The Canadian Society for Civil Engineering’s Vice President Ontario Region and HKC’s VP of Construction Peter Calcetas presented at this year’s CSCE 2021 Annual National Conference the paper “Innovation and Effectiveness Through Diversity” co-authored with our very own Brianna Murree.
The paper is a case study of how a Construction and Engineering team at HKC can “lean in” to its diversity with 29% visible minority, 50% immigrant, 99.1% bilingual organization to create a safe harbour which spurred innovation by looking at things like an outsider.
Below is the paper submitted.
INNOVATION AND EFFECTIVENESS THROUGH DIVERSITY
Authors: Peter Calcetas and Brianna Murree
Abstract: The case study includes diversity and inclusion in engineering, where lack of representation of visible minorities, indigenous peoples, and women in the construction and engineering industry limits organizational potential. Increasing those under-represented communities within an organization will benefit not only the individual, but all areas of operations within the organization. Civil Engineering’s purpose is to increase the sustainable quality of life for all members of society. Construction and engineering industry professionals must represent the full spectrum of society in order to benefit from the various perspectives & insights to design, develop and construct long term sustainable and ethical infrastructure. This case study will review the effectiveness of a multi gender, multiethnic and multilingual Construction and Engineering team as they overcome challenges faced in the Canadian Context. More specifically, the case study workforce includes visible minorities (29%), employees that have immigrated from outside of Canada (50%), and are bilingual – Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, French, Dinka, Filipino, Arabic, Italian (99.1%). The Manifold toolset used to achieve success include: Mentorship, Continuous improvement, Collaborative Software as a Service (SaaS) and Cloud computing. The case study illustrates increases in productivity through leveraging unique perspectives and innovative ideas, increased morale thanks to higher levels of employee engagement. The construction and engineering industry are evolving as practices are being replaced by fresh innovative ideas stimulated by increasing diversity, inclusiveness and belonging within an organization accelerates the drive for positive change within the industry by unlocking the complete suite of human potential.
A workplace where diversity is present benefits all levels of the organization including individuals, team/group dynamics, vendors and suppliers. In the context of this case study, the term ‘diversity’ consists of members of varying age, gender, culture, ethnicity, language, and place of origin. As team members have varying backgrounds, talents, and abilities, the organization is able to gain unique perspectives when solving complex problems which, in turn, leads to increased employee engagement, productivity, and a greater competitive advantage.
Although the concept of a diverse work environment remains ideal for organizations, achieving organizational efficiency and cohesion through diversity and inclusion does not come without short-term challenges. The difficulty of achieving team cohesion through diversity requires team members to not only self-reflect on individually but reflect upon others to reach common ground and understanding. Thus, reaching a common understanding among a group of diverse individuals is what is referred to as ‘normalizing cognitive bias’. As normalization requires a framework, this case study’s target organization, HKC Construction ( “the Organization”) combines the fundamental building blocks of technologies, training, leadership, and mentorship to achieve synchronicity and overall team cohesion in the industries of Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC). Adapted by the author, Peter Calcetas, the frameworks in relation to an individual (see Figure 1), are key to understanding each individual’s diverse characteristics and behaviors before building towards organizational efficiency and team cohesion. The analysis framework developed for this case study utilizes four perspectives to observe the individual team members, specifically: Four Seasons, Group Development, Relationships and Motivation Cycle.
THE ORGANIZATION’S CASE OF “FOUR SEASONS”
The Four Seasons perspective compares the individual’s experience living and working in a part of the world that has relatively different season change and compared this to the team member’s earlier experiences. For the Organization, the experience of its team members in the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) sector varies by city and country of origin, education, discipline, and age group. In this case, the workforce includes visible minorities (29%), employees that have immigrated from outside of Canada (50%), and are bilingual – Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, French, Dinka, Filipino, Arabic, Italian (99.1%). Therefore, for many on the team, the broader temperature range and four seasons come with personal challenges, as different standards are implemented for each country. The change of seasons from autumn to winter caught many newcomers ill prepared to the nuances of construction.
In this case, half of the members on the Organization’s team, cold weather concreting was not a consideration for project scope, timeline, or budget. Their prior experiences did not encompass the issue of cement hydration in low temperature. The phenomenon of cold weather concreting was not a factor for quality. Many of our members came from warm weather experiences, where the higher ambient temperatures contributed to accelerated hydration. To help bring the entire team to a mutual understanding of quality control for concrete during cold weather, the Organization delivered orientation classes intended to be refresher courses for some, and new knowledge for others. The questions posed during the in-house education were the seeds of valuable unintended consequences. The Organization was inspired to adopt advanced techniques and technologies as a complement to the local Canadian best practices. Addressing the needs of the entire team in an open, safe, and non-judgmental manner, removed assumptions from the equation. This allowed the entire Organization’s local grown experts and expatriates alike to view the issue at hand with fresh eyes. This fresh eye approach encouraged the deployment of a much-improved operating procedure which mitigated risk more effectively, while increasing productivity.
What was experienced is known as the “Commitment Effect”, which is a cognitive decision-making bias that skews problem solving and decision making. The benefit of having teammates that are not committed to the typical way of solving problems or following processes without reconsidering the context of each situation. This prompts the question, “How do we avoid what is known as ‘the Sunk Cost Fallacy’”? Julia Galef, President at the Center for Applied Rationality proposes a concept “Rationality in Action: Look at a Problem as an outsider” (Galef 2012). By using the case situation as a multi-culture, multi-country of origin collective of teammates, the organization has access to “Looking at a problem as an outsider” by virtue of team composition.
Initially, the construction progress did seem as if the team were off to a slow start for the cold weather concreting issue if it were not for a more patient and sympathetic approach incorporating a strong desire for inclusiveness. The altruistic motivation to mentor and guide members less familiar with local conditions, dynamics, and restraints forced more well-versed team members to reconsider typical standard operating procedures. In other words, it was the effort of articulating a phenomenon and its treatise which allowed the expert on the team the opportunity to consider the situation like an outsider. The thought exercise created opportunities for profound insight which propelled the action of retuning the process by incorporation a fusion of time-honored techniques for cold weather concreting such as, insulation, space heating and tenting, in concert with wireless sensors, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and the Nurse – Saul Theory of concrete maturity. In the construction sector, where time is at a premium, competing with project budget and scope, it is doubtful that people would invest the effort and time dedicated toward introspection. In this case, diversity was the seed of innovation and the spark for action.
TEAM DYNAMICS: DIVERSITY VS. NORMALIZATION
The Theory of Team Dynamics: Individuals are free to act in service to their own needs and desires. In effect the person’s means are directed toward their desired end results. A group of individuals who continue to act solely in their own interests, simply share the same space and continue to act with their own means toward their individual ends. When the individuals begin to interact toward a common goal or goals their means (resources), needs and desires (end results) become interdependent. This interdependency is highly productive when means/ resources, actions and end goals/results are coordinated. The stages of team dynamics and small group development, according to Bruce Tuckman, noted behaviorist, have been observed to be composed of the following stages:  Forming,  Storming,  Norming,  Performing and  Adjourning (Tuckman and Jensen 1977).
As a team, the Organization was quite diverse from a country of origin and primary language perspective. All members speak at least two languages fluently. The education and experiences were also diverse, spanning three continents and a dozen countries. After the teams Forming stage, characterized by a period of friendly tentative relations and moderate productivity, the change of seasons revealed the relevant experience and educational compatibility with local conditions. Evidently, there was a large discrepancy with four season experiences. The consequences of the out of sync skills and experience sets was the trigger for an intense Storming stage. At this point, the concern was the erosion of team cohesion.
3.1 The Basis of Relationships
Relationships are built on three primary components:  mutual trust,  mutual respect and  the willingness to adapt. Assigning blame and isolating individuals or groups is a symptom of a reduction in mutual trust and mutual respect. To change the trajectory of the team dynamic, senior management quickly intervened by leveraging  the willingness to adapt. With such a diverse group, each team member was comfortable with adaptation since they each had a multi-cultural life experience. Negotiating the differences between cultures was a learned adaptive skill and expectation. To drive normalization, a knowledge exchange program of local best practices and technical fundamentals was given to all members through inhouse lecture and 1 on 1 tutorials. Hands on training, experiential learning and theoretical discussions resulted in an increase of  mutual respect which quickly led to the repair of  mutual trust. The high level of adaptation amongst the team greatly facilitated normalization which accelerated quickly to the Performing stage of team dynamics.
By the beginning of the winter season, the team collectively concluded that they were equally comfortable performing in the cold weather phases of the year and look forward to similar knowledge exchange in anticipation of the warmer spring and summer seasons ahead. The diverse experiences created an intense and turbulent Storming stage of team dynamics. However, the diversity also increased the general willingness to adapt which, coupled with an understanding of the foundational principle of relationships, facilitated a quick normalization stage and accelerated to the performing stage. In retrospect, diversity was the seed of increased performance.
3.2 Individual Motivation
Organizational behaviorists explore the concept of motivation. At a fundamental level, individual motivation is an evolving cycle of 1. Needs, 2. Behaviors and 3. Satisfaction (see Figure 2). From the individual’s perspective, the starting point is the identification of Needs which are defined, followed by a determination of a potential solution through Behaviors, based offering of service effectively leveraging their skills, then the Needs reach a level of Satisfaction. It is this ongoing cycle that drives individual motivation, and as the needs evolve, so too will the Behaviors.
To aid in the understanding this dynamic in the context of work, motivation can be understood using two different perspectives: Content and Process of Motivation. Content Motivation seek to explain an individual or group of individual’s actions to satisfy needs and aspirations (Work Motivation: Past, Present, And Future 2008). In short, Content Motivation is focused on what motivates the individual. The Process Motivation perspective explores the potential reason how and why motivations affect individual behavior, which is effectively how motivation occurs within the person’s decision criteria (Solomon 1980).
3.3 Content Motivation & The Four Seasons
When observing the Storming stage of the case study, the Content Motivation theory that is particularly relevant is offered by Elton Mayo – where norms and group cohesiveness aid in explaining the intensity of the Storming stage and the transition to Norming and Performing.
The Mayo Theory of Motivation created by Elton Mayo (Figure 3) helps to explain what was motivating individual team members leading up to the “Four Seasons” Case. Initially, the team exhibited a low level of Norming with a moderate level of group cohesiveness, partly due to the relatively newness of the team members, where ½ the team joined less than 6 months earlier but buttressed by the extend family nature of the organizational culture.
3.4 Process Motivation & The Four Seasons
When considering the Process Motivation to explain HOW motivation occurs, the Equity Model is one of the more appropriate frameworks. Equity, as the title implies, is the balance between the inputs the individual receives and the outputs the individual supplies. It has been observed that some members of the team interpreted performance to be lower than their expectations. This gave rise to feelings of tension due to the inequity of the division of labor and resulted in dispute, which contributed to the Storming stage of team dynamics.
3.5 Communication and Diversity
Personal communications do impact how individuals behave. According to the PMI (Project Management Institute) training for the PMP (Project Management Professional) communication is subject to three errors: 1. Encoding, from the message Sender, 2. Transmission, the medium used to send the message and 3. Decoding, by the Receiver (Rajkumar 2010). For visual reference, refer to Figure 4: Transmission Model of Communication (St-Amant, Hughes and Garmaise-Yee 2021). The Encoding is influenced by the Sender and is linked to their life experiences, culture, personality, and temperament among many other factors. In the case of a remarkably diverse team, the Encoding phase is not normalized with a new team. Similarly, to Encoding, the Decoding errors are equally valid and affected by the individual’s attributes. In the interests of efficiency, we will simply acknowledge that Transmission errors have and will continue to occur in a manner and frequency consistent with organizations conducting business in the Canadian economy.
The phenomenon of communication errors that were observed was particularly extreme and exacerbated by cultural differences. One example which repeated itself, except for intervention, was when an Encoder came from a culture which was very direct in their communication with no emotional investment in the content or consequence of the interpretation; and Transmitted the communication to a Decoder from a culture which attached social standing and the perception of performance in communications. Often, the unintended consequences were a misinterpretation. The Encoder was intending to communicate, in this case, a specific situation. The Decoder interpreted this as a professional disparagement. The opportunity to normalize, through the various trials the team overcame, was the impetus to profoundly explore practical alternative solutions available to the team. The patience and effort needed to overcome the challenges required a much higher commitment of time, research, and communication to normalize all the members in technical knowledge, methods and means of communication. The increased difficulty in communication motivated the team to seek and adopt techniques and technologies to reduce barriers to effectiveness. Collaborative SaaS (Software as a Service) aided the Encoding and Decoding errors with the added benefit of also reducing Transmission errors. Further, the drive to facilitate effectiveness also created a “gateway” solution to adopt other technologies like wireless concrete maturity sensors, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and predictive modeling.
As an observation, the elevated level of diversity contributed to a much more challenging and intensive Storming stage. However, with a high willingness to adapt, patience and perseverance, the consequences are a higher individual and team effectiveness, technical adoption, and search for practical applications of innovation.
CONCLUSION AND OBSERVATIONS
Diversity in the context of a For Profit Enterprise in the Canadian AEC Sector is a consequence of the multi-ethnic social make up of Canada. This situation presents a heightened communication and cultural barrier beyond the existing generational differences that exist in a mono-ethnic society. The team, in this case, utilized the three pillars of healthy relationships: mutual trust, mutual respect, and the willingness to adapt as a base to create Team Cohesion, productivity and a self-styled “Social Contract” to interact.
At the group level, normalizing cognitive bias through understanding diversity and incorporating an organizational framework consisting of innovative technologies, training, and hands on mentorship, organizations can effectively improve employee engagement, productivity, and organizational efficiency.
At the individual level, the team members became normalized to a mutually acceptable manner of articulating, through considerate Encoding, not only the information but also the context of the message in a manner which emphasizes facts-based language and phrasing. This has been found to mitigate the risk of Decoding errors by reducing the likelihood of crossing a cultural threshold of individual character judgment.
To journey as part of a team composed of diverse individuals is a greater challenge. To choose a path which respects the differences in the storming stage and incorporate the opportunity to drive normalization with consideration, research, collaboration, and innovation may, as in this case, bear the fruits of higher productivity and team cohesion. We are inspired by the sentiment of the French Culture which celebrates, “Vive la différence!”