Culture and International Construction

There are two reasons why is culture causes problems in international construction: time and money. Cultural misunderstandings waste time. You have to take time to understand what’s gone wrong, what the issues are and how to resolve them. Then you actually have to do something about it. Take the M1 joint venture between a British and a French corporation. The project was in danger of falling seriously behind schedule until the British Project Manager, as you do (!), invited the French project manager out to lunch. Over lunch it emerged that the French project manager had pulled his workers off site as the necessary paperwork was not up to date. For the French, bureaucracy matters. The British project manager simply wanted to finish the job on schedule. Paperwork could wait. How was the problem resolved? Over lunch the French project manager agreed to get back to work and the British project manager guaranteed he would ensure the paperwork was completed on time. Problem solved. Job done and the project back on schedule within weeks.

However, it might have been otherwise. A ‘go slow’ or a ‘down tools’ would have caused anger, could have caused fines for late delivery on milestones and even, if things got really bad, withdrawal from or cancellation of contract with lawsuits to follow. Cultural misunderstandings can lead to situations that seriously lose money.

Especially, in the international construction industry international teams and workforces throw cultural misunderstandings in your face! However, it is useful to be prepared for some of the unexpected pitfalls that commonly occur in international projects and with international teams working on domestic projects. To be forewarned is to be forearmed!

The Culture keys

First if you are going to work with a new company or government in a new country ‘cultural due diligence’ should be part of the ‘due diligence’ process. That means making sure you understand three things about your new client or partner.

  • What are their expectations of the business relationship?
  • What is their communication style?
  • What are the differences in their business style?

Expectations, Communication and Management Style are the culture keys. Understand those and you’ll deal with your overseas client, colleague of JV partner much more successfully.

If I am from the Mediterranean, MENA or Asia or Africa I will be wanting to build a positive social relationship as well as a business relationship. As Korean consultant, Johnny Kim, once said, ‘Get the relationship  right and the business follows, as day follows night,’

No relationship means no business, or strained business relationships.

Parts of Asia abhor direct language as crude and impolite. Disagreements must be couched in polite indirect language and you must learn to read between the lines. The Japanese ‘It is difficult’ as a polite way of saying ‘No’ is well known but there are many others, more subtle even, but just as uncompromising.

Finally, the business process itself causes cultural misunderstandings regarding conventions of teamworking, leadership and business process.


The way we learn what to look for in cultural behaviour is to use ECOLE, not school as in French, but an easy acronym for remembering the five key areas affected by differences in business culture.

E stands for expectations, C for Communication, O for Organisation (time, teams and business process), L for Leadership (Management style, delegation, decision making and communication, and gender in management) and E stands for Etiquette (ways of showing respect, dress codes, gift giving and hospitality).

One of the commonest questions I’m asked by participants in training programmes is ‘How can I avoid causing offence?’ What really matters in doing your ‘cultural due diligence’ in advance of a new project is to check out what might make a bad impression if you get it wrong. Showing the soles of your feet can be extremely rude in parts of Asia and MENA. Showing bare skin on shoulders and upper arms and wearing shots may be offensive, especially for women and especially in the Muslim world. Gift giving has its own etiquette as Baroness Kramer found out when she visited the mayor of Beijing. She took with her a typical prestige gift – a carriage clock, unaware that giving a clock symbolizes in China death or the breaking of a relationship. It didn’t go down well. Most Chinese laugh off these inept behaviours by ignorant foreigners but you do lose face when you make mistakes like these and ‘losing face’ or personal dignity is never good for business.

More to the point are issues of O Organization and L leadership. Different parties to an agreement may have different attitudes to what constitutes timely delivery. In some countries chasing up deadlines ahead of time is seen as showing interest. In Germany, on the other hand, it would be seen as insufferable intrusion. The way teams are organized and who leads them is often a matter of dispute. Is team selection and leadership on the basis of experience, expertise, qualifications or seniority? It varies between countries. How teams work and produce results varies and it is important to recognise this and take steps to ensure mutual understanding and agreement before you start, especially with remote teams separated by distance and communicating only by phone or videoconference.

Cultural differences can affect the food that is served at team meetings. One HR construction manager as a special treat arranged liqueur chocolates (containing alcohol) for a team including Muslims, for whom alcohol is forbidden, Religious issues often intrude on business process – Western constructors in the Arab world find it hard to give up their Sunday traditional ‘day of rest’ as they realize the Gulf working week lasts from Sunday to Thursday. Is it wise for a foreman to insist on devout Muslims shifting heavy equipment during the fasting month of Ramadan? And by the way, I’m a Sikh and I wear a turban. Do I need a hard hat as well? And anyway,(this is from an Eastern European contract worker) hard hats are for wimps, aren’t they?  Well, no actually, it’s regulations. But the point is culture and regulations are not always easily aligned and managers need to know the culture to understand how best to act.

Finally, leadership and decision making. On a major airport construction project the British partners couldn’t understand why decisions with their foreign JV partner took so long until someone told them that the partner had seven levels of sign-off as opposed to the British partner’s three. Overseas partners in many countries don’t say no. They just say nothing or don’t reply. The importance of a sympathetic intermediary who you can contact to find out what is or is not happening is crucial. It’s that relationship-building thing again. In trying to make a deal are you talking to the wrong level of manager?

In Britain I know my delegated responsibilities and if what you’re asking is ‘above my pay grade’ I can ‘escalate’ your request to a higher level of management. But in Latin America, for example, a junior manager may not feel he or she has the authority to do that so your request stays in the ‘pending tray.’ You need to know in which cultures you can reply on the manager at your level and which ones you have to go straight to the top, and you also need to know how to do that – directly or in a giant U-bend through your own hierarchy and across to theirs.

Multiple personality order

It’s important to recognize that in a globalised economy we all have multiple influences on our personalities – our nationality, the region we live or grew up in, the companies we’ve worked for, the way we were brought up and educated and our own personal experience of life  and the people we’ve met – all these affect our cultural attitudes and influence the way we go about our business. And so it is for our overseas partners. Not everyone we meet will be a typical ‘French’, ‘Arab’ or ‘Thai’ anymore than I am a typical ‘Brit’. But we are all

Influenced to a greater or lesser extent by our cultural backgrounds and we need to take these into account in our international business relations.

Conclusion – culture matters

In international projects life runs more smoothly if you understand the culture of the country you are in and the people you work with. It’s also endlessly fascinating as I hope some of these examples show.

Ten years ago ‘elf and safety’ (health and safety training) was still a coming thing. Today it is an essential component of in-service training in the construction industry. In a globalising construction economy isn’t it time that ‘cultural awareness’ training and ‘market briefing’ held the same importance?

Talk given to the Constructing Excellence Nuclear Theme Group 28th April 2016 by Barry Tomalin MA, Loughborough University, London, Author: ‘World Business Cultures – a Handbook’.  For more information please contact Barry at: [email protected]