Sample Essay: Sociocultural Barriers to Effective Team Building in the UAE’s Construction Industry
Although project success is attributed to a myriad of factors, the undeniable truth of project management is that projects are delivered by people (Ahady et al., 2017). The role of the effective project team, as well as team-building activities, is especially significant in the UAE’s construction industry where projects are associated with a high level of complexity and uncertainty due to a dynamically changing external environment (Johnson & Babu, 2018). Without a proper team-building policy in place, the success of a construction project in terms of its cost, quality, and schedule becomes threatened. While the UAE’s construction industry is well known for its mega-projects (e.g., Burj Khalifa, Cayan Tower, and Palm However), too little is known about what sociocultural barriers that hamper the development of its team-building policy as a whole (Gillett, 2022). This essay tries to narrow this knowledge gap and provide some areas for future research.
2. The Concept of Team Building in Project Management
Team building can be defined as the different types of activities that are expected to define diverse roles, enhance social relations, and improve performance within project teams (Barendsen et al., 2021). Still, building an effective team goes far beyond putting together professionals and deploying them on a project. As argued by Pollack and Matous (2019), team building is about creating a collaborative and willing spirit among project team members, so they could successfully achieve project goals. Even though project success to a considerable extent depends on how well human resources are utilised and managed, the process of building a team remains one of the most neglected aspects of project management (Lewis, 2004). According to the existing literature, many project managers believe that their ability to control cost, time, and quality in a project determines its success. However, neglecting or mismanaging the human resources allocated to these managers’ projects is often viewed as an important factor that impacts the aforementioned project performance indicators (Ajmal et al., 2017).
This lack of attention to the process of team building is crucial in the construction industry where projects often take much time and their delivery is associated with a high level of uncertainty (Johnson & Babu, 2018). Under certain circumstances, a project team can become a source of uncertainty on its own because each team is a unique combination of individuals with different skills, needs, expertise, and backgrounds (Doolen et al., 2003). A project manager’s inability to make sure all these characteristics are properly aligned and addressed can lead to failure (Ahady et al., 2017). Moreover, managing a project team requires using different management and leadership techniques and approaches at each stage of the project team development, starting from forming to adjusting (Tuckman, 1965). Therefore, building a strong and effective project team requires a clear understanding of the dynamics of this process, as well as how mutual bonding and harmony are achieved during the project. At the same time, the process of creating a team is affected by multiple barriers, which can pose a serious threat to the success of a construction project (Lewis, 2004).
3. External and Internal Sociocultural Barriers to Team Building in the Construction Sector in the UAE
The low performance of the construction sector is a worldwide phenomenon and the UAE’s construction industry is not the exception to this rule (Hoda & Murugesan, 2016). Cost and time are the main factors of concern, especially when it comes to large, multi-million projects that span over years. Due to these reasons, construction projects are associated with a high level of uncertainty and unpredictability (Al-Hajj & Sayers, 2014). The involvement of multiple project stakeholders, such as contractors, clients, local authorities, and governments can also cause delays and budget overruns. For example, changes in the agreed scope of work introduced by the client can cause so-called project creep, a situation when project stakeholders’ changed requirements cause uncontrolled and continuous growth in the scope of the project (Tyagi et al., 2022). The contractor’s lack of experience, subcontractors’ variable performance, poorly performing project teams, and financial difficulties faced by the owner are also among the key reasons why large construction projects fail to meet their cost and schedule objectives (Barendsen et al., 2021).
The UAE has recently witnessed explosive growth in construction output, which has highlighted the issue of team building and its significance in project success (Al-Hajj & Sayers, 2014). However, as previously noted, team building remains in its infancy in this context due to various sociocultural barriers. One barrier stems from the UAE’s culture. Within the scope of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, the UAE scores high on the power distance dimension while its individualism level is relatively low (Hofstede Insights, 2022). Therefore, there is a universal acceptance in society that power is distributed unequally and employees follow their superiors’ orders without questioning them. Hence, in this sociocultural context, construction companies do not willingly invest resources into events and activities designed to promote cooperation and increase employee motivation (Kerzner, 2018). Moreover, many construction organisations operating in the UAE rely on an expatriate population as a means of saving financial resources. However, the cultural and ethnic differences between these employees are seldom addressed, which causes conflict in the workplace, hampers the process of forming an effective project team, and limits its members’ ability to work to their full potential (Al-Hajj & Sayers, 2014). The fact that many construction companies’ project teams consist of expatriates implies that their performance and productivity could also be hampered by ineffective communication (Hoda & Murugesan, 2016).
Another challenge to team building in the UAE’s construction industry pertains to the work culture, which could be attributed to internal sociocultural barriers (Al-Hajj & Sayers, 2014). As one can assume from the discussion above, the country’s focus on expatriates implies that team building is not part of the industry’s work culture. Unlike many other countries that encourage expatriates to become a part of the host country’s society, the UAE does not tolerate this approach. The UAE has one of the most demanding citizenship requirements in the world, which makes getting citizenship by an expatriate an unachievable goal. Specifically, a foreigner can get UAE citizenship after living in the country for 30 years (Vora, 2013). That is why the work culture in many local construction companies is job-oriented rather than people-oriented, which results in poor recognition and the lack of time devoted to team-building activities, even in project teams (Tyagi et al., 2022). Although certain events are focused on the socialisation of expatriates, they cannot be viewed as team-building activities, as they do not have any planned objectives of improving communication, eliminating stereotypes, or building trust in a project team.
4. Possible Ways Forward
Considering the sociocultural barriers above, there is a need for a more integrated approach to team building in the context of the UAE’s construction industry. One potential way forward that is expected to help local construction companies contribute to the effectiveness of their project teams is to incorporate team building in the project management plans at the project level and the organisational level. As previously noted, differing needs, priorities, judgements, and interests of project team members, coupled with their cultural differences, are among the major barriers that prevent project teams from maximising their performance (Kerzner, 2018). Hence, it could be recommended that the management of construction companies operating in the UAE should discover these conflicting differences as early in the project life cycle as possible. To achieve this goal, project managers could fully explain each member’s responsibilities, as well as the scope of the project to the team members. It is also important to make sure each team member’s interests are blended with the overall project objectives to keep them motivated and engaged in the project delivery process (Ajmal et al., 2017).
Since many project team members employed by construction companies in the UAE come from different sociocultural contexts and countries, communication problems become a serious barrier to effective team building (Alias et al., 2014). Therefore, it is recommended that project managers should allocate enough time to communicating with their team members about their individual needs and concerns. Moreover, project managers should encourage communication among the project team members using such tools as reviews, status meetings, and colocation (Kerzner et al., 2022). Finally, given that team building is not part of the work culture in the UAE’s construction industry, proper resource commitment and interface group management remain a serious challenge. Thus, it is recommended that construction companies’ senior management should be more actively involved in the project delivery process. This could be achieved by making senior management an integral part of project reviews.
Poor team performance remains one of the most important reasons why construction projects fail to achieve their cost, time, and quality objectives (Alias et al., 2014). That is why team-building practices and activities are often viewed as a cornerstone of project management. With that being stated, team building remains in its infancy in the context of the UAE’s construction industry due to several reasons. First, the country’s heavy reliance on an expatriate workforce makes team building not part of the construction industry’s work culture (Al-Hajj & Sayers, 2014). Second, project managers put little emphasis on addressing intra-team friction and challenges caused by the team members’ cultural differences (Tyagi et al., 2022). To overcome these sociocultural barriers, the UAE’s construction companies should incorporate team building in the project management plans, allocate enough time to communicating with their team members about their individual needs and concerns, and make senior management more actively involved in the project delivery process.
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