programs should require students to participate in foreign language training (not necessarily to become fluent in another tongue but rather to gain respect for cultural diversity). Language (and concurrent cultural training) will help to reduce ethnocentrism in civil engineering students by contributing to their respect for cultural diversity and a thorough understanding of different, but legitimate ways of doing things. Further to aid in cultural understanding, international student and young engineer exchanges should be encouraged.

Selecting civil engineers and their families for international assignments is a difficult task. Various personal characteristics need to be considered to determine their ability to cope with inevitable acculturative stresses and adapt to the new culture. The most favourable predictors of cultural adaptation include, current material and emotional well-being, diverse cultural background and skills, pre-migration fluency in the language of the host country, and optimism. Considering established indicators of probable success may predetermine the personal resilience needed to successfully overcome acculturative stresses and remain an effective and productive team member.

The ongoing education of civil engineers needs to assist students to meet the challenges of working effectively in diverse cultural settings. Appropriate steps should be taken to "internationalize" the university curricula to enable North American and European engineers to function more effectively in the global economy.

Care must be taken in all of our endeavours to truly respect and understand the nature and meaning of cultural differences - various countries do things in different ways; often for very sound reasons. It behoves us all to pay attention to these differences and respect them. In a popular song satirizing the English occupation of India in the 19th century, Noel Coward wrote:
Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon-day sun!

Coward offers a critical lesson to be remembered; there are many reasons for cultural differences - taking siestas in the heat of the day in tropical climates evolved from centuries of local understanding of the physical stresses generated by exposure to the sun at its peak. North American and European engineers must learn from other societies and adapt and adjust to their ways of doing things when they live and work in other cultures.

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