Cultural Differences Within Intercultural Groups at Workplace

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The master construction management and engineering program at TU Delft has the goal of being able to work with all parties with various backgrounds for a construction project in the future. This requires proper understanding and implementation in order to achieve the specific objectives of intercultural understanding and communication. To deepen understanding, there are two intercultural experiences within the working group that will be explained using the critical incident approach and explained using Dimension of Nation cultural theory (Hofstede, 1991), group development (Tuckman, 1965) and some other supporting literature. The results of the analysis lead to strategies to maximize strengths and minimize deficiencies that can be concluded that the strategy can be through two approaches namely by opening up the differences and willing to work together to achieve common goals. However, approaches through other theories can be proposed in order to broaden critical intercultural incidents that occur and hence can enrich the possibilities of other strategies.

Keywords: Engineering, Analysis, Critical, Incidents, Intercultural, Group, Management, Workplace


According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 164 million migrant workers worldwide in 2017. Due to the large number of foreign workers, there is a demand to form a collaborative group between local workers and foreign workers in the workplace. Therefore, many multicultural groups are created with various nationalities. The experience of working with people who have different origins in the workplace will provide intercultural work experience. Therefore, it is important to learn how to manage or adapt to differences in values, ways of thinking, behaviors that work in these conditions. By studying it we can find out the advantages and disadvantages of multicultural groups. Strategies to maximize benefits and reduce deficiencies can also be developed and implemented. hence, several questions arise, as follows, what are the advantages and disadvantages of having a multicultural working group? and what strategies can be used?

To answer these questions, some cross-cultural work experience will be analyzed systematically. There are two events called critical incidents that come from my work experience to be analyzed using a methodological framework. Several theories relating to critical incidents will be explained first in the framework. Then, events will be explained and analyzed in more depth using several related theories. Strategies will be proposed to be able to handle similar events in multicultural groups.

In this article, the experience I will describe is the result of my observations a few years ago when I worked with foreigners in a German automotive company. My observations are also influenced by my cultural background as a Chinese descent living in Indonesia and at the time of the incident, I did not have much experience in interacting with foreigners. Because of this, other people who have similar experiences may have different views.

Methodology to Analyze Critical Incidents

To produce structured analysis, the method for gathering intercultural work experience will be used the critical incident technique (CIT). Critical Incident Technique is a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behavior in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles (Flanagan, 1954). Referring to Everly & Mitchell (1995), there are three stages in interpreting an incident:

1. The visible incident which describe the facts seen by outsiders (narrative)

2. The interpretation of the conflicts

3. Determinants or notions which provide terms and theories to explain the incident.

The narrative approach will be used to explain critical events that are physical actions or interactions as well as emotional upheaval between group members. The determinant or perspective to be used to analyze critical incidents is dimension of national cultures (Hofstede, 1991) and group development theory (Tuckman, 1965). In addition, some other literature will be used to explain the analysis of critical incidents.

Dimensions of National Cultures

According to Oxford Dictionary, dimension is an aspect, or way of looking or thinking about something. Align with this definition, Hofstede in 1991 grouped phenomena or perspectives found in people's lives in 6 dimensions of national culture, as follows:

1. Power Distance Index (PDI): an Index of (high or low) acceptance of social inequality.

2. Individualism vs. Collectivism (IDV): an index of a strong (collectivism) or loose (individualism) bond between an individual and a group, besides himself and his family.

3. Masculinity vs. Femininity (MAS): an assessment of a society that has an orientation to achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and competition (Masculine) or an orientation to cooperation, simplicity, quality of life (Feminine)

4. Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI): a tolerance level of cultural members (high or low) for unknown or unexpected events.

5. Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation (LTO): an assessment of community actions or responses relating to short-term (low) or long-term (high) orientation.

6. Indulgence vs restraint (IND): an assessment of people's freedom to fulfill and regulate human desires with strict social norms (restraint) or relatively free (Indulgence)

However, this dimension does not mean that the culture of one country is better than another. However, a general description and estimation of understanding other cultures and what is expected of them and how to behave towards groups from other countries can be explained through this dimension.

Group Development

The process from beginning to end of a group that has the same goal is called group development. The phases in the process occur unavoidably but are also needed for the team to grow, be ready to face challenges, overcome problems, find solutions, plan work, and deliver results. Based on the group development model from Bruce Tuckman (1965), there are 5 stages in group development as shown in the diagram below and explained later.

Critical Incidents in Multicultural Work Group

There are 2 critical incidents that will be explained in the analysis using the framework proposed earlier.

Difference in Punctuality

To start a development project in Indonesia, an initial meeting was held that would be attended by 3 Germans, and 3 Indonesians including me. Before the meeting time began, all representatives from Germany and I arrived. However, at the time the meeting should have started, my two colleagues had not yet arrived. While waiting, the three Germans occasionally looked at their watches with agitated faces. Fifteen minutes later, the two Indonesians came casually and apologized without showing any guilty expressions. The three Germans showed unhappy faces while warning them not to be late again and immediately starting the meeting. Although there are no answers in the form of words, but on the faces of both Indonesian colleagues look offended by the reprimand. This incident can be explained by several theories about the development of culture and groups.

First, this incident occurred in the first stage of group development, which is forming. At this stage, new group members only met and did not yet have knowledge of the character, background, and culture of each individual involved. According to Dimensions of National Cultures, in the UAI dimension, German rank and score is high (rank 43-44, index 65) and vice versa Indonesia rank and score is low (rank 62-63, index 48). The high UAI index reflects the level of anxiety that exists in certain communities in the face of an uncertain future so that it has more written and unwritten norms. Then, German scores are low for PDI (35) while Indonesia has a high score (78). countries with low scores on this dimension are more supportive of equal treatment between individuals. Although punctuality related to personality factors and individual differences, attitudes, and contexts (Dishon-Berkovits & Koslowsky, 2002; Koslowsky, Sagie, Krausz, & Singer, 1997) but also lateness can imply that the time norm violated (Levine, 2008). Thus, from these two dimensions, physical and non-physical responses from the two countries regarding punctuality can be explained.

Willingness to Tell The Truth

When the project has been running for 8 months, I made a big mistake that caused a delay of 2 weeks. First, I confessed my mistake to my two Indonesian colleagues. then the face of one of my coworkers panicked and advised me not to say this error to my German co-worker because I would be in big trouble if I admit it. However, I feel guilty if I don't say it and cover up problems from them. Finally, at a meeting, I ventured to tell the problem arising from my mistake in a trembling voice and tried not to cry in front of my German colleagues because I was very afraid they would express their anger at that moment. However, their response was not even angry and even expressed gratitude for my honesty and one of them said 'You don't need to be afraid, even though you made a mistake, but you are not a mistake.' and his words surprised me.

This incident can be explained by examining the culture adopted and applied by a person in daily life (Chinese culture) and not just focusing on citizenship status (Indonesia). According to the Global Times, in the eyes of the Chinese, taking responsibility and being honest in disputes puts the person in a 'lost face,' which is the worst thing that can happen to the Chinese. Moreover, this incident occurred during the storming phase of group development where conflicts arose, so they did not yet have a deep mutual trust between members.

Then, the Chinese score is high on the PDI dimension (80) and vice versa the Indonesian PDI score is low. Countries with high scores on the PDI dimension not only demand equality but also act and think based on social equality values. then, Germany is an individualist country (score 67) while China is a collectivist country (score 20) and Indonesia too (score 14). The individualist state has direct communication and tends to be more honest, even if it hurts others while the collectivist country is more careful in talking and maintaining relationships in social life.

How to Maximize the Strengths and Reduce the Weaknesses of Intercultural Groups.

Through these two critical incidents, showing that group activities with members who have different cultures can provide advantages and disadvantages. Intercultural working groups can provide losses in the form of slowing down and decreasing performance due to the difficulty of integration among multicultural members who have prejudice and misunderstanding in communication. But on the other hand, greater benefits such as better character growth for each member, results in innovation and creativity obtained from diverse and complementary cultural perspectives.

To get the maximum advantages and minimum losses, a strategy in a multi-cultural working group is needed. Strategy can be taken through two perspectives from two theories used in analyzing critical incidents, namely strategies for dealing with cultural differences and strategies for working together in groups. Each person's purposes appear to be uniquely established when the individual starts life, it can be seen that no two individuals can perceive any object or other person in exactly the same way (Kelly, 1957). Therefore, self-awareness that everyone is different in a positive perspective must be followed by attitudes to accept differences in knowledge due to a country's level of development, and openness (Lobel, 1990) through applications that reflect flexibility in interacting or acting between cultures, for example willing to come on time.

However, the act of working together in groups is not an easy thing to do. Therefore, each individual needs to reduce prejudice through contact between members who need active and goal-oriented efforts (Pettigrew, 1998). The athletic team provides a prime example (Chu & Griffey 1985, Miracle 1981, Patchen 1982). In an effort to win, inter-racial teams need each other to achieve their goals.

Conclusion and Discussion

In this paper, a framework was proposed to explain and analyze two critical events which are my personal work experience. The analysis is used to produce strategies that can maximize profits and minimize losses from multi-cultural work groups. These strategies basically respond to two theories used in analyzing critical incidents, namely the dimension of national culture (Hofstede) and group development (Tuckman). Both theories provide conclusions through different perspectives but are complementary.

Through the dimension of national culture, critical incidents can be explained by the existence of cultural differences that must be faced by each individual. hence, an important strategy for being able to adapt to cultural differences is to have an attitude of openness and mutual respect for differences. Then, critical incidents occur with the influence of certain phases in group development where each group member brings different backgrounds.

Due to each situation is unique and there is no precise way to ensure that the problem can be solved, then basically, every individual needs to have a sense of group ownership and remember and pursue the vision of the group. Over time, further learning of cultural change is needed and analysis using other theories will also provide different perspectives and strategies to produce better strategies.


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Cultural Differences within Intercultural Groups at Workplace. (2021, Dec 29). Retrieved June 23, 2024 , from

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